Posts Tagged ‘ghost stories’

Hallowe’en Comes Early

October 4, 2011

Hallowe’en has crept early upon the Uncanny City. I’m going to kick the season off with an unsettling personal experience that is absolutely true. So pause in your pumpkin-carving, shut down the cobweb-making machine just for a moment, and pull up a rickety chair. And you may want to toss another log on the fire, because the air is about to get noticeably chillier, and shadows will encroach . . .

Pittsburgh's sprawling and picturesque Allegheny Cemetery

These photos were actually taken a year ago, in very early November, as I recall.

The grave of Stephen Foster, American songwriter, 1826-1864

We have some amazing cemeteries here in Pittsburgh. Chief among the ones I’ve seen is the nearly endless Allegheny Cemetery, which seems to go on forever in all directions. Yes, Stephen Foster is buried there.

Autumn colors blaze in Allegheny Cemetery.

The true experience I am about to relate takes place in Allegheny Cemetery. It happened just a couple weeks ago, in mid-September.

Toward evening, shadows lengthen.

Some friends who are photographers were in the cemetery one afternoon to take pictures of the beautiful, somber, and intriguing work of many a stone-crafter, both mason and sculptor. And I was there, too.

Now, one of my friends has a two-year-old daughter, who also came along that day, playing and wandering among the headstones, rolling in the grass, enjoying the slanting light and crisp air of fall.

This little girl, whom I’ll call “Abbie” (not her real name), is a precocious two-year-old, who knows the names of many people, animals, numbers, and letters. She likes other babies and loves to point them out. When she sees a baby nearby, or in a picture, or on TV, she’ll announce, “Baby! Baby!” In some cases, when something looks like a baby, she’ll identify it as such. For example, when we watched Princess Mononoke and she saw the little forest-spirits with the hairless, rattly heads, she said, “Baby! Baby!”

Well, as we wandered through the cemetery that afternoon, every so often, Abbie would glance toward our right or left and say, “Baby! Baby!” But we could see no one there. We saw only grassy expanses, trees, and the unending rows of gravestones marching away over the hillsides. “Baby!” Abbie would say, never quite pointing. She seemed neither happy nor alarmed; she was just making an observation.

Mausoleum, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh

After a few minutes, she would look around quizzically and ask, “Where baby? Where baby?” She wasn’t seeing the baby any more. Then, another five or ten minutes later, she’d look to one side of the path and say “Baby!” We tried hard but couldn’t see anything she might be identifying as a “baby.” There were no cherubic statues, no baby photos on grave markers. Once, Abbie’s mother pointed at a seraph, a distinctly adult-looking angel statue, and asked, “Is that a baby?” Abbie displayed no reaction or interest.

It gets even more bizarre. This is probably the most photogenic and intriguing mausoleum in the cemetery. When we got near it — and only near it — Abbie did something I’ve never seen her do before, and not since. She raised both hands and grasped the hair above her ears/at her temples and began to stagger, moving in an aimless, disoriented path back and forth, almost in circles. Her face wore a dazed, puzzled expression . . . as if her head were filled with a sound she’d never heard before — a continuous, pervasive sound that confused her.

One of the other adults remarked that it looked as though Abbie were “being drawn by some force.” (Those were the exact words she used.) When we moved away from the mausoleum, this odd behavior ceased, and Abbie went right on playing and exploring.

Afterward, we theorized that children may be receptive to sights, sounds, and impressions that we adults are not. Does the passing of years place in us a “filter” that screens out the unseen world? What presence, visible only to Abbie, may have tagged along with us across the stone-lined lawns that afternoon, perhaps curious, perhaps glad for some company — perhaps, a carefree juvenile like Abbie herself, exploring the strangeness and wonder of an afternoon outdoors in autumn? And what hum or whispering filled the air around that crumbling house of the dead?

So there it is: the beginning of the Hallowe’en season here in Pittsburgh, and there, wherever you are. It’s time for the telling of tales. Does anyone care to contribute an unsettling account of your own? Every family has its share of weird tales — the thing that happened to Great-Uncle Bob that night out behind the horse barn, or that face Aunt Bonnie saw at the window of her house on Coal Street. You can change names freely and pretend it’s the experience of some other family; the important thing is the story! It needn’t even be something that happened to anyone you know. It could be a rumor handed down at your junior high school . . . something you read or heard or saw on TV . . . or perhaps just an impression you had. Remember that one house in the town you lived in as a kid? — that one house out by the railroad tracks where the woods began, that you were always sure wasn’t quite right. Describe a creepy place to us!

Let us tell tales, all you who delight in a good Hallowe’en yarn. I’ll jump in with a few more myself! If you’re absolutely stuck, you can throw out a “What if you . . .?” scenario — my anonymous friend Chris and I used to have hours of fun with that as kids! We’d try to come up with the eeriest, scariest scenarios we could, always putting the other person into them as the main character, always trying to top the one before. “What if you were out at night in the woods behind the pond, because you realized you’d left your mom’s jeweled brooch down there when you were playing earlier, and you had to get it back by all means, and then you saw . . .” [Never mind that we never played in those woods even in the daytime; or that neither of our moms had a “jeweled brooch”; or that either of us would have had any interest in playing with such — but THE POINT IS, you’re in the woods at night, and . . .]

So (almost) anything goes! What tales are there? Who will tell us a story for the long-shadow season?

All Hallows Eve

October 24, 2009

We’ve talked before on this blog about attempts to recapture, as adults, those visceral feelings of excitement and anticipation we had as kids on the night before Christmas, lying in our dark bedrooms . . . or before our birthdays . . . or at the notion of school letting out for the summer or even for the weekend. I remember getting some of that feeling in the darkened movie theater, waiting for the feature to start.

