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S’okay. Where would you go with this?

Last night I watched Woman in Black, mostly to see Daniel Radcliffe playing a grownup (which he did well). The movie was powerfully atmospheric and so genuinely scary that a couple of times a chill ran down my spine — which I always thought was only a metaphor.

Nevertheless, at bottom it was, like all ghost stories, pretty silly. That, and the much-less-good ghost movie The Innkeepers, got me thinking. Ghost stories are always all about atmosphere — ivy-choked Victorian mansions, Olde New England inns, mossy graveyards, mists and fogs and shadows — all the usual stuff. Which usually serves to disguise a story that wouldn’t hold up in the plain light of day. Not since the great Shirley Jackson (read her 1950 short story “The Summer People” if you really want to know what I mean) has anybody mastered the art of turning the ordinary into the chillingly horrible.

That gave me the idea for the opening of a ghost story with a very different setting. But all I’ve got is the opening. So, you very clever people, where would you go with a ghost story that starts like this?

—–

Ghost Story

It was a perfectly generic house. Oldish. But not old. Fading and peeling a bit. But not decrepit. Neither mansion nor shack. Neither architectural monument nor eyesore. Just another house plunked somewhere between “needs TLC” and “cute starter home” as real estate agents measure these things.

No great tragedy had ever darkened its aura. Neither bodies nor mysteries were buried in its perfectly ordinary though slightly damp basement. In fact, nothing bad had ever happened in it other than the ordinary bumps, scrapes, petty spats, broken collarbones, bill-paying crises, sibling rivalries, marital discords, and teenage heartbreaks of life.

It was not located on a windswept hill or wreathed in the fetid mists of a cinematic marsh. The weed-grown lot next door hardly measured up to any Brontean (or Hollywoodian) moor or heath.

It had no more cobwebs than you might expect. No jilted crone sat in her wedding finery, mourning her life away in its rather small dining room (which was, in fact, only an ell off an otherwise boringly rectangular living room). No pale women robed in black, no blood-drenched children or mad deceased poets roamed its halls (which were in any case actually one hall, singular, 12 feet long, leading to three boxy bedrooms and one bath that still featured chipped “Seafoam Aqua” colored tile, installed circa 1955).

Neighborhood children did not avoid it. Renters did not run screaming out of it. Buyers did not dump it back on the market after six months of tormented residency, telling lies to hide its savage secrets in hopes of salvaging a few bucks of their downpayments.

In short, it was a perfectly unnoticeable house in a slightly run-down neighborhood.

Nevertheless, it was haunted.

—–

I’ve also got this paragraph (below), which I threw in to have a somebody and a something taking the tale into the next step. But I’m not in love with it and am ready to erase it if somebody suggests a better direction:

And perhaps those hypothetical renters or buyers would have abandoned it, had they known. But they remained in their peacefully hypothetical fog, leaving only Melissa — sensitive, unsuspecting Melissa — to risk her life and sanity for the sake of its unhappy spirits.

—–

So … where do you take a ghost story that begins here?

29 Comments

  1. Ellendra
    Ellendra July 15, 2012 3:17 pm

    How do you want the haunting to be? Are the ghosts the dangerous kind that want to kill people? Are they the bored kind who scare people because they have nothing better to do? Are they the kind with unfinished business and they’ll leave as soon as it’s complete? Are they trying to warn about something worse that’s coming (earthquake, pedophile, Big Brother, nuclear attack, etc) and their warnings are just being grossly misunderstood? Actually, I kind of like that last one, there are lots of twists that could be done with it.

  2. Claire
    Claire July 15, 2012 3:34 pm

    Ellendra — all of the above? None of the above? I dunno. I do kinda like that last one of yours, though I hadn’t even remotely thought of anything like that until you mentioned it. And although I guess I wouldn’t mind if the story turned out “political,” I also want to get away from political thinking and just … tell a story.

    My original idea — vague — was that the spirits would be somehow sympathetic. Not nuisance types, but more sad, with something unfulfilled.

    They could even be friendly and amusing — like the ghosts who used to haunt Cosmo Topper in the books, movies, and TV show from back in Dad’s or Granddad’s day. But if so, I’d want them to still be purposeful.

    And the bit about the weed-choked lot next door might be important (like if it’s not actually the house but the land under it that might be haunted).

