A while back I was in a writing program, working on a novel I haven’t yet published (but plan to soon) as well as short stories, one of which got published in the Georgetown Review. These were more in the literary fiction vein than my more recent YA fiction, but one consistent aspect caught a friend’s attention. She noticed that, in some form or another (metaphorically or otherwise), my writing always featured a ghost. She asked why I didn’t just write a ghost story since it seemed I wanted to, at least sub-consciously (she even presented me with a collection ghost stories she found in a used book store, which I appreciated). Actually, it was a good idea. Still, it would be a while before I acted on her suggestion.
That first novel did get an agent but didn’t get published traditionally, which was a disappointing moment in my life. It was something of a literary ghost story and I do intend to revisit it at some point in the not too distant future. At the time, though, I was discouraged and decided it was time to take things in a different direction. I started dabbling with YA fiction and, sure enough, both Jump When Ready and Streetlights Like Fireworks turned out to be ghost stories, at least in a way. They aren’t straight-ahead, classic ghost stories and they definitely aren’t horror stories but each novel is at least partly about a ghost or ghosts (as well as how the living interact with those ghosts).
In a recent post, I talked about how writing a story set in the afterlife can start to mess with your head. After all, most of the time we don’t go through the day pondering what it might be like to be dead (at least, I would hope not). Since Jump When Ready is about the afterlife, I figured I’d start out there while also hoping this doesn’t turn into some sort of paranormal blog (after all, I’m bound to write something one of these days featuring entirely living characters). But I also thought it would be fitting to talk about some paranormal (or possibly paranormal) experiences I’ve had, or that people I know have had. I’ve wondered for a while why I remain at least subconsciously preoccupied with ghosts, which is presumably why they keep creeping up in my fiction (right, “creeping”—see what I did there?). Who knows? Maybe it’s because I’ve had a few strange experiences in the past and these experiences have stayed with me (and maybe part of me has always been waiting for an explanation).
I think most of us have had some sort of paranormal experience (or at least a weird, difficult to explain, experience) and while we don’t usually talk about these events, they come out every so often. Usually, these stories see daylight only after a few beers or glasses of wine have been shared and, typically, these conversations aren’t acknowledged all that much the next day. As mentioned, I’ve been thinking about some of my more strange experiences lately and it occurred to me that several of them had to do with specific rooms in specific places. Were these locations haunted? Not sure. Maybe…
Do I believe in ghosts? Sometimes I do, and at other times I’d rather not. The idea of someone being trapped, wandering the earth for a possible eternity just leaves me feeling depressed. But, on three occasions, I did have to wonder.
One day when I was a kid, while visiting my friend Sean’s house, I asked him why one of the bedrooms remained empty even though he and his siblings all shared rooms. He simply said, “No one likes that room,” and left it at that. Years later, in early high school, we were hanging out one night at his house when the rest of his family was away (I can’t recall now why Sean didn’t go with them) and, when I decided it was time to go home, he mentioned more than once that maybe I should stay over. I reminded him that I lived down the street and I walked home later wondering why he seemed so uneasy at the prospect of being alone in his own house. Now, granted, we were still pretty young but I was old enough to reflect on how delighted I’d be to stay up all night watching TV and wiping out all the snack foods. Maybe Sean was just afraid of being alone in an empty house. Or, maybe the house wasn’t empty. Eventually, Sean’s mother informed mine that their house was, indeed, haunted. She said each of the kids had been able to see the ghost (a woman, evidently) when they were very young and each of them had lost that ability in time. Sean’s mother told mine she could see the ghost herself and, while her husband could not, he always knew when the ghost was in the room since he’d feel a chill. According to her, he’d typically ask if the ghost had joined them so she could confirm. For the record, these weren’t new age, woo-woo types. Sean’s mother was a dental hygienist, his father worked in advertising and they were pretty conservative, as I recall—basically a typical Irish-Catholic suburban family. I never did find out any more about that unused bedroom in their house but it seems like something must have happened there at some time in the past. Or maybe it just had bad ventilation. Who knows, right?
