The Grinder

The Grinder

I don’t believe in “Writer’s Block”, but the past six months have been hard for me as a writer while I deal with health issues, and I’ve definitely been knocked out of my daily routine. In spite of that I pulled off another NaNoWriMo successfully even with a crappy story. Why? I like being a writer; I like writing, the act of shaping a story from nothing. This is so much truer for me now as it is one of the few things in my life I control. The problem is that I am also still human complete with the sea of emotions that everyone else has, and there have been too many days since the last week of August where I did no writing.

Still, I get back on the horse and gallop back into the grinder.

On those days I don’t feel like writing I hear M.Emmet Walsh’s voice in my head speaking his line as Bryant from “Blade Runner”:

“If you’re not cops, you’re little people.”

In this scene, Decker has been detained and brought to Bryant and reinstated as a Blade Runner involuntarily. I relate to both Decker and Bryant on my non-writing days. Decker doesn’t want to go back to his old job. He’s clearly beaten by the past, and knows the many downsides. Bryant needs Decker because he’s the best at tracking down replicants. Decker resumes his job, hunts down his target, and mostly gets his ass kicked. In the end he is ultimately rescued by the last replicants, Roy Batty, the most dangerous one on his list, as his fingers slip off the ledge. Like Batty, my writing usually ends up saving the day in ways I would never have discovered had I not written at all.

(If I just spoiled Blade Runner for you that’s your problem, you had 34 years to see it, loser.)

Since I began this new writer’s life I have established a set of rules, some of which I have posted here already. These rules are subject to change, and are ignored whenever they get in the way of the story…except one.

The Exchange Rule: On days you don’t feel like writing – write something else.

This means that on a day when you’re second-guessing your latest novel, questioning your direction in life, or feel the need to wallow in a puddle of negativity you still have to write. Write anything. Write about why you think you’re shit. Write about how life has peed in your pool. Write about your cat, dog, turtle, or that one drawer in the kitchen. The point is that even though your novel is sidelined you haven’t walked away from the table. You are still producing content.

Here’s the thing, writers write. If you’re not a writer, you’re little people.



You want to be in the club? Write. That’s all you have to do. That steaming pile of self-indulgent ooze you just wrote about your long dead dog just put you ahead on 99.999999% of the human race who didn’t write jack-shit today.

You won.


Tomorrow you get back into the game working on your big project and do so until the next time. When that time comes, write something else, but just write.

I started “Short Story Tuesday” back in the summer in between novels. The mission is to write a new short story before I go to bed on Tuesday night. I started looking forward to Tuesdays because it was a day off from writing…while I was still writing, and since I was not working on a novel this gave me six days to revise the better stories. I basically found a way to keep writing while fooling myself into thinking I wasn’t writing. Not every story was good, a few stank, but it kept me in the game.



Van Halen and 1978

1978 was a good year for me. I graduated from the 8th grade, and started high school. On the third Monday of September, 1978 (the 18th), I walked into 6th period guitar class after dropping an English class because the teacher sucked and I felt my time was better spent ditching school. The class was my councilor’s way of keeping in school the entire day. 1978 was a good year because I had discovered rock music in a big way, and was growing a record collection along with my brother. We were buying the classics, and we were catching up with the current top bands like Led Zeppelin, KISS, Ted Nugent, ACDC, Cheap Trick, and others.

van halen 1

In February of 1978 my brother bought Van Halen’s self-titled debut album in Modesto a few days after its release. This was a southern California band that we’d been reading about in B.A.M. Magazine (Bay Area Music, a free newsprint tabloid found in racks by record store checkout counters everywhere back then) in the back columns that covered the far end of the state. The buzz surrounding the band was significant. So the first thing we did when we got home was put the record onto the turntable and drop the needle.

Running with the Devil announced itself with car horns morphing into a landing alien space ship sound, followed by a thumping bass, and then a powerful guitar. Not just powerful, but the sound was fat, and rich. Good rock song, the solo is cool, but nothing to get excited about.

