Everyday Terrors

For some reason, the notion of ghosts has followed me from early childhood. I blame my mother. For a good, wholesome Nebraska girl, she sure delighted in telling spooky stories. She’d begin a story told by such-and-such, way-back-when, and subtly shift into an untrustworthy narrator. Just like that. Therapy has helped.

I wrote my first story at age six. An underwater adventure, it could best be called derivative. Perhaps I had a gift for writing, or maybe it was self-defense.

Two to three years later came a stunning development in my supernatural education: some television network broadcast Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s astounding novel, The Haunting of Hill House. If you’ve never seen the film, it can scare you sideways. Double that for book. (Personally, I find the resemblance between Shirley Jackson and my mother unsettling.)
Though I’m sure that, at some point, I’d been far more frightened by life than by that film, let’s put it this way: I don’t remember those instances. Not to spoil anything, but, during the scene where the door begins breathing, I was in that room, no other reality within reach. The shock and terror and unstoppable, flowing imagery followed me straight to bed, where I was expected to sleep.

Sometime during that long night (which probably involved 15 minutes of waking consciousness), I began to realize that a relatively clever and devious individual could simply make up a story and scare people silly. (I don’t remember if I shared this realization with my mother.) I do, however, recall that the next time that The Haunting came on television, I asked if could tape it with the family tape recorder. I’m not sure how this happened, but my parents said yes. To be perfectly frank, they probably had started worrying about me long before that.
Time passed, and, at a second-hand, paperback bookstore that my family often frequented, I found a book full of true ghost stories. They had to be true—it said so right on the cover. It might have been a Frank Edwards collection. I liked his books quite a lot, and the story of the Romanian girl attacked by an invisible vampire (while the police watched the bite marks appear) truly freaked me the hell out. Hey, it says it’s all true. Right on the cover.

Those books probably provided much inspiration when I finally connected the dots and realized that I could tell ghost stories, and people would completely lose their minds, particularly when those people were my cousins, clustered together in my aunt’s stone fruit cellar. With the door shut. Atmosphere makes such a difference.

Life rudely drew my attention from ghost stories, but something—a mysterious presence, let us say—remained. I’m not much on horror movies. It’s just not my thing. But a new ghost film, hmm, I might give it a chance. (As with most ghost hunters, I almost always come away disheartened.) I grew up and I calmed down, and, though I tried not to work for the clampdown, I favored blue and brown. By chance, I found one of those true ghost story collections in a favorite bookstore and, on impulse, bought it. I didn’t even know why. Perhaps I was beginning to feel the weight of responsibility and needed a vacation I couldn’t afford to take.

I learned an amazing thing, though. True ghost stories, read right before bed, relaxed me. Maybe they echoed from childhood; maybe they blunted the future. No matter how it worked, reading true ghost stories became my go-to when I wanted to loosen up before sleep. (Not insomnia. That usually required turning to Being and Nothingness.)

So I’ve been reading these damned things for years. It’s gratifying to read the good ones, but I’m not sure that it matters. What matters is the story. I can hold aside hyperbole, credulity, and even grammar for a solid ghost story that brings the chills and fills the shadows with unease. Maybe it feels like home.

Which is a long way to say I’ve written a new, full-length play, and it’s a ghost story. Somehow, I feel like I’ve been writing it for years.

Samples from the Other Side

The Splatterverse now includes excerpts from some of my plays, in case anyone wants to do some casual reading.

Rather than pick the most dramatic points in the works, I thought it more interesting to find moments that caught the flavor or spirit of the play, the characters, or the situation. If nothing else, I hope they’re vaguely entertaining:


The New Thing

I’ve been away from the blog for awhile for (I think) a reasonable reason: I’ve been writing. Seriously.

I took the morning off from writing and spent some time reading my friend Jack Boulware’s very sharp and funny book Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day. You should check it out: it’ll make you want to immediately dye your hair green and stick a safety pin through your cheek.

I felt like I had the carte blanche to blow off the muse for the morning because yesterday I finished typing up Immaterial Matters, a new, full-length drama with which I am very, very pleased. I’m never a very good judge of my own work. First off, you’re always in love with a play when you’re writing it, even if it’s putting you through fits. Second, others often really like the stuff I end up a little indifferent to, and the work I become besotted with tends to be the stuff that generates an “eh” from others. I have no explanation for this, other than I have perverse taste. Sometimes, it ends up being vindicated; sometimes it just stays perverse.

But this one feels a little different. Writing’s generally hard, hard work, even when it goes well, but this thing was just a breeze from beginning to end. In fact, it was coming so easily that it began to freak me out—like I’d inevitably sit down with the notebook one day and be suddenly dry, dry, dry. Never happened. It was always there for me when I called upon it, which is a joy. It continually surprised me—another good sign—and, when I was typing it up (I write all my drafts in longhand, then type them, revising as I go), I’d slightly change a line, then pause and change it back to the original. This almost never happens.

