Resurrecting My Childhood Ghosts

It’s a paperback that cost 45 cents when it was brand new. It’s a little more squat and wide than a traditional mass market edition, and has a red moon and a black bird on the cover. I wrote my name atop the first page with a blue Magic Marker, the ink bleeding through the thin sheet onto page three, and the letters are evidence that my mother was on to something when she would insist that our dog had better handwriting than I did. It is one of the only books from my childhood I still own.

The paperback is Washington Square Press’s “Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe.’’ The bird, of course, is a raven.

I loved Poe when I was a boy. I loved all ghost stories. In addition to that paperback, the small bookcase by my bed – where I kept the books that mattered to me most, as well as the toys with serious totemic value, such as my Star Trek phaser and communicator – held such short-story collections as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me’’ and his “Not for the Nervous.’’ When I was a little older, I would add to that shelf such novels as Shirley Jackson’s absolutely terrifying masterpiece of madness and things that (quite literally) go bump in the night, “The Haunting of Hill House’’ and William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist.’’

And when I wasn’t reading the likes of Jackson, Blatty, and Poe, I was likely to be in front of the television set watching horror movies on “Chiller Theatre’’ or “Creature Features.’’ (Unfamiliar? Watch the “Chiller Theatre’’ opening on youtube. It still freaks me out.) I actually looked forward to movies with Vincent Price.

Consequently, sometimes I am a little mystified that so little of my own work this past quarter-century has even flirted with the Grand Guignol. I have written 14 books and well over 1,000 newspaper columns and magazine articles, and only once – in 1991 – did I try to write the sort of ghost story that had enthralled me as a boy.

Part of the reason for this, I imagine, is that in college I found myself reading all Fitzgerald all the time. Or all Hemingway. Or all Oates. One year I read almost nothing but Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Pushkin, Gogol, and Tolstoy.

And then my wife and I moved to Vermont in our early 20s.

Writers talk with an agonizing amount of hubris about how or where we found our voice, but the truth is that I did indeed find mine in Vermont. The earliest of my books that I allow to remain in print are the novels “Water Witches’’ (1995) and “Midwives’’ (1997), both of which feature northern New England as a pivotal character and have a distinct Vermont sensibility; neither book would exist had I not wound up in a Green Mountain village.

But I never stopped reading ghost stories. Why would I? Why would anyone? They’re great amounts of fun and they allow us to escape from the things in this world that really should scare us – i.e., global climate change, government default, and the percentage of network programming that now involves amateur dancing. Is a ghost story frivolous? Certainly some people think so. When was the last time one won a Pulitzer Prize?

Moreover, there was always a door in the back of my mind: One very specific door. It came with the 1898 Victorian my wife and I bought when we moved to Vermont. It sits in a dank corner of the house’s largely dirt basement, along one of the basement walls. It’s about 5 1/2 feet tall and 3 feet wide. It’s made of wooden planks, and when my wife and I moved into the house, it was nailed shut. Yup, nailed. There was a moldering pile of coal beside it, so I told myself it was just an old coal chute – although I never found the opening above ground.

It would be years before I would have the courage to pry it open. Behind it, I discovered, was an area the height and width of the door and about a foot and a half deep. The back wall was made of wood, and behind that there seemed to be nothing but solid earth. It looked nothing like a coal chute. It did, however, seem like the perfect spot to wall someone up alive, so I quickly nailed the door shut and vowed never to go near it again. I kept my fingers crossed that the walls upstairs would not start to bleed.

But, even then, I had the sense that the door was the opening to a novel. I let the seed germinate and eventually, years later – when a pilot ditched a plane safely in the Hudson River beside Manhattan’s iconic skyline – it took root.

I had my ghost story, a tale that hinges upon a basement door. And a plane crash in Lake Champlain. And the specters that haunt a northern New England Victorian – an almost archetypal haunted house with a history.

Is this a departure for me? Perhaps. But I never want to write the same novel twice. At the same time, however, it feels like a homecoming, a chance to experience once more those chills I got from books as a boy.

Think back to that 45-cent paperback Poe. His tale “The Cask of Amontillado’’ sits between pages 7 and 15. And in the top right-hand corner of page 7, in a blue magic marker that bleeds through the pages, is a line of stars and an exclamation point.

(This essay originally ran in the Boston Globe on October 30, 2011. Chris’s new book, “The Night Strangers,” was just published.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

Leave a Reply