The next track was Eruption.

Holy fucking shit.

The track is 102 seconds long, nothing but Eddie Van Halen playing the crap out of his guitar. My brother had to listen to it three times before letting the needle advance to the third track. I can say two things: I was born in a world before man had walked on the moon, and I was born in a world before Edward Van Halen knocked rock guitar on its ass.

You Really Got Me was the third track, and the band does more than just cover the Kinks’ classic, they almost reinvent it by putting their stamp on the music. They even managed to leave a verse from the original song out and nobody noticed. That would become Van Halen’s signature: Where does a 500-pound gorilla sit? Anywhere it wants to.

Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love is where the legend of Van Halen started for me. That fat, perfect, heavy sounding guitar opens the song with a staccato arpeggio that wants to take your head off and slam-dunk it. The song itself was written as a parody of punk rockers that shared the L.A. music scene at the time, and it’s only two chords, but God damn it they get more mileage out of those two chords than some bands could with their entire albums. The song has a belligerent attitude. The song does not feature a great guitar solo, but it fits the song (and that’s important).

On the 5th track that guitar solo problem is resolved. I’m the One is wall-to-wall blistering guitar over a swinging shuffle rhythm. This is where Eddie stood out. When handed a standard I-IV-V-I blues progression he takes the format to another dimension and puts frosting on it, frosting with sprinkles. Even when he drops into a blues-style it’s nothing we’ve heard before. The song’s highlight is the acapella break after the guitar solo. Van Halen was a package deal that featured incredible backing harmonies from bass player, Michael Anthony, and Eddie Van Halen behind lead singer, David Lee Roth.

We listened to that first side of Van Halen a second time before flipping the disk over to the second side.

Jamie’s Cryin’ kicks off Side Two. It’s a conventional song written while they were on the studio, and it was clearly for the radio.

The real action follows on track #7 with Atomic Punk. The song is aggressive and excessive and fast, and it’s the kind of song that would take your lunch money. This song is drawn from a well that continues to serve Van Halen to this day.

Feel Your Love is mostly a forgettable song. Sorry, it just is.

Little Dreamer is about as close as Van Halen got to a ballad with Roth as their singer. It works on a couple of levels. Roth’s lyrics paint a dark picture of a doomed woman, but unlike the thousands of other songs written by L.A. bands on this very topic, it is not specific to Hollywood. In fact, in none of the tracks does Roth mention L.A., Hollywood, or Southern California at all, and that is something song writers can learn from today.

Roth’s acoustic guitar playing opens Ice Cream Man on the next track. The album’s second cover song, this one was written by John Brim, a Chicago Bluesman, in 1953 (originally recorded at Chess Records). The anticipation while waiting for the rest of the band to kick in is rewarded. Again we see Eddie handed a blues song only to morph it into something new.

The final track is On Fire, and made of the same driving force that Atomic Punk and Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love are forged from.

Van Halen was recorded in three weeks for around $40,000 and as of this time has sold 10 million copies.

Here’s the thing, I liked the album but I didn’t love it. Not at first anyway. After I began to play the guitar I started to listen to it more, but as a novice I couldn’t relate to anything Eddie Van Halen was doing. Which leads me to the rest of the story…

I learned to play guitar in about an hour. I’m saying I was awesome, but I could strum a tune, and then remember it and play it again. I bought music books for my favorite albums and learned to play all of my favorite songs at the basic level. I couldn’t wait to get to guitar class, which consisted of twenty other kids scattered around the large rehearsal room for the Carmel High School band. The room was big enough that we could all spread out and not bug each other, and we either played alone, or clustered in groups.

Then there were the seniors.

Six or seven 12th graders would bring their electric guitars to school and jam in the back practice rooms of the buildings. Freshmen weren’t allowed. These guys played Aerosmith, Lynard Skynard, and Zeppelin. We all envied them. The seniors didn’t waste their time talking to underclassmen, and sure as hell never took the time to show us how to play something cool on the guitar.

