Not Your Usual Ghost Stories

In Evanston today, the weather is finally kicking into autumnal gear. There’s a chilly rain, the sky is dismal and the leaves are falling. My coffee pot just finished brewing and I’m ready to write…about something creepy. Bwa-ha-ha! With Halloween fast approaching, I thought it would be fun to share some spooky reads as I’ve done before [Halloween Treats For All]…

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I must first preface that I’m intrigued by reading people’s allegedly true accounts of their paranormal experiences. Do you like to scare the crap out of yourself like me? Then besides one of these reads, I suggest watching some episodes of Paranormal Witness. That show will have you sleeping with the lights on…

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And because I’m curious for reading accounts of people’s strange experiences, it’s had a little impact on my writing. My new thriller Veleno (which takes place during Venice’s plague of 1575) contains a few paranormal moments. These moments take place when a character is in extreme peril. Thus, I played with the question…was their experience real, or was it the mind’s reaction to stress?

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I was inspired in part by the spooky things people say have actually happened to them…

My dad and I regularly exchange books by snail mail. We also occasionally amuse ourselves with conversations about ghosts, Bigfoot, tales of coincidence, etc. It was a conversation about strange coincidences that had him send me a book about police accounts of the paranormal. The book was True Police Stories of the Strange and Unexplained by retired detective sergeant Ingrid Dean…

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I’m going to tell you frankly, these are scary accounts that are unique to paranormal stories. Why? Because police and emergency technicians are the first to arrive at the scenes where bad things have, or are about to, happen. They are also often out on patrol in the middle of the night, having to inspect strange calls. After reading Ms. Dean’s compilation of accounts, not only was I both a bit frightened and perplexed, but I’d gained an even greater respect for those who keep our community safe…

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Having found these accounts so unique, I decided to also read Cops’ True Stories of the Paranormal: Ghosts, UFO’s and Other Shivers by Loren Christensen. Yikes! I was terribly jumpy after reading this one…

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Take for example the first account…

Two police officers are on a high speed chase. The man they are following refuses to pull over and is driving recklessly. When entering a road tunnel, this man sadly loses control of his vehicle and crashes. The police pull up behind the wrecked vehicle just in time to see the man climb out of his driver’s side window and run down the tunnel. The police chase the man on foot for a distance. But then, the man disappears. Where did he go? The police search, no trace of the man. They return to the crashed vehicle only to discover that the man never left his car. He’s still behind the wheel, having passed away on impact. And yet, two officers witnessed him hopping out and running

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That gave me something to think about.

My view is that both of these books are for mature readers because they deal with some perilous happenings. With that being said, they both remained reverent when explaining real life situations. These accounts focus on the strange things police saw and experienced, rather than on people’s misfortunes.

These were not your usual ghost stories. Let’s just say, I’m glad I’m not an officer called out to investigate strange goings on in a desolate field in the middle of the night…

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I am also very glad that I’m not a truck driver out driving in the middle of the night…

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Since the police accounts were not your average ‘what goes bump in the night’ stories, I figured truckers probably see some strange things too. They do. No thanks!

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Imagine having to drive through dark, vast, desolate roadways for a living. All alone. Tired and lonesome. Keeping an eye out for deer, coyotes, or the rare hitchhiker. But wait…perhaps you’re not as alone as you think? Have fun reading Trucker Ghost Stories edited by Annie Wilder. Yikes! Super yikes!

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My dad just sent me this one. Ghost Ships of the Great Lakes by Dwight Boyer. He said after I read this book, I’d never look out over the lake in the same way again. I live just a few blocks away from the often turbulent waters of Lake Michigan, just north of Chicago.

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I would only suggest such a read if you are nutty for history, and for maritime history in particular. I read several of the historic accounts, and they are not so much ghostly as they are mysterious. Hundreds of ships have gone missing on America’s Great Lakes over the centuries, and the stories surrounding some of these vanishings definitely gave me the heebie-jeebies…

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You learn of the real people who were sailing, the wild storms and the dangerous feats they endured, and the strange facts surrounding their disappearances. I simply can’t imagine it. I could never be a sailor. They were beyond brave.

I admit that if I’m down near the lake on a stormy day, I now might look twice for any mysterious vessels floating by in the distance…

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Now if you’re inclined to give your brain a good shaking up, which apparently I do, there’s a few unique books out there about folks’ near death experiences, and of the doctors and scientists who are either working to support or debunk such claims. I’ve just picked up My Time in Heaven by Richard Sigmund, but have not read it yet. I have read Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences by Jeffrey Long & Paul Perry however, and it definitely offered me lots to contemplate…

Mind boggling. It’s all mind boggling…

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I can’t finish my brief list of the paranormal, strange, spectacular, spooky and harrowing without mentioning Spook: Science Tackles The Afterlife by Mary Roach. Mary Roach is one of my absolute favorite authors. I’ve reviewed some of her other books here and here. This book takes a scientific view of life after death by reviewing those people, past or present, who have used experimentation to answer, What happens when we pass on? I recommend Ms. Roach’s books because she makes difficult science digestible, and is terribly hilarious and clever. Spook is not only entertaining and informative, but it will also have you looking over your shoulder for ghosts…yikes!

*Disclaimer: Be sure to read these books with all of the lights on. After reading, watch a Disney movie and sing along to the happy songs, so that you aren’t too frightened when it’s time to turn the lights off and go to bed.

