#78 (a Max Chrome Christmas Story)

 

“They put a new engine in her along with a new fuel tank after they dried her out. Even put in new seats, but none of the schools would keep her around too long because the drivers would refuse to take her out, usually after a week,” Hunter says. He had rehearsed this speech dozens of times, but that was when buying the bus seemed like a great idea.

Max pats the front yellow fender. “Why was that?”

“They’d see and hear things.”

“Like what, exactly?”

“You know, the kids, the kids who died inside.”

“How did you end up with this thing?”

“I bought it. I thought maybe I could make money letting people go inside and sit for a while. Maybe rent it out to local haunted houses or corn mazes during Halloween.”

Max walks to the open door and looked in. “Why didn’t you?”

“It felt wrong, especially after I started to see the kids too.”

A breeze comes and the smell of the salvage yard’s rusting metal, oil, gasoline, engine fluids, and old tires wafted over them. “Hunter’s Wreckers” was a few miles south of Carbona, California, and a two-hour drive from Hillsborough where Max is spending Christmas this year. He and Hunter are old Army buddies and he jumped at the chance to get out of the house that holds many bittersweet memories.

Max says, “Why haven’t you just crushed this into a big, yellow paperweight already?”

“I’m afraid the kids will be trapped in the metal forever, you know, like the ghost of that airplane guy who got attached to the parts they salvaged from his L-1011. I read that kinda stuff can happen if you’re not careful,” Hunter says, referring to the ghost of Eastern Airlines Flight 401.

“Where did you read that?”

“You know, National Enquirer.”

“So you need me to get the ghosts to leave?”

“Yeah, that’s right. Can you do that?”

Max leans against the side of the bus and folds his arms. “Ghosts aren’t really my thing, but what the hell, right?”

“Thanks man, I didn’t know who else to call, you know.”

“I need to get some stuff out of my truck.”

They walk from the bus to the other side of Hunter’s mobile home where his Pitbull, Bone, leaps up barking until the chain snaps him back. Hunter shouts and the dog sits and growls.

Hunter pats him on the head. “Don’t worry about Bone, he won’t go near that bus. Never seen him afraid of anything until I brought that thing here, do you have a dog?”

“No, I’m never home.”

“So what do rich people do for Christmas?”

“My Uncle Ted and I celebrate on the Twentieth, partially because of Panama, but mostly because neither of us are big on Christmas day, and I like to be alone…usually drunk.”

“Sorry man, I didn’t know.”

“No big deal, I’m happy to help. Anyway, we spend a few days giving big checks to charities, you know, soup kitchens, shelters, S.P.C.A., toy drives, and then I take Uncle Ted and his boyfriend out on the town in S.F. which includes Beach Blanket Babylon.”

“Oh shit, that’s right, I forgot about your Uncle. That’s cool though.”

“And I would have been on my way back home to Bixby if you hadn’t called. But that’s cool though.”

“I really appreciate you coming, man. Hey, at least it ain’t no werewolf this time.”

Max pulled his Go-Bag from the rear of the cab of his Nissan truck. “See, it’s already a Christmas miracle. I need to work alone on this one; if I need something I’ll call you on your phone. You’ll be in the house, right?”

“Yeah, it’s getting cold. Just give me a buzz.”

Max walks past the growling Bone and back to the bus. The sun has dropped below the horizon making the sky orange and purple. Climbing into the bus he sets his bag on the driver’s seat, and pulls the lever that closes the door. The seats still smell new. Opening his bag he takes out his sage-green fleece pullover jacket, and puts it on. He pulls out a pair of small tactical flashlights, and his NVAG-9 aviator night vision goggles.

Max doesn’t have a normal job. Most recent holidays have been spent overseas working as a private security contractor.

Hunter knows this, and knows that Max’s work isn’t always about guns. Sometimes his old Army buddy is hired to deal with weird things. Back at Fort Ord in 1989 there was a werewolf. The Army denied this, but everyone knew about it. Max was the one who figured out who the werewolf was, a sergeant recently transferred in from Germany, and dealt with him.

The sergeant disappeared while the company was in South Korea, and the Army pretended like nothing happened.