On Saturday, December 2, Black Sabbath headlined the Oakland Coliseum, and all of the seniors drove up to see the show because Sabbath was cool, and nobody wanted to miss the show.

Van Halen was the opening act.

That Monday, December 4, the seniors weren’t playing their guitars. A boom-box (what your grandparents called a portable cassette player that was the size of a refrigerator) was brought into the room, and Van Halen was placed in the carriage, and Eruption was played over, and over, and over, and over. Even the teacher came out to listen to the track. You know the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the apes wake up and find the obelisk? It was exactly like that. The seniors looked like someone had let the air out of their tires. I was already a Van Halen fan, and I was pleased to know that I was culturally ahead of these guys.

The problem was that with Van Halen blasting in the main room nobody else could practice without going outside or into the back, and I wanted to practice. I go into the front practice room because nobody ever used it except me, which was weird because it was huge and had a piano. This time, however, I’m joined by Christian Nesmith, who also was looking for a quiet place to play. The name might sound familiar and that’s because his father is Michael Nesmith, member of the Monkees, and pioneering video artist. Christian was one year ahead of me and a genuinely cool guy.

At the age of 15 he was already a gifted guitarist who played a Seville Les Paul copy. Christian could play anything and did. Unlike the seniors, he was happy to show me, or anyone who asked something cool on the guitar. This was a classy move on his part that I emulated as I got better on the instrument.

So we’re sitting in the front practice room and he tells me he’d seen Van Halen a bunch of times already. He shows me the hammer-on/pull-off move that Eddie Van Halen is best known for doing.  Christian walked me through it step by step until I had it down. He tells me that most people did it wrong by using the side of their pick. Sure enough, later when we come out of the room the seniors are using their picks to hammer the neck.

That was about the most time I spent with Nesmith that semester, but it was one of the most important forty minutes of my life. I incorporated the hammer-ons into my playing as I developed, and by the time I was a good guitarist they were second nature. More importantly I learned it was important to share what I knew with people who wanted to learn. I have no idea how many people I’ve taken time out to pass along a little guitar wizardry, but it’s a lot.

None of that would have happened had Van Halen not opened the Sabbath show.

For full disclosure it was Van Halen’s Woman and Children Fist album that turned me into the massive Van Halen fan that I am today. By 1980 my playing had advanced to the point where I could grasp what Eddie was doing and I could appreciate his genius on a whole new level. 1978 was a turning point for rock music, rock guitar, and little old me.


Randy Rhoads and 1981


I remember the day I’d heard Randy Rhoads had been killed in a plane crash. I was at work and the local FM radio station, KLRB, made the announcement. It was a punch in the gut. I’d skipped the Ozzy Osborne concerts because I’d figured I’d catch him at an outdoor show at some point. One of those shows had been just up the highway at the Santa Cruz Civic, in Santa Cruz, California, which was a small venue that Randy would have been right in my face no matter where I sat. When I got off work I went for a long walk that ended up at the beach. I don’t think I listened to any of his music for a week, and that was a huge deal for me.

I’d listened to Randy Rhoads every day since “Blizzard of Ozz” had been released in September, 1980. That album was a major point of contention among my high school friends at the time, Osborne had left Black Sabbath (or had been kicked out depending on who was telling the story at that time), and his fans hated him for it. They wanted to hate the album, they wanted it to suck, so it would fail. This way Ozzy would see the error of his ways and return to Black Sabbath and all would be right in the Heavy Metal universe. But it didn’t suck.

Nobody had anticipated Randy Rhoads.

“Blizzard of Ozz” was a thunder clap riding the lighting of shit-hot rock guitar. There isn’t a weak spot on the entire album thanks to Ozzy and his wife, Sharon, having the good sense to hire rock veterans Bob Daisley on bass, Don Airey on keyboards, and Lee Kerslake on drums. Kerslake had done 10 albums with Uriah Heep, had just done two tours with Rainbow but had earned his bones with the progressive fusion band Coliseum II (featuring Gary Moore on guitar), and Daisley was also a Rainbow alumnus. They laid a foundation allowing Rhoads to excel. Fans will always talk about the solos, but guitar players like me and my peers were equally blown away by his rhythm playing.