    I really don’t know, though. So how nice to see you enter with ideas.

  3. JG
    JG July 15, 2012 5:17 pm

    The ghost is the late Mr. Gray. A former government employee who worked in a nondescript federal office where he kept track of the amount of black eyed peas grown in the US. He never went to anywhere that black eyed peas were grown. He actually could not recognize what produced black eyed peas. He assumed it was a plant of some type. He retired after 20 years, receiving a brass coated watch that could pass for gold if you didn’t look at it too closely. Two weeks later he died of what the medical examiner called “mysterious circumstances”. The truth is that he simply didn’t have anything better to do, so one morning he finished his breakfast of brown flakes(ALDI brand wheaties), put his bowl and spoon in the dishwasher, and died. He didn’t really have anywhere to go, so his ghost just loitered around, contemplating taking up golf or fly fishing. Some nights, the living residents are woken by the end credits music of “wheel of fortune” and wonder how the TV got turned on.

  4. Claire
    Claire July 15, 2012 5:20 pm

    LOL, JG, what a marvelous cynic you are.

    Now that I think about it, though, that IS the sort of ghost who might haunt a house like that.

  5. JG
    JG July 15, 2012 6:19 pm

    Maybe your ghost story could follow the lives of some young newlyweds who move in. They could be fairly libertarian, a bit outdoorsy and adventurous. The conflict could be when the boring ghost does not approve of their views and lifestyle. maybe he could whisper government approved safety warnings to them at just below the range of human hearing, change the TV to one of the major news propaganda networks, leave federal pamphlets around, or any other subtle intrusion that govt. busybodies approve of. Perhaps he could also suggest boring things to do, such as clean the grout in the bathroom instead of going kayaking. All in an effort to turn the young libertarian couple into a pair of stodgy statist lumps.

  6. Matt, another
    Matt, another July 15, 2012 7:23 pm

    Scariest ghost stories I ever experienced occurred in run of the mill non-descript houses.

    It could be ghosts of voters past trying to get the occupants not to make the same mistakes they did.

    On the grim side, lots of horrific crimes happen in non-descript, middle-classish houses. Murders, suicides, mayhem, despair, all manner of the failure of human spirit etc.

  7. Claire
    Claire July 15, 2012 7:55 pm

    Though I really didn’t want to write a “political” story, that’s very clever, JG. Hey … maybe we should open this up and invite people to write their own ghost stories taking off from that opening. JG, you’re already ahead of the game.

    Would anybody really do it, do you suppose?

    Matt, another … “failure of the human spirit.” Yes, that’s a good place to begin. Even a house like this one that’s seen no monumental tragedies has probably seen a lot of failures of spirit. And isn’t that, in fact, what ghosts are supposed to be — spirits who can’t move on to greater things, but remain earthbound?

    And LOL, ghosts of voters past. Yep, I can see lots of them hanging around, desperate with regrets.

  8. Jim B.
    Jim B. July 15, 2012 8:10 pm

    If it has to be political, I wonder if you could incorporate a moaning Jefferson and a laughing Hamilton ghosts. For obvious meanings.

  9. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty July 16, 2012 6:44 am

    Oh, this is wonderful! A group ghost story! I wrote a short one years ago, now on a HD I can’t access easily… I’ll see if I can get to it.

    I actually lived in the house where this old curmudgeon ghost hung out, and one night he saved my life from a house fire. Got to get at it…

  10. David Lee
    David Lee July 16, 2012 6:45 am

    Unnoticed, back when the home was being built, a seed was unearthed from ten feet down in the very old garden where the foundation hole was dug. The seed lingered on the building site, kicked around by masons, carpenters, plumbers and electricians until it settled into a crack between the basement wall and the woodwork of the home. The dampness in the basement moistened the seed long enough for it to germinate. Hair like tentacles began growing into cracks and crevasses of the home. For years the plant grew and filled every void in the building but never showed itself.

    Plants, especially this ancient strange one, need nourishment. Now and then a family pet, first a new kitten, later a small dog disappeared leaving only a few hairs that went unnoticed by the people living there at the time. The disappearances were mystifying but not haunting among the everyday accidents of life.