Max walks to the rear of the bus and stretches out on the back bench. He was out of the country when the accident happened so he only knows the basic story about the bus. The year before during the wettest winter in a decade the #78 bus made a turn and drove down a road before the Sheriffs could block it off. The Russian River had jumped the banks on both sides and the rain was so thick that the driver never saw the water sweeping over the road. The river lifted the bus off its tires, and deposited it six miles downstream in some fallen trees. Twenty-eight kids on the bus, Kindergarten through Fifth Grade, and only twelve survived. The local news was full of harrowing stories of survival and loss, but Max never read them.

The last of the daylight is gone.

He looks toward Hunter’s double-wide mobile home and sees a small Christmas tree through the sliding glass doors. The blinking lights hypnotize him for a few minutes.

He smells wet, rotting vegetation.

Sitting up he inhales deeply to confirm the odor. He walks slow up the aisle, the scent is strongest in the back, so he turns around to stand where it is strongest.

A little girl in a dress cowers on the floor between the bench and the seat in front of her. She is wet and shivering, her eyes are wide from fear.

In the next second she is gone.

Max notes the time, just after six in the evening. The smell fades until only the new-seat fragrance remains. He sits back down and puts on his night vision goggles. His world turns green, but there is nothing to see. The bus is empty, the junk yard is empty, and Hunter is sitting in his recliner enjoying a beer. Turning the goggles off, he puts his feet up on the bench. Ghosts don’t show up on night-vision, contrary to what the TV paranormal experts say, but they are great for catching the living.

He is the only living thing on this bus.

Tapping jolts him awake. For a second he is angry about falling asleep until the sound overtakes his thinking. The tapping is fast and faint at first, but grows louder. He knows the sound, yet cannot place it. The tapping fills the bus accompanied by hissing. Sitting up he straightens his jacket and notices the rear windows are fogged.

He recognizes the noise – teeth chattering and shivering.

Lots of teeth.

Walking forward he doesn’t see anyone this time.

He starts to say something when he is overwhelmed by fear and sadness. This drops him to his knees and knocks the air out of him. Regaining control is a chore, but he gets to his feet, and starts breathing again. He understands that those feelings weren’t his and that they are imprinted in the bus, but it doesn’t make things easier.

“Kids, I know you’re scared, but you don’t have to stay here. You can go.”

The sound of chattering teeth and shivering is joined by tiny voices crying. Turning one of his flashlights on he sweeps the beam around the interior, but sees nothing. He runs to the front of the bus where he slams the door lever open, and jumps outside.

The noise has stopped and all he hears are his own gasps. He keeps his eyes closed until he clears his mind, and when he opens them he sees tiny hand-prints in the fogged rear windows.

Okay, Max, what do you do now? He thinks. He wasn’t kidding when he said ghosts weren’t his thing, but just like any extraordinary situation there is always a solution. He walks to the front of the bus and stands a few feet away. Bone barks a few times from inside the house until Hunter quiets him.

The golden rule of phantoms is: Ghosts were people too.

He strips the problem to the basics, there are a bunch of kids on #78, and he needs to get them out.

“How do you get kid outs off a bus that are too scared to leave?” he says aloud. He has no idea, he has no children, and he hated school busses when he was a kid. Bone barks one more time and he looks at the dog and waves. Bone’s tail is mostly straight up, its tight wagging knocks an ornament from the Christmas tree behind him.

Duh, the Christmas tree!

Pulling out his phone he calls Hunter and tells him they need to bring the tree outside into the yard by the bus. He gets up on the deck as his friend slides the glass door all the way open, and they both lift the tree out. Once it is deposited a few yards from #78 Hunter dashes back inside for an extension cord, all the time Bone is barking up a storm, but never steps out. With the tree plugged in, Max goes back into the bus.

“Guys, it’s Christmas, do you really want to stay on this stupid bus on Christmas?”

He gets off the bus and stands on the back deck next to Hunter.

Hunter says, “What now?”

“I have no idea. I’m hoping the tree lures them out.”

“And then what?”

“One thing at a time.”

Bone’s barking changes to a whimper. A blue ball of light appears inside the bus fallowed by a second, and then a third, and continued until sixteen were floating in the center aisle. One by one they drifted out of #78 and formed a circle around Hunter’s tree. Their heights were staggered, and Max assumed this was due to their different ages.

“What happens now?” Hunter’s voice is a whisper.

“I don’t know, this is my first bus-clense.”

“Whoa, check it out!”

A white-golden light forms above the tree and grows into a human shape, but is eight feet tall. The night air is instantly warm. The balls of light start to circle the tree, and the light form above them widens at its shoulders.

