Thursday, August 7, 2014

ReaderCon 2014: Ghost Story panel

In July 2014, I once again attended ReaderCon (, an annual speculative-fiction focused convention in Burlington, Massachusetts. Over the course of the weekend, I attended quite a few interesting panel discussions, during which I took notes. In case any of you might be interested in what some of the current discussions among authors and editors are like in the field, I’m going to post a series of my notes here on the blog. As usual, the choices on the schedule were a wonderful smorgasbord of topics, and many times I was forced to choose between 2 or 3 different but equally interesting panels that were running simultaneously. This happens every year, and to me is a really good way to gauge how dynamic a conference is. When you find yourself wishing for the ability to be in 5 places at once, you know you came to the right book convention!

I hope you enjoy the notes -- please understand these were scribbled in my notebooks as I listened, so there may be occasional omissions or errors in transcription. I have added source details (authors, titles, etc) wherever I could after the fact.

This particular panel discussion includes a ton of excellent items, both stories and book-length works, for you to add to your to-read list!

"Teaching the Ghost Story" panel discussion, July 11, 2014, 11:00am

Glen Hirschberg (lead)
Michael Dirda
Erik Amundsen
Gemma Files
Jack Haringa

I attended my first panel discussion almost as soon as we arrived. This topic is near and dear to my heart, but I was unsure about what to expect from the panel. Would it be geared for teachers only? I figured as a bookshop owner, I have as much need to be able to "teach" about ghost stories as anyone, so either way it would be okay. It turned out to be geared towards the general ghost story reading public, however, with the panel utilizing its experience in teaching the topic to steer the discussion, which worked quite well.

Glen Hirschberg, the lead/moderator, started out by mentioning that one of the important elements in a good ghost story is the situation -- a starting point, somewhere you don't want to be. He quoted Elinore Wylie's poem "Atavism," which starts with the line "I always was afraid of Somes's Pond...." to follow up, mentioning that place is a hugely important ingredient as well. (NOTE: You will find the poem at the end of this post.)

Michael Dirda asked why Glen thought place was so important.

Glen gave M.R. James as an example, because his stories start with a tangible reality and the strangeness creeps in around the edges. He stated that you need solid placement and experience for the reader to dwell in, and to "give the shadows a place to haunt."

Gemma Files spoke up about the familiar vs. the unfamiliar. It can also work to take the story to an unfamiliar place where the strange is possible. (I don't remember if she meant this in the way of taking the reader out of their element.) She encouraged writing scenarios where the reader begins to question the very things they thought were familiar with. She also made an interesting comment -- that the sense of unfamiliarity comes from within yourself.

Eric Amundsen talked about the ability to introduce the assumption of familiarity to the reader, as in Wylie's poem mentioned earlier -- "not the LITTLE Somes's Pond, but the other..."

Glen related the motif of the threshold, and how that can be introduced to the reader. It can be symbolic or physical, but it clearly delineates the moment when things go strange, whether apparent in the story yet or not.

Eric liked this idea, and the concept of ways to "implicate the audience."

Glen reiterated that storytelling ability is of huge importance.

Michael Dirda returned to the shift in the story, talking about how we mistake the moment when the strange/change begins. In many cases, the change happened earlier than the moment when the reader finally and fully registered it.

Glen mentioned the "wonderful delay of fact," and mentioned a favorite example, Ray Bradbury's Dark's Carnival, in his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Jack Haringa talked about how estrangement needs the familiar as a starting point. Freud's essay about the uncanny (unheimlich) mentions an erosion of stability, which can affect the reader keenly when properly executed.

Michael Dirda gave a nod to the ability of authors who are able to create a sense of wrongness.

Jack talked about how ghosts have a tradition of being rooted in a place, which is the best kind of familiar.

Eric brought up the building of Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion, and how the UK version utilized (via the introductory speech) the idea of providing a home for spirits who were made homeless as a result of the bombing in WWII. He stated that stories are a home for them, too.