    People came and went from the home as it was bought,sold and rented. Then Dickie Phipps, pot dealer to the stars, rented the place with intentions of starting a home grown marijuana garden like no other. Each room would have a different strain of pot. The kitchen was just right for processing. Soon the house was fragrant with the essence of THC and fertilizer.

    Late one morning, as Dickie was sitting on the John nursing a hangover with a joint the size of Cuban cigar, he thought he caught movement between the cracks of the grubby Seafoam Aqua tile between his bare feet. He blew the smoke he had just exhaled out of the way, leaned over and looked very closely at the crack where the grout long ago went missing and saw . . . something . . . something quivering. And it was not just the crack between his feet. The whole floor and walls were moving, shivering maybe. Tiny vines, fine hairlike things with pointy ends, were uncoiling from every crack and crevasse of the floor and walls. They were even descending from the ceiling tiles. Each one was coming straight at Dickie and there were thousands of them!

    The smell of marijuana alerted the neighbors eventually. The house was raided, cleaned out and put up for rent again. It was assumed Dickie Phipps left town to avoid arrest. No one noticed the few hairs spread over the bathroom floor during the cleanup.

    Sweet Melissa, Orchid growing botanist to the stars, fell in love with the little house and rented it. She sensed something organic about the place. She could envision a different Orchid species growing in each room. The kitchen was just right for processing.

  11. Claire
    Claire July 16, 2012 8:06 am

    Jim B. … Unless somebody comes up with a good explanation for how J & H got into that undistinguished little house … prolly not. But again, it’s a bizarrely interesting comment.

    MamaLiberty … Definitely would like to read your story. But you say you actually lived in a haunted house? Um ….

    David Lee … Oh man. THAT’S creative. And potentially very darned funny. And interesting to political types without being “political.” I’m in awe. (And are you that David Lee — the creative house builder whose stories appear in BHM? As inventive as your response is, I’m thinking maybe so.)

  12. Pat
    Pat July 16, 2012 8:23 am

    From the first sentence, the story evoked a sense of the 50’s and you bore that out later.

    Setting: If this house had a partial basement (which some houses did then – and were often closed off later, unknown to the current resident), you might put this ghost in a Cold War bomb shelter that the basement had been converted to.

    Without your story being political, if a man or woman went down there to “practice” living after a nuclear blast, then died there, s/he might make an interesting ghost.

  13. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal July 16, 2012 9:28 am

    Melissa matched the house. No boys fantasized about her. No women hated her to cover their

    jealousy. Had anyone noticed her, though, they would have thought her attractive in a

    “girl-next-door” sort of way. She was comfortable.

    Except for the haunting.

    Sometimes she almost decided it was all in her imagination. She had never actually seen

    anything she would call GhostBusters about. It was more of a feeling. And the occasional

    movement just beyond the edge of her peripheral vision. At those times she would joke aloud to

    the presence, or to herself.

    “Nothing to see here, Ghost. You’d better find a fancy hotel with a tragic past to haunt before you

    die of boredom. Or, since I suppose you’re already dead, before you fade away.”

    Sometimes she almost felt she expected an answer. Had one come, would she have jumped

    with a start, or would she have continued the conversation? She didn’t know. Yet.

    One overcast night as she made one last trip to the kitchen before bed, the feeling brushed past her strong enough to make her gasp and get chills. She quickly looked behind her, then felt silly for doing so. Yet, was that a shadow she had seen? Suddenly she felt very exposed and vulnerable. She wanted to say something to break the silence, but her voice didn’t seem to work. And, somehow, she knew the sound of her own voice would shock her. She shook her head, and started for the sink again. Perhaps a bit quieter this time. A shadow behind her shifted, unseen, across the wall.

    She filled her glass from the bottle of room temperature tap water she kept on the counter, then

    raised it to her lips. Her mouth felt even more dry after she had taken a sip. She stood there

    staring at the glass, noticing the reflections of the dark room, and the bubbles clinging to the inside surface, seeming to mimic the drop running down to her thumb. For some reason she couldn’t name, she was terrified to turn around. The longer she stood there, the stronger the terror grew. She knew, just knew, that if she turned around she would see something she didn’t want to see. Why was it better to have it behind her unseen? She couldn’t say, and didn’t want to think about it.