Hunter lightly kicks Max’s ankle. “It looks like it’s growing wings.”

“Yea it does.”

“Think it’s an angel?”

“I think so.” Max had seen angels before, this is a new one to him.

“Think it’s the angel of death?”

“No, too flashy.”

Hunter is about to ask how Max would know but decides he doesn’t want to hear the answer. The entire scrap yard is bathed in the golden light. The wings stretch thirty feet from tip to top. The circling balls of light rise until they form a blue belt around the waist of the tall light being. For a moment Max sees the balls of light change into the shapes of children, and change back. The tall being never reveals its face.

The scrap yard goes dark except for the Christmas tree.

Bone runs past them out into the yard where he runs around the tree a few times, and goes into the bus. He is back outside by the time they reach the tree. Max helps Hunter put the tree back into the house.

“Wanna beer?” Hunter says?

“No, I have to drive back to Hillsborough.” Max goes back out to the bus to get his bag. The air inside now smells like peppermint.

Hunter is waiting for him when he climbs off #78. “I owe you bigtime.”

“Tell you what, day after tomorrow how about you and I painting S.F. red. I’ll rent a limo, well hit Beach Blanket, and then take over the VIP room at Roaring 20’s for the rest of the night.”

“What’s Roaring 20’s?”

“The strip club on Broadway.”

“Like Wolfhounds of old.”

Max laughs; he hasn’t heard the nickname of his old unit in a while. “Like Wolfhounds of old. Lightfighter ‘til I die.” He starts to walk to his truck.

“Yo, Max, it’s a strip club with chicks, right?” Hunter grins.

“Fuck you, and Merry Christmas.”

 

 

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The Pizza Parlor Ghosts (a True Story)

I looked out the small, glass-less window in the scullery door and see a man standing in the middle of the dining room. I can only see his silhouette against the arcade games behind him, but his arms are folded, and he is staring me down.

Hold on, let me backtrack here…

The pizza parlor I worked at from 1980 to 1984 was not in an ancient, rundown building. The shopping center was maybe 20 years old, and was home to a Safeway (supermarket), Long’s Drugs, an animal hospital, a Laundromat, a bike shop, a shoe repair shop, an office supply store, dry cleaners, a funky restaurant/ café called Peyton’s Place, and a salon. The outer complex featured a bank, a diner (Sambo’s, then Seasons), and a duplex movie theater. All this sat next to Highway 1 with the Carmel River at its back.

It was 224 yards from my house.

The pizza parlor will remain unnamed, but it was a franchise where the employees wore hats of straw…so you figure it out. The pizza was and is still damned good, and if you have a franchise in your neighborhood you should eat there often.

1980 was my sophomore year in high school. My brother already worked there along with many of our friends, and everyone else would drop in on Friday or Saturday night on the way to that weekend’s big parties. The first year and a half was packed full of non-haunted fun, it was a great job for a kid. The money was alright, enough to buy records and guitar equipment, and there was always pizza, or spaghetti, or hot pizza wrapped sandwiches, and the salad bar. By then I had a key to the front door to lock up at night, and did weekend prep-cook work. In October, 1981 I took the state proficiency exam, and left high school allowing me to work full time.

At that time the shopping center began construction for expansion. The crews and contractors would have lunch at the pizza place each day, and we got to know them. By then I worked morning prep five days a week, which meant backing up the kitchen during lunch rush. I had the job wired.

That November I found myself waking up at three in the morning, and unable to get back to sleep until five or six, and then I’d feel like shit for the rest of the day. I get the brilliant idea to just get up and go to work instead of going back to sleep. Walking in the dark cold morning air would get me hyped, and I’d have all my work done by seven, allowing me to play Asteroids until we opened at eleven.

My routine was this. Get in there, turn on only the lights I’d need for the back stock room (the kitchen and back pantry power was always on as they were linked to the walk-in refrigerator), and blast Van Halen on my Panasonic boom-box. I didn’t turn on all the lights because this attracted homeless people who would pound on the front door and window. Keeping the dining room dark meant I was invisible. The pizza parlor only had windows at the front kitchen so people could watch their food get made, and there were double glass doors at the far end. The place was a forty yard-long narrow rectangle with a narrow hallway between it and Long’s Drugs next door where we kept the dumpster.

We called this place the garbage hall.