Glen talked about the reader stumbling into an unknown fragment of history, an individual story, and tied in the earlier talk of erosion -- the reader encounters a spirit and also realizes they were once a living person. What if it was a person waiting to be an object, or dreaming it is a person again?

Michael Dirda inquired of the rest of the panel whether they thought that it was important to believe in ghosts -- is a story's effect lessened if someone (author? reader?) doesn't believe to begin with?

Jack said no, so long as the author can activate an openness, a suspension of disbelief in the reader.

Glen brought up the idea of atavism, childhood Scooby Doo imaginings, Alfred Hitchcock, and stated he was open to the possibility of ghosts but does not believe in them per se.

Gemma talked a little bit about Peter Straub's book Ghost Story -- who is the ghost? The realization of our own death is at the heart of the story, with the ghost as a comforting remnant. (On the other hand, I myself know people who find the idea of lingering endlessly where you were in life completely appalling and terrifying, and not comforting at all.)

Jack spoke of the subconscious archetype, of dealing with memories, and how there are all sorts of ways to be haunted.

Eric mentioned that the entity can be irrelevant to the ghost story -- they may only be negative space, and our minds will fill in the ghost if the writer provides the place for our minds to roam in.

Glen stated that great ghost stories are often great in spite of their endings, perhaps because "it will fall apart in your hand" if you grasp too tightly via words. (Which seems to me, in part, to create a second tragedy -- how fleeting the ghost, and how easily crushed out of existence by mere words!)

Michael Dirda talked about misdirection, as in a stage magic trick, where an expectation fulfilled exactly becomes a disappointment in the end. Surprise is necessary to reward the reader.

Gemma agreed that it is like film -- what is shown in the frame, and sometimes more importantly, what is going on outside of the frame?

Jack mentioned sound as an important element.

Glen recommended using all 5 senses to evoke the story.

Gemma wondered about the writer's experience of having words come into your head when in a particular place -- are they your own words or did they come from something else? Seamus Heaney's poem "Bog Queen" talked about how "my body was braille for the creeping influences."

Jack mentioned Lucius Shepard's Vietnam story "Delta Sly Honey" as being set in a place of real horror, which can be made even stranger and more horrifying via story.

Glen talked about the mistake of most contemporary horror in that the characters SHOULD be scared. He recommended Marjorie Bowen's story "Dark Ann."

Jack talked about how teenagers really struggle to appreciate ambiguity and open-endedness in stories. Teenagers seem to need closure, i.e., yes or no, was there a ghost or not?

Michael Dirda asked the panel which ghost stories they use when teaching.

Gemma preferred M.R. James' "Count Magnus" as a good example of a spirit ethereal in nature, but at the same time, solid enough to hurt you. The specific becomes universal in James' stories, i.e., when a character is afraid of one specific thing, in the hands of a good author, the reader will eventually absorb the character's fear as his/her own.

Michael Dirda read an excerpt from M.R. James' story "The Diary of Mr. Poynter," the part beginning with the passage "then he dozed, and then he woke..." HEEBIEJEEBIES!!!

Gemma continued by mentioning Conrad Aiken, whose story "Silent Snow Secret Snow" (?) involves a 12-year-old boy having a psychotic break, and wishing to have his life extinguished.
(NOTE: You can find a PDF download here: )

Jack talked about examples like Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House and its 1st and last paragraphs, as well as the short story "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad" by M.R. James, Yoko Gawa's Diving Pool (short story collection), Ellen Datlow's recent anthology Hauntings, and "Smoke Ghost," a ghostly 1941 Fritz Leiber tale.

Glen talked about how teenagers are skeptical, and how he usually starts them out backwards with "The Specialist's Hat" (very contemporary, but built around a 19th-century traditional ghost story framework), then "McIntosh Willy" by Ramsey Campbell, "Demon Lover" by Shirley Jackson, and then graduates them to M.R. James and Oliver Onions' "Beckoning Fair One."

Gemma mentioned Elizabeth Jenkins "On No Account My Love," which is a 1955 tale that can be found in a few ghost story anthologies.

Jack asked about documentation and its effects in a story.