    Was that a whisper or was it her own breath? “Calm down, Melissa! You’re scaring yourself for no reason.” Did that thought come from her own mind, or was it whispered in her ear? She glanced down and could see her heartbeat causing her threadbare nightshirt to bounce. This was ridiculous! This was her house. She knew no one had come in. She knew ghosts didn’t really exist. Not anymore- if they ever had. This wasn’t the middle ages and she wasn’t an ignorant peasant! Turn around, Melissa!

    She spun around so fast she almost slipped on the floor. Nothing. See, it was all in her

    imagination. Wait… what was that? Is that shadow in the right place? Did it move? If her heart

    had been beating hard before, it was pounding now. She squinted at the shadow. Maybe a

    passing car’s lights had caused a movement. Her excited state could make her misinterpret

    normal things. Yes, that was it. Then she heard a sigh.

    The glass slipped partway from her hand, but she caught it before it fell, splashing its contents on

    herself and the floor. Yes, the shadow was moving. Or, was it a group of shadows? The sigh had come from that direction.

    As she watched the shadow seemed to detach from the wall, out into the air. How is this possible? Something was taking form- but a chill ran through the chill she was already experiencing when she realized it wasn’t a shadow. It was a reflection. She was seeing herself.

    As Melissa watched Melissa appear in front of her, she heard her own voice, not certain which mouth had spoken. “What do you want?”

    “I want to be noticed.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “I want to do the things you want to do, but are afraid of doing.” I want to make a scene sometimes. I want to laugh a little too loud. I want to drink just a little too much. I want to love dangerously. I want to try things I am no good at. I want to take risks. I want to feel alive.”

    “But, I am alive. I mean, you… or we… are alive.”

    “No, Melissa. You are breathing, but you haven’t been alive in a long time. If you won’t do it I’ll do it for us. For me. For you.”

    “You are just a ghost. You can’t…”

    “You are mistaken. You are the ghost. You are the ghost of what I once could have been. Look at yourself.”

    Melissa looked down. She did seem a little more gray, perhaps a bit smokey. She looked back at Melissa, who seemed more real now.

    “You’re wrong. I am real. This is my house. I’m the one who…” Why couldn’t she think of anything she had done recently?

    “I’m not going to watch life pass me by anymore. I’m not going to worry about what the neighbors think. I’m not going to worry about saying the wrong thing and giving the Women’s Bible Study group something to get the vapors over.” Melissa watched as Melissa seemed to slip back against the wall a bit more. She reached out her hand. “I’m not going to see you again, am I?”

    “I just want a chance to live.” The face was gone. The shadow became a little harder to distinguish from the others. A sigh filtered across the spaces.

    Outside a light rain had begun to fall. Melissa looked again at the wall. The shadow might be gone now. She wasn’t sure. She looked down at the ratty nightshirt. It was dry. Had she really been talking that long? She turned and looked out the window at the water shining on the street. With a flash she pulled the nightshirt over her head and tossed it off to the side and went out the door to dance in the rain.

  14. Pat
    Pat July 16, 2012 9:41 am

    VERY nice, Kent, don’t stop now.

    *Which* Melissa “went out the door to dance in the rain.”?

  15. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal July 16, 2012 9:58 am

    Which Melissa? The real Melissa, of course. 😉

  16. Pat
    Pat July 16, 2012 10:37 am

    Yeah… but I had visions of them switching places — the ghost Melissa being stronger than the real Melissa.

  17. Claire
    Claire July 16, 2012 10:55 am

    Yeah. Wow. Kent. That’s excellent. Really, really, really. And I’m with Pat that I like the ambiguity: did the “real Melissa” get jolted into life by the ghost or did the ambitious, eager ghost become the real Melissa — and go out and LIVE? And don’t ever answer that question. 🙂

    I had also envisioned Melissa as being as mousy and non-descript as the house (although sort of an arty type stuck in mundane surroundings), but the direction you took her is one I’d never had thought of. You inspire me.

  18. Claire
    Claire July 16, 2012 10:56 am

    Bomb shelter ghost. Yes, very 50s. And the shelter could even be over in the weedy lot, once belonging to the house but now left untenanted after the former owner disappeared …

  19. Matt, another
    Matt, another July 16, 2012 11:04 am

    Ghost storeis are great fun until the day you have to explain to the ghost of your best friend why you are splitting up his gear and cleaning out his apartment. Ghosts can be in denial just as much as the living.