Life is great when you’re seventeen going on eighteen. Your body can do just about anything. I would get in there at three or three thirty, work until five, and often come back around closing time at ten or eleven to shoot the shit and joke around. Three or four hours sleep? No friggin’ problem, dude.

Before I see the man standing in the dining room there had been other, less dramatic things happen in these wee hours. I heard girls whispering from the other side of the counter near the salad bar, but no one was there. I heard footsteps of someone walking around the salad bar in slippers. I wrote these off as by brain still being asleep.

I also turned the music up so I didn’t hear this anymore.

Everyone who worked there for a while developed a specific sixth sense for responding to kids waiting to get quarters for the arcade. No matter what you were doing you could feel their little eyes burning a hole in the back of your head until you turned around. You could be washing dishes in the scullery sink with your back turned, and know there was someone waiting at the bar for change.

In these early morning shifts I start dropping what I’m doing to help someone at the counter only to realize the place is locked up tight. Again, I blow this off to early morning brain farting.

That cheese on your pizza starts as a 25lb block, which is cut into smaller sections with a two-handled knife to fit into a grater attachment on a Hobart machine. This was done on a cutting table in the back pantry, called “The Scullery”. This particular morning I’m segmenting the Monterey Jack cheese when I look up. Through the glassless scullery door window I see a man standing, arms folded, in the middle of the dining room. The first thing I do is close my eyes and count to five. He’s still there when I open them.

Oh shit, someone’s broken in.

A few months prior some guys had busted in through the garbage hall and cleaned out the arcade games and took some other stuff. I think they’re back. This is long before cell phones. The closest phone hangs in the kitchen near the register where I’d be exposed, and an easy target. My two-handled cheese knife happens to be the most dangerous blade in the restaurant, and I grab a second, ten-inch carving knife. The entire time I keep my eye on the intruder.

He never moves.

Taking a deep breath I kick open the swinging door and yell something bad-ass while waving my knives.

The man is gone.

Oh shit.

I turn on all of the lights and begin a search. I check both restrooms and the garbage hall…nothing. I check the back of the dining room where the arcade games are by walking down the center in case he’s hiding in between one of them…nothing. I check the back stock room and the employee room…nothing. The back door is locked, the garbage hall door was locked from the inside, and the front door was locked.

I got back and finish prep-work for the day, but instead of playing Asteroids I decide to go to Seasons for breakfast, and come back when the rest of the gang comes in. I stopped going in before the sun was up. I figured I had imagined/hallucinated the entire thing.

Maybe three weeks later I’m sitting at the employee table at the end of the bar with the manager, Danny, and the janitor, Ray. It’s closing time, and we’re joking around while waiting for the night crew to finish up. As they walk past us to go back and change, Ray asks if one of us will stay while he cleans up for the night. We both say yes (it’s an easy job, I love vacuuming). We ask him why, and he says he doesn’t like being alone in here anymore at night. Ray is married to Regina, a French lady who runs the day shift in the kitchen. He’s been here longer than anyone. We ask him what was wrong.

He tells us that a few weeks back he was vacuuming the back dining room when he looked up and saw two girls walking to the front of the restaurant. They were blond, and in their teens, and wore white dresses. Thinking that they’d been locked in while they were in the ladies room (that had happened a few times), he shuts off the vacuum, grabs his keys to let them out.

They’re gone when he looks back.

He checks the kitchen, walk-in, and the restrooms, and decides to get the hell out of there. He came back in with his wife the next morning to finish up, and I remember that.

Danny shakes his head and says he’s seen them too. They had walked past the manager’s office at the end of the bar one morning. He got up to find out how they’d got inside, and they were nowhere to be found. Each of us had been alone in the pizza parlor. We cleaned that place and were out the door in record time.

We decide not to tell anyone else and wait to see if anyone sees anything.

The wait isn’t long.

I’m closing with Cathy D., Maureen M. and Lisa P. Cathy and I sit in the front booth across from the kitchen waiting for Maureen and Lisa to change in the back room. We’re talking when we hear the coffee pot on the top burner of the Bunn machine rattling hard.

Cathy calls out “Mo!” The pot flies off the burner onto the floor. Right at this time we see Maureen and Lisa walking to the front. I get back behind the counter, the glass coffee pot is unbroken, which by itself is just weird. I had personally detonated a pair of them while washing in the sink. Cathy is upset. She tells us she saw a blond haired girl behind the counter when the pot was rattling and thought it was Maureen. On the ride home I tell her about what had been seen by Danny, Ray, and I already. She seemed to be relieved, I guess she was more worried about going nuts or something.

