When you write ghost stories, everyone wants to tell you a ghost story. That’s the first rule.
People come up to you after readings, at conventions, in coffee shops, and they want to tell you about the time they heard a noise they couldn’t explain — or saw something that wasn’t there, and couldn’t have been. Usually they start out in third person, because nothing out-of-the-ordinary ever happens to them, not personally, no. But soon the pronouns shift and you hear a “we” where before it’d been “they,” and their eyes go distant as if they’re rebuilding the memory from scratch — assembling it out of the box, and finding screws left over.
By the end they lose steam, and sometimes they don’t even finish the story at all because why would they? They may as well be telling you about a dream they had the other night. “And anyway, there was nobody there.”
When you write ghost stories, everyone wants you to tell them a ghost story. A true one. That’s the second rule.
The problem with the second rule is the problem with the first rule: A true ghost story very likely does not have a point. It doesn’t have a punch-line, and it may not make any narrative sense. A true ghost story likely doesn’t mean anything to anyone except for the person who experienced it; and even then, what it meant — what it did, how it felt, what it changed — may have nothing to do with the literal events as they occurred.
You can’t pass the sensation along to someone else, because in the retelling it loses too much. You have to blow it up, shake it up, dress it up, if you want it to carry of the weight with which it hit you. You have to translate it from private epiphany to transferrable profundity.
That’s your job, isn’t it? You tell ghost stories. You should tell a true one.
Everyone loves a true ghost story, which is only another way of saying that no one wants to die. We want to believe that some people hang around after the lights go out … just so we know it’s an option.
We need to believe it’s an option, and it’s hard to believe in things that don’t make sense. So we tell ghost stories, and we give them logic and structure and punch-lines, or at least credible resolutions. But when we do that, we very rarely pretend that they’re true. After all, you’d be hard-pressed to claim you know for a fact how a third-grader once was haunted by a hat rack.
No, really. A friend of mine was menaced as a child by an old hat rack that followed her around the house. She never saw it move. She’d awaken from a nap on the couch, and the hat rack would be standing between her and the television. She’d get up to use the bathroom at night, come back to bed, and it’d be leaning against her nightstand. It was Salvador Dali doing Doctor Who. And that’s a true ghost story.
Here’s another one, of another kind. I live in southern Tennessee, in a city that was hotly contested during the Civil War. A hundred and fifty years ago, tens of thousands of people died violently, gruesomely, painfully, right here. If you tell it right: every one of them a ghost.
Why wouldn’t they be?
After it rains the mist on the mountain looks like cannon smoke so it’s something familiar, and they stay, I guess. They roam Lookout, or wander the pea-soup fog at Chickamauga, and they cry for help or moan in agony, but no one ever comes because they’re only dead, and everyone knows when an out-of-towner’s moved in to the neighborhood. Only the folks who Ain’t From Around Here call the cops when they hear the cries of dying men, and the sounds of artillery in their backyards. So the police stop by, and their flashlights punch holes in the haze, but they don’t see anyone. They radio back and forth with the station, explaining that yes, this is just another one of those calls and it’s okay, they’ll have a word with the residents.
And that’s typical of a true ghost story. All you can say at the end of it is “Oh.” And then you don’t bother the police anymore. You turn up the television and draw down the blinds, and you hope to God that it isn’t really true, because if it’s true then you may die horribly and then stay, and there’s nothing that anyone will do for you, either.
So why would anyone want to hear a true ghost story?
Plenty of people believe that the universe is precisely that unkind, but all the same, they’d rather not leave it. So mostly when it comes to true ghost stories, people want to hear the punch-line because they seek order, and leaving looks like chaos.
A few years ago I did a radio show in Tennessee on Halloween, appearing as the Local Ghost Expert on account of I’d written a book with ghosts in it. (And also on account of my friend Travis knew the DJ, and Travis is a connoisseur of stories both true and otherwise.) It sounded like a cool thing to do, but mostly I just made people mad.