Well, one time I’ve discovered that I experience that shivery, excited, tingly-stomach feeling as a grownup is in the few days before the World Fantasy Convention. I leave for San Jose on Wednesday the 28th, and I get back on November 3rd, so be advised that there won’t be a blog post during the Hallowe’en weekend. That very night, the 31st (Lord willing), I’ll be having dinner with my agents and some other clients of JABberwocky, the agency that represents me. (That wasn’t a typo in the name, by the way: the first three letters are the initials of the agency’s owner.) So this weekend I’m battening down the hatches, preparing lessons, packing, and timing & practicing the public reading I’m scheduled to do at 8:30 Thursday night, California time. Please hold a good thought for me — I’m desperately hoping even a few people will come to my reading. It’s awfully hard to draw a crowd when you’re an unknown writer, at a Con where so much cool stuff is going on. And I know none of my usual friends/loyal reading-supporters will be there this year. . . .

Anyway, I’ll take my camera along, and I hope to have a bunch of pictures to post next time.

If anyone wants to take a look at what the convention is all about, here’s the website: http://www.worldfantasy2009.org

And here’s a nice grid they made of what’s happening where at what times:

http://www.worldfantasy2009.org/wp-content/uploads/GridTable.pdf

But anyway. . . . here we are in Hallowe’en week, and I hope everyone has been enjoying the season! One thing I did to celebrate was to rewatch the Buffy Season 2 episode “Halloween” — one of the classics. And I’ve been reading a couple things by the old-time horror writer Arthur Machen, who greatly influenced H.P. Lovecraft. More about that in the future. . . .

But for now, we need a Hallowe’en story, and here’s a true one, courtesy of my dad. This actually happened to him. He told and retold this tale throughout his life. There are no ghost stories like old family ghost stories, because you get to grow up with them; you get to hear them over and over, spanning different ages of your life. You internalize them, as the trees swallow the leaning fences.

When he was a child, the family moved from within the city of Taylorville to an old, two-story farmhouse in the country. It stood alone among the fields, isolated and dark against the sky, far removed from the homes of the nearest neighbors. Such houses still stand today; I’ve seen hundreds of them, lonely patches of human habitation amid the endless acres of whispering grain.

We’re talking about the end of the 1930s. This was an era when electricity was still somewhat tenuous in the countryside, and when they moved in, the power had either not yet been hooked up or not yet turned on. The family used oil-burning lamps for the first stretch of nights in the house. During the sunny Illinois day, they hauled in loads of furniture, clothes, and cookware, placing things as best they could in the rooms where it all belonged.

In the kitchen, they discovered a huge, heavy wooden cupboard that had come with the house, left by the previous owners. It towered from floor almost to ceiling in one corner. My grandma was delighted by its charm and solidity, and she gratefully loaded it up with her best plates and cups to get them out of harm’s way. The rest of the dishes would require more careful sorting. For the time being, they were left in some big metal washtubs set on the table . . . and perhaps in some boxes on the counters, on the floor.

Exhausted by the day of hard work, the family retired to the living room, carrying their flickering lamps. The adults sank into chairs and onto the couch, bone-weary. The children played on the floor in the reddish glow. Beyond the little circle of light, the prairie darkness closed in, filling the empty rooms, covering the fields. It was an era such as we can scarce imagine today, in our neon age, when the world is brightly lit 24/7. It was an age of quietness and impenetrable shadow.

Suddenly, to the shock and horror of all, pandemonium erupted in the black kitchen. There came the sound of the tubs sliding from the table, clanging and ringing on the floor — the sound of dishes shattering, silverware bouncing, glass breaking into shards.

The adults sprang to their feet, hearts pounding. Had some animal found its way into the house? Pans crashed; boxes tumbled; the terrible destruction could only be deliberate. Some vandal — a prowler? As the final blow, there came the shuddering impact of the great cupboard toppling onto the table, smashing its own glass doors and the table’s wooden legs, everything collapsing to the floor. Panes and lattices flew apart. Shelves splintered. Grandma’s best dishes — such as they were in that time when the Depression had been deeply felt — were now junk to be swept away. But why? What? Who. . . .?

Summoning their courage, seizing anything that might be wielded as a weapon, the adults raised their lamps and ventured into the kitchen, eyes wide, faces colorless, breath held. I can picture them as they must have approached that kitchen, a row of sheet-white faces peeping around the door frame at various heights.

As the wicks’ flames pushed back the darkness, the kitchen slowly became visible. And there . . . there in the unfamiliar belly of the ancient house . . . nothing was amiss.

The tubs remained on the table, stacked high with plates. The boxes rested on the counter and on the floor, still intact, still packed. In the shadowy corner, the grandfather of cupboards stood unperturbed, the glass doors secured, the rows of dishes guarded within. No damage at all had been done. There were no TVs, no radios blaring; no other houses nearby, from which a sound might have emerged. Nothing. Just a kitchen in a worn, brooding farmhouse, steeped in silence and memory. If it was a hallucination, then the entire household had the same one at the same time.

It was the first strange incident in the old house, but certainly not the last.

So Happy Hallowe’en to all! If anyone has a ghost story (or any creepy story) to tell us — whether it be true or not — please do so!

And here’s an idea: why doesn’t everyone stop by here on or around Hallowe’en night and tell us how you spent the evening — did you do anything seasonal? I’ll be away that night . . . the blog will be empty, and full of echoes. But that shouldn’t discourage you, on this night of all nights!


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