In response, Glen talked about H.P. Lovecraft's use of connected-but-distant events and tales within his stories, and how he uses each to provide confirmation of its predecessor in the story, and eventually within full story cycles. Lovecraft also utilized the reference of old texts.

Michael Dirda mentioned Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 story "Mr. Justice Harbottle," with its lost manuscript, and how derivative accounts of a story/anecdote play with that idea.

Glen said that sort of story construction is like building a mousetrap mechanism.

Eric mentioned the Slenderman story cycle, which has recently achieved dire notoriety.

Gemma talked about how a tulpa is what we wish for while being simultaneously horrified by the idea of what we might actually be able to create ourselves. (ref: Tibetan thoughtform manifestation)

Author John Langan (in audience) talked about how in a ghost story, a person can be isolated by the experience, cordoned off from the rest of humanity, and at the same time made open and vulnerable to a very much OTHER reality. (NOTE: In Langan's excellent book House of Windows, the two main characters are clearly separated from their previously normal daily life by their experiences, with heavy consequences.)

Eric found that being haunted can be similar to suffering from a disease -- an invisible but lifelong condition in which you have been touched by death.

Someone mentioned Robert Frost's poem "Witch of Coos" and how one can be touched by a lifelong taint when haunted. (NOTE: See end of post below for the text of this poem.)
Stay tuned for the next installment in this series of notes from ReaderCon 2014!

by Elinor Wylie

I always was afraid of Somes’s Pond:
Not the little pond, by which the willow stands,
Where laughing boys catch alewives in their hands
In brown, bright shallows; but the one beyond.
There, when the frost makes all the birches burn
Yellow as cow-lilies, and the pale sky shines
Like a polished shell between black spruce and pines,
Some strange thing tracks us, turning where we turn.

You’ll say I dream it, being the true daughter
Of those who in old times endured this dread.
Look! Where the lily-stems are showing red
A silent paddle moves below the water,
A sliding shape has stirred them like a breath;
Tall plumes surmount a painted mask of death.

The Witch of Coos
by Robert Frost

I staid the night for shelter at a farm
Behind the mountains, with a mother and son,
Two old-believers. They did all the talking.

Folks think a witch who has familiar spirits
She could call up to pass a winter evening,
But won't, should be burned at the stake or something.
Summoning spirits isn't 'Button, button,
Who's got the button,' I would have them know.

Mother can make a common table rear
And kick with two legs like an army mule.

And when I've done it, what good have I
Rather than tip a table for you, let me
Tell you what Ralle the Sioux Control once told me.
He said the dead had souls, but when I asked him
How could that be -- I thought the dead were souls,
He broke my trance. Don't that make you suspicious
That there's something the dead are keeping back?
Yes, there's something the dead are keeping back.

You wouldn't want to tell him what we have
Up attic, mother?

MOTHER: Bones -- a skeleton.

But the headboard of mother's bed is pushed
Against the' attic door: the door is nailed.
It's harmless. Mother hears it in the night
Halting perplexed behind the barrier
Of door and headboard. Where it wants to get
Is back into the cellar where it came from.

We'll never let them, will we, son! We'll
never !

It left the cellar forty years ago
And carried itself like a pile of dishes
Up one flight from the cellar to the kitchen,
Another from the kitchen to the bedroom,
Another from the bedroom to the attic,
Right past both father and mother, and neither stopped
Father had gone upstairs; mother was downstairs.
I was a baby: I don't know where I was.

