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.