You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Monday, October 31, 2011


Depending upon which survey you read, somewhere between 30% and 50% of Americans believe in ghosts.

That number seems high to me, and I would like to know how each survey phrased the question. If some one hated to be rude to the lingering dead and deny their existence entirely, did they waffle and say, "Well, maybe," and then get classified with the yea sayers? Were they merely ghost agnostics, wanting to leave at least a tiny rent in the veil that separates the living from the dead? After all, how can you really know?

I realize that I am about to lose potentially between a third and one half of my already scant readership here, but I have to say that on this one point at least, people who believe in ghosts simply are not very bright. Now all those same people are saying that I'm not very open-minded to shut the door on the very possibility of a spirit lingering after the body's death, but you know, fuck that. Grow up. Ghosts answer a variety of needs in peoples' lives, from comfort to punishment, but they are not real. There are many creepy aspects to deserted houses, lonely country roads, bad parts of town, and abandoned mental hospitals, but they have nothing to do with ghosts. The night you saw your grandmother, a week after her death, sitting at the foot of your bead may have seemed very real -- I know it did in my case -- but she was not a ghost.

Having said all this, I admit that the only thing that really scares me, in movies or stories, is a ghost or a haunted house. Vampires, werewolves, serial killers, monsters large and small are there for my entertainment. If one leaps out from behind a closed door I may jump out of my seat with the rest of the audience, but I would do the same thing if a CPA jumped out from behind a closed door. That is nothing more than being startled. But ghosts are uncanny. They worm their way into that part of my brain that knows better but cannot fight back the reflex reaction that raises goosebumps or makes you wish the wife would just stay in her room and not check out those noises downstairs.

I blame my parents. When I was in seventh grade they gave me the Modern Library Giant Edition Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. The stories terrified and delighted me. They were almost all of either Victorian or Edwardian vintage, and that specific diction in a story, the sound of the Oxford Don hesitant to tell his tale for fear of being thought mad, still does it for me. Films and modern writers that attempt that exact atmosphere tend to be creaky and ineffectual. But there are endless modern variations. I find modern vampire stories silly and serial killers tedious if sometimes disgusting, but a film like Paranormal Activity can have me squirming in my seat. (At least the first one did. I just saw Paranormal Activity 3 and felt like I was hearing the same joke for the third time. Although it had its moments.)

Recently I have begun reading horror novels. The Horror Writers Association has published a list of 40 must reads in the genre, many of which I must have read in Junior High and High School. I have also taken a look at the annual Bram Stoker Award winners. It's an interesting list with some surprises. Joyce Carol Oates, no doubt, was delighted to win in 1996 for a book I've never heard of called Zombie, but how must a writer the quality of Stuart O'Nan have felt about first being nominated and then losing out to a novel by Peter Straub in 2005?

I have misgivings about the length of most of these books. How can anything be scary for 400 pages? But I am approaching this with an open mind, hoping for entertainment and the occasional creepy moment. And yes, they will find their way onto Potato Weather. I hope to use the word putrescent a great deal.

No comments:

Post a Comment