  20. ILTim
    ILTim July 16, 2012 11:57 am

    I liked the movie 1408 about a haunted hotel room. At once it explained, and failed to explain, the mysterious deaths in the room. It makes hauntings out to be like a mental disorder, real or illusion, imagined or induced by an outside force is not (possible to?) explain.

  21. David Lee
    David Lee July 16, 2012 1:24 pm

    Hi Claire, Yes it’s creative house builder here. John Silviera suggested you and I talk . . . or email. Can we?

  22. Mike Porter
    Mike Porter July 16, 2012 1:35 pm

    Haunted by the Ghost of Jimmy Carter and his Community Reinvestment Act. Haunted by the poorly informed if not overtly skullduggerous legislative efforts of Chris Dodd and Barney Frank to strengthen and embolden this bad law. Haunted by the evil stench of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac twisting the arms of lenders so that anybody with a pulse could qualify for a mortgage. Here was a house that could never truly be a home. Here was an aging symbol of all that is progressive and socially just. Here was the rotting example of a twisted sense of fairness meted out by mindless zombie liberals redistributing the wealth of America. Here is the place where the American dream died… the last poniard thrust into the heart, the last paper cut, the last straw. Here was the threshold beyond which the free individual was dragged into servitude.

  23. dean
    dean July 16, 2012 6:33 pm

    I always thought The Lottery was about as creepy as it can get

  24. Jim B.
    Jim B. July 16, 2012 6:43 pm

    Claire,

    I’m pretty sure they didn’t spend all their times together in Independence Hall and at least some of those guys must have gotten together socially from time to time. Their time spent at the Hall does not account for the rivalry between them, in my opinion. Each of them must have had lodging in Phillie.

  25. JG
    JG July 16, 2012 6:56 pm

    The Dulling

    The dusty Subaru station wagon pulled a rented moving trailer off highway 41 onto Hilltop Lane, the gently curving main road of Illtop acres. It was once Hilltop acres, but a combination of weather and surly teens had disposed of the letter H so many times that the Home owner’s association had just given up. Phil and Linda O’Neill, occupants of the Subaru and married for six months, looked through the dirty windshield at lawns that were neither golf course nor jungle. They just were. Ordinary lawns kept by ordinary people. The general pattern set by the original landscaper was followed where applicable, but here and there were variations. Nothing eccentric, just some flowers or shrubs in different locations. They drove slowly, like a pair who knew where they were going and how to get there, but weren’t a hundred percent sure. That is exactly what they were. They had been in the house at number 15 Hilltop Lane exactly twice. Once was with each other, and the other was with a Realtor who described the house as solid, classic, cosy. She actually meant to say that the house was regular, boring, and a bit on the small side. And it was. As they pulled into the drive, number 15 sat there in its lot like a box among boxes. Hilltop acres was composed of very ordinary houses. Number 15 was the most ordinary of them all, if such a thing can be imagined. It was no plainer than any of the other houses. It was not noticeably lacking any of the architectural details of the other houses. It had the same sort of picture window, the same afterthought of a front porch, but something made it duller. The O’Neills noticed it, but barely, like the tag sticking up the wrong way in a shirt. They didn’t say anything to each other about it, because it was nothing to get upset over. They bought the house for all the reasons young couples buy houses, close to work, safe neighborhood, reasonably low price, and a lack of those qualities in other houses on the market.

  26. Claire
    Claire July 16, 2012 8:41 pm

    The Dulling. Oh my lord, I hope there’s more to this story.

    Of course, with a title like The Dulling, you need a nom de plume like … oh, how about Stephen Peasant?

  27. JG
    JG July 17, 2012 9:05 am

    There is more to it than a drive into a subdivision, but where to put it? A comments section of a blog is a cramped home for a story.

  28. Claire
    Claire July 17, 2012 11:08 am

    JG … Agreed. Plugging episodes of “The Dulling” into the comment section here would lead to guaranteed obscurity. I wonder if there are any SF forums out there that might be right for it. There IS a “Writer’s Block” forum (http://thementalmilitia.com/forums/index.php?PHPSESSID=5bo3ituqd1dsl3r6evqvghi221&board=26.0) over at The Mental Militia (formerly The Claire Files) that holds some pretty good work, much of it presented in episodes.

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