The only fault my husband found with me --
I went to sleep before I went to bed,
Especially in winter when the bed
Might just as well be ice and the clothes snow.
The night the bones came up the cellar-stairs
Toffile had gone to bed alone and left me,
But left an open door to cool the room off
So as to sort of turn me out of it.
I was just coming to myself enough
To wonder where the cold was coming from,
When I heard Toffile upstairs in the bedroom
And thought I heard him downstairs in the cellar.
The board we had laid down to walk dry-shod on
When there was water in the cellar in spring
Struck the hard cellar bottom. And then someone
Began the stairs, two footsteps for each step,
The way a man with one leg and a crutch,
Or a little child, comes up. It wasn't Toffile:
It wasn't anyone who could be there.
The bulkhead double-doors were double-locked
And swollen tight and buried under snow.
The cellar windows were banked up with sawdust
And swollen tight and buried under snow.
It was the bones. I knew them -- and good reason.
My first impulse was to get to the knob
And hold the door. But the bones didn't try
The door; they halted helpless on the landing,
Waiting for things to happen in their favour.'
The faintest restless rustling ran all through them.
I never could have done the thing I did
If the wish hadn't been too strong in me
To see how they were mounted for this walk.
I had a vision of them put together
Not like a man, but like a chandelier.
So suddenly I flung the door wide on him.
A moment he stood balancing with emotion,
And all but lost himself. (A tongue of fire
Flashed out and licked along his upper teeth.
Smoke rolled inside the sockets of his eyes.)
Then he came at me with one hand outstretched,
The way he did in life once; but this time
I struck the hand off brittle on the floor,
And fell back from him on the floor myself.
The finger-pieces slid in all directions.
(Where did I see one of those pieces lately?
Hand me my button-box- it must be there.)
I sat up on the floor and shouted, 'Toffile,
It's coming up to you.' It had its choice
Of the door to the cellar or the hall.
It took the hall door for the novelty,
And set off briskly for so slow a thing,
Still going every which way in the joints, though,
So that it looked like lightning or a scribble,
From the slap I had just now given its hand.
I listened till it almost climbed the stairs
From the hall to the only finished bedroom,
Before I got up to do anything;
Then ran and shouted, 'Shut the bedroom door,
Toffile, for my sake!' 'Company?' he said,
'Don't make me get up; I'm too warm in bed.'
So lying forward weakly on the handrail
I pushed myself upstairs, and in the light
(The kitchen had been dark) I had to own
I could see nothing. 'Toffile, I don't see it.
It's with us in the room though. It's the bones.'
'What bones?' 'The cellar bones- out of the grave.'
That made him throw his bare legs out of bed
And sit up by me and take hold of me.
I wanted to put out the light and see
If I could see it, or else mow the room,
With our arms at the level of our knees,
And bring the chalk-pile down. 'I'll tell you what-
It's looking for another door to try.
The uncommonly deep snow has made him think
Of his old song, The Wild Colonial Boy,
He always used to sing along the tote-road.
He's after an open door to get out-doors.
Let's trap him with an open door up attic.'
Toffile agreed to that, and sure enough,
Almost the moment he was given an opening,
The steps began to climb the attic stairs.
I heard them. Toffile didn't seem to hear them.
'Quick !' I slammed to the door and held the knob.
'Toffile, get nails.' I made him nail the door shut,
And push the headboard of the bed against it.
Then we asked was there anything
Up attic that we'd ever want again.
The attic was less to us than the cellar.
If the bones liked the attic, let them have it.
Let them stay in the attic. When they sometimes
Come down the stairs at night and stand perplexed
Behind the door and headboard of the bed,
Brushing their chalky skull with chalky fingers,
With sounds like the dry rattling of a shutter,
That's what I sit up in the dark to say-
To no one any more since Toffile died.
Let them stay in the attic since they went there.
I promised Toffile to be cruel to them
For helping them be cruel once to him.

SON: We think they had a grave down in the cellar.

MOTHER: We know they had a grave down in the cellar.

SON: We never could find out whose bones they were.

Yes, we could too, son. Tell the truth for once.
They were a man's his father killed for me.
I mean a man he killed instead of me.
The least I could do was to help dig their grave.
We were about it one night in the cellar.
Son knows the story: but 'twas not for him
To tell the truth, suppose the time had come.
Son looks surprised to see me end a lie
We'd kept all these years between ourselves
So as to have it ready for outsiders.
But to-night I don't care enough to lie-
I don't remember why I ever cared.
Toffile, if he were here, I don't believe
Could tell you why he ever cared himself-

She hadn't found the finger-bone she wanted
Among the buttons poured out in her lap.
I verified the name next morning: Toffile.
The rural letter-box said Toffile Lajway