1981 had been a seminal year for Californian rock guitar. For the six previous years the Los Angeles rock music scene had been fermenting an army of over-the-top super guitarists who, in spite of selling out clubs and backyard parties, where being ignored by the morons at the record labels. While Van Halen had broken through selling three platinum albums thanks to the Godzilla-like playing of Edward Van Halen, they were considered a “Pasadena Band”, an anomaly. Ed was considered a unicorn, but the truth was he was an equal part product and engine of the nuclear reactor that was generating other guitarists like George Lynch, Warren Di Martini, and others. They weren’t swimming in shark infested waters – they were the sharks. Yet only Rhoads was the other to get exposure to the larger music world.

In Northern California we had Neal Schon of Journey, Ronnie Montrose, and Dave Meniketti of Y&T, and all were great players, but they weren’t melting brains like the L.A. guys, and one could argue that Rhoads and Van Halen had come from another planet. It wasn’t just the speed- it was the power and the attitude. With “Blizzard” suddenly anything was possible on the guitar. Rhoads’ playing, while fantastic, was accessible. Van Halen inspired a lot of copy-cats, but few grasped the fact that he was skating on the other side of the ice. In 1981, if you played guitar you were either a Van Halen guy or a Randy Rhoads guy.

I loved Van Halen but I was a Randy Rhoads guy.

Rhoads worked within a structure that I could understand, and his playing was elegant. The second album with Ozzy was “Diary of a Madman”, and here we got to see him stretch out. His playing was a little more insane, but the songs were more complex, more orchestrated. His acoustic work is outstanding. His tone was evolving into a fuller voice that seemed to reach inside my head to turn on switches I didn’t know I had. We are left with the pain of wondering what was to come next if only…

…If only…

Rhoads’ death left a black hole in the potential of rock guitar. His willingness to teach others along the way would have shaped the musical landscape in positive ways.

The worst thing about his death is how he died. I am still angry at him, and while this is selfish it is the truth. He hated to fly, but he got into that plane flown by his bus driver who’d just pulled an all-nighter. What was he thinking? I can’t come up with any good answers and it makes me mad.

His death would propel his old band, Quiet Riot, into the Top 10, in 1983. Suddenly any band with big hair that was sober enough to hold a pen was being signed by the labels. We got some great music out of the deal, but it didn’t last because it wasn’t always honest. Rhoads never lied with his music. He kept Quiet Riot on course. Without his voice to keep things in perspective the 1980s were lost.

And they were lost.

Everyone who knew him says that Rhoads was planning to attend UCLA to study classical music. The effect this would have had on young guitarists cannot be understated; there would have been a flood of guys with big hair headed back to junior colleges across the country so they could transfer to a university. Instead we got MTV Spring Break, cocaine-fueled antics, and the crime of pointless and forgettable music.

There will always be 1981.

That year everything was still possible. Van Halen’s “Fair Warning”, while not ripping up the charts, was a game-changer, and “Diary of a Madman” showed that supped-up rock guitar was ready to shave and get its driver’s license. Stadiums still waited to be filled with thunder.

Boston: Right Album at the Perfect Moment


My brother had Boston’s first album, Boston, in his collection early on. I don’t think he played it that often, I never did. We didn’t have to. Songs from that record were always on the radio. By now there 17 million copies sold so there’s a good chance that you have or had one in your collection. The songs are good, and the first three: “More Than a Feeling”, “Peace of Mind”, and “Long Time” represent the strongest 3-song lead-off block on any debut rock album as far as establishing the sound and soul of the band. The question is why, in a year that saw the release of “Hotel California” by the Eagles, “Changes” by David Bowie, “Fly Like an Eagle”, by Steve Miller, and “A Day at the Races” by Queen, Boston’s album made the cash registers ring so much more than the others?