Within four weeks everyone had an encounter of some kind. Even the biggest crew skeptic saw something, and he freaked out enough that he had tears in his eyes while telling me about the man in black. During this time there were a lot of little things that went on; the man in black would pop up in the dining room when it was slow, a second here, a second there. Sometimes he wore a hat. I’m in the garbage hall when a girl’s voice laughs within inches of my face.

At some point someone brings in a Ouija board and everyone gathers for a séance, which was a huge waste of time. The only good thing about it was someone had the idea that whomever had their fingers on the planchette (the pointer thingie) should be blindfolded. This came into play later.

The activity ebbed and flowed. Sometimes we’d go a week without incident. Other days it was like a movie. The ghost loved to slam the fire-door that led into the garbage hall. Whenever we checked after we heard it, the door was always locked from the inside. The door slammed at all hours of the day.

The ghost’s favorite activity was trying to freak me out while I was punching in the code for the alarm no matter if I was coming or going. Sometimes I’d hear the sound of someone running toward me through shallow water. I’d hear the girls laugh. I’d hear a man laugh. One night after a long, ugly shift, I’ve turned off all the lights, and I’m getting ready to arm the alarm system. One of the coffee mugs on the tray next to the bar cash register starts rattling. I see it’s one in the middle of a dozen mugs.

“Look, I’m tired, and I want to go home. So if you’re trying to scare me you’ll need to do better,” I said.

The mug flipped up from the tray, bounced along the bar, and fell at my feet unbroken.

“That’s more like it.” And I’m out of there.

Ron G. had missed the séance. Dave A. had spent the evening telling him about it, and Ron notes that the Ouija board is still in the office, so he talks me into breaking it out after we close and see what happens. Sure, why not? After everyone else is gone, Ron and I don hand towel blindfolds and Dave’s job is to write everything down. We’re sitting in the dark restaurant like idiots asking questions to invisible people. Nothing is happening.

I ask, “Do you want us to leave?”

The planchette jerked hard to a spot on the board.

We both pull off our blindfolds. It’s pointing to “Yes”.

Ron and I are on our feet and out the door in seconds. The whole time Dave is asking what happened. We pile into Ron’s truck, and he’s so shook up that he doesn’t realize that his headlights are off until we reach the stoplight. Ron just asks me if I was wearing my blindfold, and I tell him it was on tight. His was too. Ron never talked about that night to anyone as far as I know.

The year went on, the crew changed, and the stuff continued to happen with no rhyme or reason. The ghost became just another thing to deal with day to day.

One Sunday evening I’m sitting with a friend, Caesar, who works next door at the supermarket. We’re talking guitars, cars, and general small talk, one of those nights where the conversation carries on until late. By then we’d moved to the employee table and Danny has joined us. It is a quiet night. The subject of ghosts comes up, and we tell him about ours, and he becomes intrigued. I mention the Ouija board, and he insists on giving it a shot. Danny and I are bored, and agree to stay after closing.

The crew leaves and we get the Ouija out and kill the lights. Danny and I tie on our blindfolds and man the planchette while Caesar takes notes. Danny starts asking questions and the pointer starts moving. It just goes around in a circle. Caesar starts asking questions and it responds. He asks a question in Spanish and it goes crazy.

Neither Danny nor I speak Spanish.

The next forty minutes he’s asking questions in another language and getting answers. And just like that he says it’s over. We take off our blindfolds and review the conversation. It begins with the ghost calling Caesar a drunk in Spanish (he had put away a few that night), and he’d asked what he and I had been talking about, the reply was “Amps” (we had been talking guitar amplifiers). The response when he changed to asking in Spanish was this:

I am talking with the one named Caesar

Spelled out in Spanish.

We got a date of 1887, but it wasn’t clear the significance. When asked about the two girls the response was “They’re mine” or “They belong to me”. The last long answer echoed the first:

I am talking with the one named Caesar

This time Caesar is the Latin spelling.

