What draws you to reading and writing ghost stories?:
Shannon: I find I write best when I push myself to explore the uncertain, the uncomfortable, and the unacceptable. Often, this takes my writing in the direction of the fantastical: many of my stories have elements of fairy tales, folk tales, and the supernatural. As a narrative form, ghost stories specifically interest me because of their potential for psychological ambiguity, their metaphoric ability to communicate fear and pain. I like to venture down into the unlit basement. Allegorically speaking, as a writer and a reader. In real life, I’m afraid of the dark! I’m only half-joking. A few years ago, past midnight, as I was stumbling through my pitch-black kitchen, I had a sort of silly revelation: everything at night – in this moment, my kitchen – is exactly the same as it is in the daytime except there’s an absence of light. I couldn’t hang onto that sensible thought: the nighttime darkness just feels like a different world – familiar, and yet strange. Freud calls this creepiness Das Unheimliche (which translates as “the uncanny,” but it sounds so much more elegantly menacing in German).
Jamie: A good story – the best of stories, in my opinion – grabs and engages the reader on a deeply emotional level. Some make us bite our lips to stifle late-night laughter; some make us glance up in embarrassment in the coffee shop, hoping that no one notices that our eyes are red and watery – hoping, too, that even if they do notice, we can pawn it off as allergies. A good ghost story – a good horror story, although the two aren’t always mutually exclusive – can grab two of our most atavistic emotions at once and wring them for all they’re worth: wonder and fear. In short: I enjoy reading them because they remind me of what it means to be afraid of the dark.
Terrence: The idea that there is something left over after death – is not pleasant. People who live on, in some wan fashion, after they die, are in a real pickle. What did they do to deserve being one of the not-quite-dead? What do they do now? Are they so pissed about their involuntary condition that they take it out on the living (e.g., by going “whooo…whooo” and scaring the s*** out of them?). There is a curse of not being able, finally, to let go. The stories of these, the most unfortunate of the unfortunate, call out to us. We may be next.
Where did the idea for your Specter Spectacular story come from?
Shannon: “Wendigo” is, in part, a story about addiction – one that it draws on personal experience, although at a remove. Someone I care for has had problems with alcohol. He was a habitual, late-night drunk-dialer, and I always took his calls. He’d be morose, but aggressive; talkative, yet unreachable. One night he called me, drunk to the point of distortion. Only his misery came through clearly. As he spoke, I had a sudden image of him talking to me from hell, and I couldn’t shake it. I began writing this story soon after. In its own way, I think addiction is a curse, a possession. Not only is the addict haunted, but the addict haunts family and friends; everyone involved is haunted by notions of who the addict used to be or could be, sober.
Jamie: When I was a child – eight or nine, I guess? – and living in southern Ohio, tornado watches and warnings were a pretty common experience. While staying at a relative’s, we had a tornado warning, and we went down to the basement. I can’t remember why I did it, I do remember that the sound that came from the other end of the phone – some error signal I’d never heard before – scared me very badly. This piece of technology, which had been there the way my parents had been there (that is, as something before I was, something that proved there was a world before me), had gone bad. And, as absurd as it sounds, the idea of that not just terrified but horrified me: that something that seemed as evil as the tornado could break something so fundamental. Although the situation and setting isn’t the same, I wanted to try and write about that fear, and it became the climax of the story. (And I should add that the story wouldn’t have been written were it not for a prompt in Matthew Vollmer’s fiction workshop).
Terrence: In Don Giovanni, the statue of the murdered Commendatore appears, and drags the Don down to Hell. There must have been a time when the statue first realized that it was – had been – someone whom the Don had killed. Perhaps it was being carved – by a second-rate sculptor who worked on the cheap – who resented having to do hack jobs for a few ducati. The statue remembered – that there had been a life before; and how it had ended – and how there could be revenge.
What is your favorite ghost story of all time?
Shannon: I deeply admire (and drew inspiration from) Don Chaon’s “The Bees”, which is also a ghost story that deals with alcoholism. “The Bees” features a man who has ditched his drinking and his destructive ways – but his happy ending with his wife and young son is beginning to blur at the edges. The past, the awful past, begins to leak into the present. Chaon’s former addict is, I think, a dark double, and his former life, an underworld of the self. This story is relentless, start to finish; it’s bookended by two horrific, fascinating images and moves swiftly between these two points. “The Bees” can be read as a psychological thriller, a mystery, a tale of the supernatural, an allegory of addiction: all elements are present, and form part of a tight narrative weave. There is nothing self-helpy here, and nothing moralistic either – just terrific storytelling. I also love Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, an early feminist tale of a woman’s breakdown, instigated by a forced “rest cure.” The woman’s projections onto the wallpaper of her gentile cage are so disturbing, and yet so coolly articulated: she’s a ladylike madwoman, right to the very end when she crawls over her belatedly shocked spouse.
Jamie: The Shining, by Stephen King. It was the book that taught me that good characters are the key to good horror. When you feel things for the characters (despite – or maybe because of – their flaws) before the horror even starts, it magnifies your fear as the reader. The Overlook is scary, no matter how you look at it, but thinking of Jack and Wendy and Danny as real people trapped inside makes the fear metastasize into terror.
Terrence: In the O.T., King Saul calls up the ghost of the prophet Samuel. Samuel has a terrible prophecy for Saul. Saul should have never tried to raise the dead, because the prophecy may never have come true had Samuel not been so incensed at having been raised to a kind of re-lived life.