The answer is technology.

Boston sounded great. Tom Scholz had resisted the fools at Epic and recorded the album in his basement instead of an L.A. studio, which the label brass had demanded. Scholz, an M.I.T. graduate, was a sound technology innovator, and had he buckled and gone conventional the album might today just be a forgotten gold record. What was delivered was an album that performed well on the evolving stereo systems which were finally becoming affordable to regular people in 1976. Dolby began to appear on the receivers music lovers plugged their turntables into and Boston became a spaceship of sound just as their album cover advertised. This was an album recorded so well it made the hair on your arms stand up.

The other technology ready for great sound was the car stereo systems. 1976 saw the 8-Track tape deck introduced to the driving world, and Boston became a staple of that format. Even today when someone discovers a box of 8-Tracks in an attic there’s 75% chance Boston will be one of them. Cassette tapes were right on the 8-Track’s heels that year, and the album was tailor made for the high fidelity cassettes offered. Did people buy a record just because it sounded great in the car? Yes they did. Of the many “Road” albums perfect for the long stretches of lonely American highways Boston ranks in the top ten. The sound fills the car perfectly.

Boston is a cornerstone album. I make this judgment based on the albums that came before it, and the ones which followed. Boston opened the minds of engineers and producers to what could be done in the studio. Albums became more polished. Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors”, and Pink Flyod’s “Animals” were so smooth and clear compared to each band’s previous work that both albums are considered landmark works for each band. Boston’s sound quality became industry standard. As a rock purest I understand how this might be viewed as a bad thing. Rock at its best should be delivered raw and twitching. The Sex Pistols were a direct response to what Boston was doing to rock music, and God bless them for it.

But it wasn’t Boston’s fault.  People like what they like.

I’m not arguing pros or cons of what became Industrial Music. Tom Scholz was the George Lucas of rock music, a guy who was fiercely independent and ended up creating something that made so much money the corporate suits bought the into the works without looking back.

Boston, at the end of the day, is a good rock album. Solid musicianship with songs tightly performed. Tom Scholz played all of the guitars, bass, and keyboard parts to perfection, Barry Ourdreau played “Monster Guitar” on “Long Time”, Sib Hashian locked down the drum parts on all but “Rock & Roll Band” (Jim Mesdea handled that song), and the wonderful Brad Delp did all of the singing. On the album he’s listed as vocals, but damn it, that man could sing, and what you hear is real singing on Boston. Delp was a treasure. Every hack song writer and musician has Tom Scholz as their patron saint. His “Rockman” portable headphone guitar amp meant axe men could get monster tones on their cheap 4-track cassette recorders for the first time, which lead to all of the sound modeling technology musicians of all stripes enjoy today.

Boston was and is just a perfect album, a rock and roll hole-in-one.

The Hero-Villain Axis in Horror (or Anything Else).

For my Speech Class final I demonstrated how to write a horror story. The keys to a good horror story are characters, atmosphere, and the villain. The only thing worse than a crappy villain is a lame hero and set of protagonists, so care must be taken to fill your story with solid, believable people. A great villain makes the arc for your hero easier to plan out and effortlessly reveal. A great hero means your villain has to really step up the game, and this means your reader wins. Let’s get started…

Alright, you’ve got your story about a vampire bond trader in Muncie, Indiana. Your vampire is a woman because you’re smart and know that in the business world women are often invisible making your vampire’s life easier. She works the Asian markets because those happen overnight and she can sleep during the day. You’ve made her smart and good at her job so the company is happy to keep her on her chosen shift. She’s also ruthlessly deadly when it’s her lunch break. The vampire rules and lore are your own, but based on a cross-section of the classic vampire lit.