So I don’t know. But I’m guardedly optimistic. As to the play itself: it’s set in 1880s, and it’s about a photographer, death, and a ghost.

And that’s about all I’m saying for now.


You can’t shake ’em. Sometimes, it seems like everything belongs to the past. Recedes into sepia. And you begin to count how many people who shaped you have disappeared. How do you go forward? What should you do with the time ahead? Should you move on or cling and cherish? Can you do both? Living in the present with a head full of shadows, as though cast by drifting smoke.

I think of my parents’ generation who lived through that godawful war, so much…unbelievable…loss, yet they carried on. That sadness though, it clung to the plastic and pastel and finned cars and sweet music. Like the black line thrown by a flashbulb, just a fraction behind, and somewhere in the eyes of old photographs lies a hidden darkness.

It takes a lifetime to recognize it. And then–ha! surprise!–it’s too late to say: I understand. I get it.

And you wouldn’t anyway. You’d just know. Because that’s the way they got through it. You’d just sit quietly, joke, talk about the weather.

There’ll be blue birds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow, just you wait and see

The Dead are Coming

“Dead of Winter,” that is. We’re working on it. Rehearsals are going very well, and Saturday we move into the space, at which point the action takes off until a week from Friday, when we unleash this sucker on the world. I know it’s my show, and I know everybody says this, but I really encourage folks to check it out because it has a really good feel to it.

Stay turned for a video on the Bluestockings site. Coming soon.


Blogging with Ghosts

So it’s no news to regular splattworks readers that I’m co-producing Dead of Winter, three ghost stories written for the stage, with Portland’s The Bluestockings (we open February 1st, run through February 23rd, blah blah blah). But as kind of a fun rehearsal night off/group activity/weird adventure, I’m booked to stay Friday night at Portland’s notoriously haunted White Eagle Tavern, which has been lovingly restored as a hotel, and the cast and crew are going to drop by as my guests. We’ll tell some ghost stories, maybe watch the classic 1964, black and white version of The Haunting. And, of course, drink. Good times…we hope.

But, since the Eagle is set up with wireless Internet, we’re also hoping to blog live from the site, so, if you’re curious, check in with this blog starting around 9:00 PM tomorrow, and see what, if anything, happens. (That is, of course, assuming the equipment doesn’t suddenly cease to function for unexplainable reasons.) My suspicion is that we’ll have some fun and ghosts will be scarce, but I suppose you never know. This isn’t a public event–it’s a private party–but the blog is a way for those outside the cast and crew to vicariously join the festivities. So log on, turn the lights down, put on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and come along for the ride.

For the record, the story has it that the upstairs, where I’ll be, ahem, sleeping, is haunted by Rose, a prostitute who was murdered on the premises, and Sam, an alcoholic handyman sort of “adopted” by the original tavern owners and who spent most of his life, between and sometimes during binges, on-site. Sam also occasionally pulls a prank or two on the ground floor, but most of the spirits there are in bottles. There’s also a malevolent presence in the Eagle’s basement, but that’s off-limits to guests, and, having once visited it in the company of McMenamin’s resident historian, I can say I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in ever going down there again…if you get my drift. I don’t really know whether or not I believe in ghosts, but, having gone down there, I do believe I don’t want to go there again. Seriously.

My ancestors may be Irish, where ghosts come with the property deed, but some basements you just don’t want to mess with….

Finally, it’s worth noting that something strange seems to be in air this winter: Dead of Winter will be the third Portland production in a month’s time that has to do with ghosts, the other two being Third Rail Repertory’s Shining City and Theatre Vertigo’s Where’s My Money? (Both worth seeing.) And we’re all working independently of each other and didn’t really know about each other’s show’s paranormal aspects until the shows went up. How…odd.

Just Plain Dead

There is no fatigue like theatre fatigue.

It’s like getting caught in a riptide. At night. In cold water. You just have to ride it and hope you’ll stay afloat until it lets go of you, and you can drift back to shore, which, depending on the show, will be opening or closing night.

Which is to say, I’m deep in the wild of rehearsals, press, phone calls, e-mails, and errands for Dead of Winter and, actually, having an absolutely wonderful time. (Only people who have been there understand the pleasure of hearing themselves say, “Do we have enough gels?”) If you don’t fight the riptide, you can enjoy the ride…like you can enjoy riding a motorcycle on wet pavement. It’s still tough, tiring work, but it has its pleasures, and one of those is watching the play (or plays, in this case) take shape, rolling into focus, the actors taking your words and building people out of them. I’ve been doing this for…for some time, let’s say, and I still marvel at images and sounds swirling around my head ending up as words on a page, then becoming characters who you care about, hate, laugh at, or, in the case of these ghost stories, creep the hell out of you. It’s seriously weird to be watching something I wrote and feeling the hair rise on my arms. At one point, if anyone had been looking at me instead of the actors, I probably would have seemed stricken because I was pretty much thinking: Jesus, what kind of sick bastard wrote this?