“Hey, have you heard about the Brown Widow at the Choo Choo? Her husband died in the Civil War, and now she haunts the station, waiting for his train to bring him home…” Sorry, but the Choo Choo didn’t open until 1909. “Did you hear about the Lady in White at the Read House? She was killed by a Union general in room 311…” I doubt it. The hotel wasn’t built until the 1920s. It turns out that Jesus H. Christ, I am no fun at all.
But those people needed to hear true ghost stories. And so do you. This is one I didn’t tell them.
I was closing down a bar, a small upstairs venue in downtown Chattanooga near the river, but don’t ask me which one. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t there anymore. I’d been warned, but I was new — and people try to scare the new girl. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t hear the man in the bathroom. His breathing was ragged, and he kept saying, “No. . .” in voice so soft it barely had any echo at all. The light wasn’t on in there; I knew it wasn’t, because when you flipped on the light you also turned on the ventilation fan, and that goddamn fan sounded like a propeller in a coffee can. But I saw light under the door. So I played that game with myself, that game everyone plays where you can’t help it — it’s not like you can walk away without knowing. So my hand crept toward the doorknob, but I’ve seen that kind of movie and I’m not an idiot, so I put my hand back in my pocket just in time to hear a bottle of Jim Beam slide off the bar and onto the floor, where it broke, and then I didn’t hear the man in the bathroom anymore, and the bar was empty but it smelled like whiskey and blood.
And anyway, there was nobody there.
It drove me crazy, trying to figure it out. Because in the aftermath of a true ghost story, you hit this psychological wall, and on that wall there’s a sign that says, “It happened to me, so it must make sense.” But this haunted bathroom overlooked a corner lot with nothing in it but a drive-up bank teller and some rarely used parking spaces with weeds growing between them. It was an old building, sure, on an old row of 19th century warehouses. No known murders, sudden demises, or other assorted atrocities.
Not for another two years would I understand it, and then only by accident, unless you believe in coincidences. I was in an antique store, flipping through old photographs of the city taken back during the War. I flipped right past something that caught my eye, so I returned to it, and gave it the once-over a second time. Just a squat, boring, single-story building with a window and a door. Something was piled up under the window. Beneath the picture someone had written the address in pencil; it was the address of the corner with the drive-up bank teller and the parking spaces. And something was piled up under the window. I looked closer. The rest of the script said, “Used as a hospital by both sides during the shifting occupations.” Which is why the pile under the window was made of arms and legs, freshly severed by doctors with bone saws and bullets and Jim Beam.
That’s a true ghost story that never happened. I never worked in a bar, but there was a bar. There was a bathroom door that no one wanted to open, and regular patrons would go all the way downstairs to use the other restroom no matter how drunk they were, because man, no fucking way. And I should’ve bought that photo. It was a supernova between my fingers, and for a few seconds, I couldn’t breathe because how often does a true ghost story have an honest-to-God punch-line? Just about never. But this one does. It’s the exception that proves the rule.
More often, a true ghost story is about waking in the night from a dream that you’re starving, not hungry but starving, and pushing something heavy up the hill outside your apartment and you’re so weak you can hardly stand but you’d better push fast, because if they catch you they’ll kill you on sight. And there were lights all around your bedroom, but you lived at a city intersection and that wasn’t so strange until you opened the curtains and saw no cars, no street lights, nothing at all — like the grid had gone down or it was a hundred and fifty years ago and there is no grid. Either way it was dark, except for the light in my room that quaked like old fire.
But you still heard the rolling of the heavy thing, right in front of you, then you watched it roll right past you — you watched nothing roll, but you could hear it over the sound of your heart in your throat — and there was nothing there, rolling right over the Georgia Avenue hill and down to the river. And you didn’t hear it anymore. And the lights vanished.
And the cat in my arms wouldn’t unlock her claws from my pajamas; her ears were flat against her head, and her eyes were stretched so wide I could see their rims of white. Her eyes were as big as nickels. Like them, I enlarge to show detail. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be true.