Now the job is to make her accessible and relatable. What kind of shampoo does she use? What does vampirism do to a woman’s hair? Is there a fabric or clothing line she prefers? Does she shop or buy her things online and have them altered? Does she do this by herself or use a tailor? Is she an iPhone or Android girl?  Shoes: high heels or sensible? What does a lady wear when she’s hunting? What’s her casket like? Maybe she sleeps with an old rag doll or teddy bear from her pre-vampire days a century ago. Does bad breath annoy her? If not then what does? Unruly kids at the theater? Car alarms? Perhaps she wears pant-suits because her victims involuntarily kick her legs as she drains their blood, tearing her hose.

I’m sure that you, dear reader, are a nice, kind and wonderful person. I am also sure that there were times in your life you wish you had special powers to exact a measure of vengeance on some idiot who has wronged you, or at least pissed you off. Now you can live that dark fantasy out with your bond-trading vampire. You know that asshole at the coffee shop holding up the line because he’s on his phone? Oh yeah, she follows him into the men’s room and rips out his throat. The parking attendant who grins watching you dash to the meter just as she slides the ticket under your windshield wiper blade? Have fun with that scene. Your vampire lives in the modern world so giver her modern problems and let her deal with them.

Now you need a hero, someone to foil your vampire and ultimately put a wooden stake through her heart. You’ve set your story in the real world where vampires don’t exist, so your hero comes into the story blind to the possibility. Personally I’d go with a man. A female hero is cool, and adds dimensions like the fact that she would share a restroom with your vampire. While there are cool scenes to be had here, your vampire might need a sanctuary. A new female coworker might not last too long in this office. Like I said, women in business are often invisible, and having a male here gives your villain some room to do her thing…until your hero starts to catch on.

I’ve worked the graveyard shift as a night auditor. We are not the A-Team. People who work this shift are folks who’ve been stuck or stuck themselves in the margins. Some of them are college students, and others are deep in debt. Many of my coworkers were Iraq War vets with PTSD, and just wanted a job where they didn’t have to deal with people. Right off the bat, the fact that your hero gets a new job at night suggests a level of desperation. You can make him a recovering addict, or a veteran, or just a guy who has lost everything and needs a job. Your reader is already rooting for him on a basic level, even if he’s kind of a dick in the beginning.

This is where your hero-villain axis begins to take shape. In the beginning of the story the axis is tilted to the villain’s favor. The hero has no clue as to what is going on. As the story moves along your hero starts to notice things, but doesn’t put them together until half way through your story. This stretch of the narrative is used to build tension and atmosphere. Your hero has received a break and got a job. There are a few other people who work in the office along with him and your vampire. These people have their own lives and set of problems which you can mine for story. Your hero will need an ally, and maybe your vampire has one too.


Let’s step back and look at a couple of examples of a good villain-hero axis. The first that comes to mind is the movie “Alien” where Lieutenant Ellen Ripley faces off against an acid-blooded seven foot-tall monster. She’s not even the lead character until more than half way through the movie, and in fact – the character was written to be a man in the original script. Giving the part to Sigourney Weaver was genius. Ripley is a competent character and when the surviving crew looks to her for leadership she steps into the role believably. She blows up the ship and blasts the alien out of an airlock, and even saves her cat.

At first the Alien dictates the action by kidnapping and disabling the crew to use as hosts for more alien babies. The story takes place on a big ship with plenty of places to hide, and a very small crew. Worse, one of the crew is working against the others in order to bring the creature back to earth. Ripley changes the axis when the traitor is exposed, and then tracks down the missing crew and burns out the rookery. At this point the Alien and Ripley are on even footing, and all she has to do is set the ship’s self-destruct and get into the escape shuttle. The Alien isn’t stupid and guess who is waiting for her inside after the ship has been nuked? The final stand-off is right out of a classic western.

The axis shifts as the hero grows. Your new guy in the bond office has figured out the lead trader is a vampire, and maybe he has convinced one of his coworkers of this fact. Now your villain has to dance to change how she does her thing while figuring out the extent of how much danger she might be in. This is a vampire story so your hero has a daylight advantage, and your vampire controls things at night. Plus, there’s still business to conduct, and your hero really needs to pay off his college loan or whatever. The axis swings back and forth for the last half of the story with each shift being more dramatic than the last. Remember I suggested your vampire have an ally? This subverts your hero’s daylight advantage.