We’re all amazed. Two guys who don’t speak Spanish just answered question in Spanish while blindfolded. We lock up and go our own ways. Two days after this, Caesar comes in looking shook up. He says that when he got home and went to bed the ghost visited him in his dreams. Said the ghost was half Mexican-half Indian, and worked as a coachman for the Del Monte hotel. He lived in a shack in an area that would be in the far back corner of the shopping center. The two girls had been kidnapped, raped and murdered while on a picnic. Their mother had been killed first down by Monastery Beach. The two are buried between the shopping center and the river.

Caesar said our man in black was just a mean S.O.B. who enjoyed scaring people.

This was all from a dream, so take it with the appropriate amount of salt. However, in the 1990’s a woman’s skeleton was dug up near San Jose Creek across from Monastery Beach, a mile south of the shopping center. The man in black’s uniform matches carriage driver’s uniforms of the Del Monte Hotel in the 1880’s. I have never been able to find records about missing girls and their mother, but I did find a story about an 1890 lynching of a half-Mexican, half-Indian at the old hanging tree at the end of Fisher Place, about 120 yards away in Mission Fields.

Like I said, it was a dream. Who knows?

The man in black seemed to love harassing Ray. He had taken to doing his cleaning in the mornings because sometimes it was too much for him to deal with at night. One morning before the place opened, I’m in the kitchen loading the Make-Table (the stainless steel refrigerated table where tins full of meats and vegetables are kept in easy reach for making pizza). I turn and see the man in black standing near the alcove leading to the restrooms. I hear Ray swear. Regina, his wife asks him if he’s alright. Ray is crying. I tell him I saw our friend. He says he can’t take much more of this.

The final event I can tell you about happened in 1984, over a year after I had quit the pizza parlor to work at the movie theater in the back of the shopping center (note: I never had anything strange happen at the theater, and I was there at all hours). After closing up the theater one night (the late shows let out between 11 and 11:30 pm) a couple of the guys and I decide to hit the diner for munchies. We’re there just a few minutes when a pair of Sheriff’s Deputies come in and walk directly to our table.

“Where were you guys about twenty minutes ago?” one them asks. We tell them we’ve just got off work, and we give them the name of the deputy who’d escorted me to make the night drop at the bank. They check and start to walk away.

I ask, “What happened?”

“Someone was messing with the janitor at the pizza parlor.”

The deputies sit down at the counter. Less than five minutes later the janitor, Ray, and his son, Charlie, walk in and march up to our table.

“Just tell me it was you, and all is forgiven,” Ray says.

I tell him we’ve just left work, and ask what happened…

Ray and Charlie get started cleaning at 10:30pm, arriving after the crew has gone, shortly after a violent series of crashes comes from the garbage hall. Charlie goes to look. The stacks of empty white five-gallon buckets have been kicked over, and the collapsed cardboard boxes have been yanked out of the dumpster. He searches the garbage hall but doesn’t see anybody, comes back in and closes the door. Seconds later the ruckus begins again, buckets are heard bouncing down the hall, some are thrown against the door.

Ray calls 9-11.

The mall security guard arrives first, and while they’re standing out front they all hear trashing and crashing coming from the garbage hall. The guard goes in with Charlie, and searches the hallway – finds no one. About the time they come out the Sheriff’s arrive. As Ray and the guard relate the problem the buckets start flying again in the garbage hall. This time it’s the deputies turn to search. They enter and are heard yelling for the culprit to come out. Minutes later they return scratching their heads.

The next sound was never clear, they hear the buckets slamming around, but I think there was some kind of yelling too. The deputies go back inside, this time with guns drawn, and search the entire restaurant for the next twenty minutes. When they emerge one of the deputies has the mall security guard take him around to check the door at the far end of the garbage hall – it is secure. As they came back the noises begin again.

The deputies shake their heads and suggest the owner call an exterminator. They stand by while Ray and Charlie get their things, and lock up.

Ray quit the next day.

They never found evidence of raccoons or other medium-sized animals.

Several years later I’m poking around the shopping center on Halloween, and stop into a small bookstore. The two young women working that day are in costume, and in a holiday mood. We talk and one of them mentions that they have a ghost. The bookstore is fifty feet from the back door of the old garbage hall. They say he’s mischievous. I ask if he wears black, and they say he does indeed. I tell them I used to work nearby, and was well acquainted with him.

 

And that’s it, these are all the stories I can remember. The pizza parlor and that entire end of the mall are long gone, replaced by new buildings. Twenty years would pass before I ran into another ghost. Many of these events I can remember like they happened yesterday, but I have forgotten as many as I have told here.

 

 

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.