All good signs, but I’m way too close to it to judge. I do marvel, however, at the director’s craft, which makes all these various elements somehow come together. I have an idea how it works and I’ve directed a time or two, but it’s just fascinating to watch someone who knows what she’s doing (in this case, Lisa Abbott) make it synch up, connect, and work. I can roughly imagine how it’ll look, sound, and feel, but the director knows, and she’s shaping the clay in four dimensions. It’s amazing.

And I know my company, Pavement Productions, is the co-producer (with Portland’s The Bluestockings), but damn if this thing doesn’t feel like it has potential. The actors are working like hell, the designers are coming up with great stuff, and, well, I’ve said my piece about the director. When all the elements come together….

Though it sounds like a cliche, given that these are plays about ghosts, it feels like there’s something spooky going on here. Some kind of…voodoo. And that’s what theatre’s all about.

Now if I can just keep my head above water.

Nineteen days to go….

Where DO you get your ideas?

First, in February I’m producing “Dead of Winter: Three Ghost Stories for the Stage”—we have auditions for the men’s roles this weekend—and I’m currently rereading “Oregon Ghosts” (seems we have a lot of them), so ghosts have been much on my mind of late.

Second, I love dreams. Here you put in a tough day doing…whatever it is you do, lay down your head, welcome oblivion…and suddenly it’s psychedelic cabaret, the nightly David Lynch film. (Because, let’s be honest, David Lynch films are movies about dreams being movies.)

Third, last night I’m dreaming that my house has a little ghost problem. I’m talking about it to a sympathetic friend, and, while we’re talking, doors and cupboards are opening and closing by themselves. Only they’re doing so in just a way that, well, it could be the wind. My friend is trying to get me to take this seriously, while I’m like, well, the wind thing. Denial lives strong in dreams. The door to the room eases shut in that subtle wind way, and my friend points. The antique glass doorknob is slowly turning back and forth. I open the door. No one there.

Meanwhile, much else is going on in the dream: we just got two puppies…and a horse. And all my friends are saying, man, that spider on your porch. Have you seen that thing? You should use that in one of your plays. (My real friends seldom say things like that.) But have you see that spider on the—?

All right! I go out on the porch to check out this spider, and instead there are two little old ladies out there. Sitting side by side. Each has a tiny puppy on their lap, and they’re petting them in synchronous motion. Maltese puppies. And these two ladies have these Maltesesque bowl haircuts of silver and small, round, gnomelike faces. They’re smiling at me, and the puppies are staring at me, cocking their heads, and the two ladies seem to be enwrapped in a gold, summery light, utterly gorgeous until I notice that the ladies are also faintly criss-crossed with spider webs. And I slowly look up to see, above them, a common gold and black garden spider, your typical two-inch Argiope …but this one’s about the size of a dinner plate.

And then, gentle reader, the alarm clock wakes me.

Wearing the Producer’s Hat

It’s pointy, like the ones they used to make bad kids wear at school, and it never quite fits right, always slipping down over your eyes at inopportune moments.

Last time I counted, I think I’ve produced 25 shows, only one of which failed to break even. I think that’s a decent track record for a frankly perilous endeavor. The last time around was so completely exhausting and disappointing–in terms of ticket sales, artistically it was excellent, which made the small audiences even more frustrating–that I put the pointy hat on the shelf for five years and concentrated on writing plays and letting others produce them.

Part of the reason, however, that I got into producing was that I just wasn’t seeing certain kinds of plays–strange, unkempt, orignal–being produced in Portland. There’s a lot more work being produced here these days; so much so that it’s hard to see everything one would like. This time, I’m dusting off the pointy hat because I want to produce something that seems like a total blast and an easy sell. In other words, I’m in it for the fun.

That is, next February, my company Pavement Productions is co-producing with Portland’s The Bluestockings three ghost stories I’ve written for the stage: Whitechapel, Wet Paint, and The Body. The whole evening will be called Dead of Winter (going up in February), and every time I tell someone about it, they get that weird sparkle in their eyes that tells me it’s a good idea (and people will come). When you can write the press release in your head, you’re on the right track.

The thing about producing is this: it will take you over. You are the go-to person when things go wrong, when little things need attention, and there are always details that have to be addressed, whether it’s making sure you make press deadlines or procure that goofy little prop no one seems to be able to find. It’s taught me a decent lesson about life, though: when you think you can’t give anymore, push a little harder, and you’ll find you have more to give. It’s an opening to a process bigger than yourself. That’s why it’s tough. That’s why it’s also rewarding. And when the pieces come together and things go right, it’s a wonderful, hard-charging high. As Neil Young sings: “With trunks of memories still to come.”

And there’s always that last moment, when the show is over and the set’s been struck, and you’re done with cleaning up the trash and boxing up the pieces, when you’re alone in the theatre for the last time and have to turn out the lights. That moment belongs to the producer alone. That moment can be worth the journey.