The problem with a weak hero is that your reader ends up rooting for the villain, and while Hollywood has turned this half-assed form of writing into big box office, it has not made for great horror. Yes, sometimes the villain wins, and you are well within your right to end the story that way. I just want to care enough to read the story all the way to that last page without feeling insulted.

A great example is comparing Luke Skywalker’s character arc in the last three “Star Wars” with Anakin Skywalker’s character arcs in the first three. Luke leaves Tattooine as a farm boy, and returns as a Jedi Knight to rescue Han Solo. In the meantime he went to Degobah to study with Yoda, and faced off against Darth Vader before he was ready, and loses his hand and almost dies. There is a solid character arc for Luke Skywalker. Anakin Skywalker has no arc. This is the real tragedy of the “Star Wars” prequels because his character is a waste of time. There isn’t much movement from where we really get to know him in the second film until when he gets his black mask and helmet. He’s not even consistent with the Darth Vader of the final movies.

This wasn’t an acting problem – it was a writing problem.

Your hero bond-trader is going to have to overcome a lot to deal with your vampire, and his growth should be measurable. Maybe he stops drinking. Maybe he stops being a dick, or maybe he learns to be an asshole and take care of business. Whatever you do it has to be organic to your narrative. Your vampire is smart, and she could arrange to promote your hero to a better paying job in San Francisco, and he might be cool with a truce in the end. On the other hand, the story could end with the office in flames, and your hero karate-chopping one of your vampire’s wooden “Trader of the Year” award plaques to use as a stake to impale her amid the flames.

With a good villain and a hero who is up to the challenge your story will flow because they will drive the narrative while you sit there taking dictation. It’s really that easy and that hard. Good luck and good writing.

My Thinking on Writing Ghost Stories

A long time ago I used to hunt ghosts. Not like you see on cable T.V. today, I would be asked to checkout someone’s house and I would get the address, go there, and talk to the people. Then I would go to the library and search county records, and newspaper microfiche. I found more bad plumbing and CO2 contamination than anything weird, and I also found that, while some were relieved that Satan hadn’t moved into the attic of their Pacific Grove Victorian, more were bummed out they hadn’t been touched by the paranormal. People love this stuff and want it so bad to be real that every bump in  the night is a ghost or demon who’s come to take their soul. My job as a writer is to make it real for reader for a few hours or days depending on the length of the story.

The other thing I learned when my friends asked me about my adventures is how disappointed they’d become when I gave an accurate account of the alleged haunting. The lesson there is this:

The worst thing you can do is tell a bad ghost story.

Ghost stories go all the way back to before words were written down. When humans began to paint stories on cave walls ghosts were depicted long with the animals and rival tribes. Shakespeare used the Ancient Greek ghost-model in his best plays as his characters were tormented or mocked by spirits of the dead. Ghosts were unassailable speakers of truth, and amplified version of the character’s conscience. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner’s curse kills all the men of his crew, and once the curse is broken they rise from the dead to sail him home to testify to anyone who will listen of all of his sins.

The Victorians changed the ghost-model and reframed it to be a spirit of a person who had been murdered, or died with unfinished business. Science had taken off in the Victorian era and merged with the rise in Spiritualism, a direct result of the end of the Napoleonic, and American Civil wars that had left millions dead and families with broken hearts. The Victorians had believed they had enough evidence pointing to the existence of ghosts, and were faced with the problem of rationalizing their existence. The real problem is that the science of the day was not advanced, and was often practiced by people with little or no education. The top medicines of the day had Mercury as their active ingredient, and most homes and apartments were heated by coal so it isn’t any wonder people were seeing things and hearing voices.