I don’t know what was up with my friends’ houses but a few years later, during summer break, I made plans to go hit a few bars in town with my old friend, Matt. Another friend of ours was going away with his family and he mentioned that, if Matt and I needed a place to sleep it off after bar hopping, we could find a key to his house hidden in a certain spot (looking back, it does seem a rather unusual invitation but we didn’t think anything of it at the time). So, late that night we decided we were, in fact, not fit to drive home and took our friend up on his offer. I should add here that the friend who offered his house as a crash pad for his buddies had lost his father to diabetes complications a few years before. So, we were bunking down on the living room sofas and I had no idea if Matt was still awake across the room when the pounding started on the ceiling. This was not a light tapping sound. This was a loud, insistent hammering, like someone repeatedly stomping on the floor (I know what you’re thinking but this wasn’t like a rattling pipe or anything; again, this was a furious repeated pounding). Matt’s voice came from across the room (yes, he was awake now if he wasn’t before). “Do you hear that?” he asked. I assure him that I definitely heard it. That pounding went on for quite a while, coming in sporadic bursts that, to this day, I can’t help remember as sounding angry. The message really did seem clear: Get out of my house, you drunk assholes! You’d think we would have left but we were buzzed enough that we stayed right on those couches waiting it out. Eventually, the pounding stopped and we managed to get some sleep but we left early the next morning and never forgot that weird experience.
A few years later, still during college, I rented a house along with several friends. And there was this one bedroom downstairs…yes, you guessed it. We all tried it and no one stayed long. In many ways, this was the prime bedroom choice since, being the only one on that floor, it offered the most privacy (at least after everyone else went upstairs). I slept in that room only once and had horrible nightmares in which I imagined people screaming. The other roommates all admitted they couldn’t rest well in that room either. One day, we met a mother and young son living in a nearby house and, while we were talking, her son said, “Mom, are you going to tell them about the house?” The woman tried to shush him, but we convinced her that we wanted to know and she informed us that there had been a fire in the house we’d rented and, yes, people had died. She said people in the town had raised funds to help the surviving homeowner rebuild but eventually he’d moved away and the present owners used it only as a rental. As you can imagine, that unused bedroom remained empty during the remainder of our rental term. I probably don’t have to tell you that when our lease was up the following spring, we didn’t renew.
I hope I didn’t disappoint you with these primarily indirect “paranormal” experiences. I do realize there might well have been “rational” alternative explanations in all three cases. And, no, I’ve never seen a ghost (nor would I want to). If trapped souls wander among us, I’d rather leave those encounters to expert paranormal investigators like the Ghost Hunters. Although, in Streetlights Like Fireworks, it’s one of Lauren’s pet peeves that the professional paranormal investigators sometimes find the ghost but never actually do anything for the ghost. Nope, they just leave the trapped soul forever trapped and move on to the next episode. Talk about rubbing salt in a wound. Not only are you trapped in some in-between state with no evident escape but you also end up being cable TV entertainment fodder. Yeah, perfect. If as if death isn’t scary enough. Add that as a possible outcome and it’s definitely enough to keep you hitting the gym.
I was going to mention some other odd experiences, some that circle back to thoughts about the possibility of reincarnation and others that might fall (very loosely) into the intuitive or psychic categories (I think we all have some of those too but we often call them hunches and the like) but this post has gotten longer than expected so I’ll save those for another time.
So, readers and writers, what about you? Do you think you might be compelled to read or write about paranormal experiences because you believe there’s a kernel of truth to them? Maybe more than a kernel? Have you had experiences of your own that are difficult to explain? Or do you just like to read and write about this kind of thing even though you don’t actually believe in the paranormal at all? Let me know if you’ve had any interesting experiences that might be described as paranormal. Maybe give me a shout after you’ve had that third glass of wine and feel like talking about it.