The House of the Seven Gables

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Salem, Massachusetts in the month of October just before Halloween…

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The golden leaves were falling, grey skies and misty rain made the cobblestone pathways and colonial buildings feel mysterious. Handsome and I even traipsed out into a desolate field to visit one noteworthy graveyard, filled with tombstones from the Salem Witch Trials

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The Salem Witch Trials were a very frightening and grim part of American History. 200 innocent people were tried for witchcraft, ending with 20 of them being sentenced to death. I was sincerely touched to see the American flags dotted around this graveyard, honoring those innocent lives…

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We also wandered by the chilly ocean wharf, with no particular place in mind to head to. There, we stumbled upon an old house of unknown historical significance. And on that day (lucky for us), there was a little tour of the premises…

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This, is the House of the Seven Gables. It is the oldest mansion to be made of wood and still standing in Salem. It was built in 1668! For American architecture, this is considered ancient. We had to go inside!

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Unfortunately, I didn’t use my camera inside. Unlikely because they didn’t allow photos, but rather that I was too mesmerized by the old rooms. Visit here to see detailed photos and descriptions…

It was an amazingly restored house, where I was instantly transported back in time. I imagined cooking before the enormous stone hearth, stitching in the dainty sitting room, gathering around the table in the esteemed dining chamber, or even sneaking up a secret stairway hidden behind the wall…

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On the day we visited, it was autumn, late afternoon and rather gloomy. The natural lighting that came into the house did little to light our way through. So of course, I had all kinds of shadowy images in my mind of what it would have been like to live in that house in the late 1600’s, the sea turbulent just outside, a stormy night, the briny smell in the air, a crackling fire and candlelight playing upon the walls. And remember…the Salem Witch Trials were happening just outside…eeeeekkk!

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Some time after that visit to Salem, I’m at a garage sale with my mom. I see this book in a box and I blurt out loud, “I’ve been in that house!” Both my mom and the house owner raising an eyebrow at my random revelation. A few crinkled dollars and the book was mine!

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The House of the Seven Gables was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne (the author of The Scarlet Letter) in 1851. His cousin, Susanna Ingersoll, owned the home at this time, and Hawthorne visited her there. Thus, he knew the house intimately and used it as the stage for one bone-chilling tale…

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Hawthorne also had ancestors that were involved with the witch trials; he was steadfastly inspired by this. The House of the Seven Gables begins with an execution for witchcraft, an occasion that then haunts the generations who live in the home…

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I just read the book, which I did not consider the easiest read, yet which I could not put down. Some parts felt maddeningly in-depth (deep observations and winding verse). But then, a mere page later and I’d find myself once more in the throes of this haunting tale. The book is considered a romance; I would call it a macabre romance, inexplicably blooming under creepy, depressing circumstances…

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If you are interested in colonial or Puritan American history, I hope you make it to Salem. We visited some remarkable historic landmarks in both Boston and Salem, and I’ve an itch to go back to see more! I also especially enjoyed it with an autumnal setting, the fresh ocean air, and the best lobster I’ve ever eaten in my life.

If you are looking for a dark read with historic value, you might enjoy The House of the Seven Gables. It’s a cerebral tale of one shadowy seaside house that though I visited in real life, am very glad not to have visited as Hawthorne described it!

Consider The Mask

For hundreds of years, the citizens of Venice wore masks. That statement sounds so simple, so natural, right? After all, it’s one of the images we associate with that city. It is intriguing, beautiful, mysterious…

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But after all of my research for my book Venice, and while currently reading Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic by James H. Johnson, I’ve realized how absolutely amazing, bizarre, intense and committed the notion of mask wearing in Venice really was.

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Consider this…it’s Halloween, you pick out a disguise and you put it on for one evening to join in the fun when you hand out candy to the trick-or-treaters. What happens after about an hour? “Ugh, I can’t see in this thing. Ugh…this mask is making me hot. Ugh…I feel claustrophobic.”

Now imagine that you are an 18th century Venetian at a time when the Carnival season lasted for months. Every single time you stepped out in public, whether to shop for your vegetables or visit a friend, you covered your face in a mask. Whether a simple disguise for walking around town, or an incredibly intricate mask for an evening of palazzo entertainments, you always had a different identity plastered to your face, and you were anyone but yourself.

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People placed masks on their babies. Yes, it’s true. Beggars on the bridges who were going without food, wore a mask. It’s true. Everyone was masked. And when you mingled with the crowds, whether on the street or at a masquerade, if you recognized the voice or mannerisms of someone you met, you never said so. To bring someone’s identity to light was considered rude.

I’m fascinated from a communication standpoint, of what that might have really been like. An entire city masked for months (and a great portion of the city masked all the rest of the year as well during the great heights of this trend). How did your personality change when you put that mask on, and depending on which mask you put on? What was it like trying to discern the real message behind someone’s words when all you had was a faux face and a voice, with no facial expressions to evaluate? How did you know whether anyone was ever being themselves? It’s dizzying to think about.

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These masks weren’t all blank disguises. There were a great many designs and characters to choose from. Wouldn’t the mask someone selected mean something? But what? Who the wearer thought they were? Or, was it how they wanted others to see them? Or, were they choosing identities that were the very opposite of their true selves? All of the above. Tricky, tricky.

Some masks didn’t allow for speech at all, removing even more of one’s personal identity. Consider the Moretta mask that was worn only by women. For the Moretta (also called the Muta because you’d be mute), a woman put it over her face and instead of securing it in place with a ribbon around her head, held it to with a button in her mouth. Can you imagine? A button in your mouth for hours on end, in silence? Talk about “Ugh…I’m getting claustrophobic.”

These thoughts hardly even scratch the surface when I actually try to consider the reality of this mask culture. And though I would merrily embrace an evening at the Venetian Carnival in mask, and though researching this Venetian trend fascinates me, for all its beauty and intrigue, I personally prefer the truth of a human face…