The modern era saw few ghost stories as society turned away for the fantastic in its fiction, and they wouldn’t return until the post-modern era when movies became the preferred source of entertainment. Most ghost stories written in the 1930s up to and including today still use variations of the Victorian model. Don’t get me wrong, the Victorian ghost-model survives in fiction because it is a cookie-cutter frame to build a dandy tale around, and I even use it myself sometimes. But I don’t always like it when I do use it. I like to challenge myself when I write a new story, and while the Victorian model has a lot of mileage left in it, I am driven by my real-world encounters with ghosts to tell a different kind of story.

The problem with real ghosts is that they are terrifying for about five to ten seconds at a time. The fear has to do more with what the person experiencing the phantom brings to the event than what the phantom does. Old-School ghost hunters used to say that places aren’t haunted – people are haunted. That’s the underlying truth, whatever the phantoms are and why we see them sometimes has nothing to do with how we react when we see or hear ghosts. The fear and dread a haunted person feels stems from the revelation that they are not in total control of their reality. If ghosts are real, if their house or workplace is haunted then they’ve been lied to by science and their church, and if ghosts are real then what else is real? What if I am going insane?

Against this backdrop I searched for authors who better expressed the real life ghost experience, and I settled upon two. Edith Wharton and Ambrose Bierce both engage the phenomenon effectively while spinning a good yarn. Wharton was a Victorian writer, and pretty much reinforced the Victorian ghost-model, but her ghosts are different. Their menace is subtle, and the key to her ghost stories are that the protagonist doesn’t figure out that they’ve been dealing with a spirit until after the initial event. The tension builds after this discovery as they wait for the ghost to return. As in real life, the character does all of the heavy lifting in the fear department while the ghost is usually secondary.

Ambrose Bierce had to have seen a ghost in his time; his stories are just that honest to the phenomenon. I found that the majority of the time ghosts just show up for no reason at all, at least not a reason known to the person who stumbled across them. Most of his ghosts stories are like that, a man is going about his business when he comes face to face with someone who shouldn’t be there. In “A Baffled Ambuscade” a Union Army officer comes across a lone picket standing guard in the woods, in “A Moonlit Road” someone is walking slowly on the road in front of a farm house, and in “The Thing at Nolan” a man walks through a general store, with a bad head wound, in view of three men without acknowledging them, and out the back door. At the time of this visit, the man has been considered missing and murdered by his son, and they dig up his well-preserved body three years later.

Bierce’s stories are short and to the point. They have the effect of having the rug pulled out from under the reader’s feet, just like the actual paranormal encounter does. Some agrue his stories were too short, but Bierce would tell ask you why you want your time wasted when he could deliver the jolt in under a few thousand words? As a writer I’ve learned that if Bierce can drive a scare home in a short narrative then I can drive home a bunch of scares into the reader in a longer one…or at least I should make this my goal.

Bierce and Wharton were both Victorian era authors who, while helping to build that ghost-story model, were drawing from sources unknown to make their stories come to life in a way that so many writers never seem to accomplish. I recommend their work to any horror writer, especially Bierce, who also wrote other short works of the fantastic including the first story of featuring a robot (hint: it doesn’t end well), and his stories of the Civil War remain the only first-person, fictional accounts of that war. Even if you don’t like ghost stories these depictions of war are stunning, sickening, frustrating, and heartbreaking.

My goal each time I set out to reveal a new story is push my boundary out further, to fill my bag of tricks so to speak. A good ghost story is hard to write. The mistake I most often make is to approach the ghost story from a horror writer’s perspective, and this is like fishing with dynamite. Sure you catch a lot of fish, but more people go fishing for the experience of choosing the right lure, and sitting by or wading into the creek or river, and engaging the elements to reel in their catch. Sport fishing is about subtlety by nature or you scare away the fish. The same is true for the ghost story, too much horror and you ruin the ultimate desired effect – the lingering discomfort of what has just been read. The best ghost stories are like a fine wine or good meal, they have an after-taste which stays with one for a while. A good after-taste makes you want more.