All Stories Are Ghost Stories
by Tamara Linse
I recently read Kelly Link’s great short story “Two Houses” in The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume Seven. It’s also in her new collection Get in Trouble.
It’s such a great story. Two sister ships are sent out into deep space, and one of the ships disappears in the blink of an eye. Years later, the crew of the second ship awakes from hypersleep for a birthday party and to tell ghost stories. There’s the story of the ghostly people looking up from the table in the meadow. There’s the little girl cut in half by a falling tree. There’s the rich aristocratic boyfriend who lived in two identical ghost-ridden houses. I won’t tell you the end, but it gives me the chills just to think about it.
That got me thinking. Someone much smarter than I said that all stories are ghost stories, and I think that’s true. We writers are in the industry of memory. We take our own emotional memories, and we bleed them out on the page.
Our best writing comes from those things that haunt us, the make us uncomfortable, that embarass us, that shake us to our bones. One of my mentors, Steve Almond, once said, “Run screaming toward the pain.” It’s so true. We writers have to embrace discomfort and pain in a way others can avoid. We have to “go there” in our minds, experience things, in order to write about them. If your character is dying, you have to experience what that’s like in order to write about it, even if it’s just research. You have to imagine it. You have to imagine the worst possible scenarios to make them real on the page, and the more fully you imagine them and convey that, the better the work is.
My novel Earth’s Imagined Corners is a ghost story because it’s my imagining of what my great grandfather and great grandmother went through as he grew up in poverty and was thrown in prison for a horse thief. Them meeting and marrying and moving to Kansas City to open a store. These are some of my ghosts ~ Ma Strong and her husband Frank. It haunts me, how Frank and his mother were in poverty. How Frank was both a good man and also did things like stealing horses and chasing his wife with an ax.
It’s also my ghost story because it takes my deepest feelings of terror and puts them on the page. I fear the powerlessness that comes with being a woman, and it was so much moreso in the 1880s. I am deeply saddened by poverty, and I empathize with that little boy who was so powerless to help himself and his mother. I feel in some small way the terror and struggle of what it was like ~ and still is ~ to be black in America. And there’s the physical struggle of trying to escape natural disasters large and small.
Writers find different ways to show these ghosts. Some people are literally drawn to ghosts, and there are so many wonderful ghost stories. In addition to Kelly Link, Harry Potter comes to mind. And sometimes those ghosts are morphed into other forms, whether it’s historical fiction or science fiction or paranormal. It’s taking the metaphor and putting your own personal twist on it. And I love that. I love that two people can take the exact same idea and their stories will be so different. It’s the one thing that is uniquely ours ~ unique in the true sense of the word, as in the only one in the world. That’s what you offer: your unique take on things.
And so I would encourage you to take that thing that makes you so special ~ your unique take on the world ~ and write the very best stories you can. The world would be poorer without your ghosts.
Photo: The author’s great grandparents Frank and Ellen Strong.
Earth’s Imagined Corners
The Round Earth Series
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Willow Words
Date of Publication: January 31, 2015
Number of pages: 472
Word Count: 130,000
In 1885 Iowa, Sara Moore is a dutiful daughter, but when her father tries to force her to marry his younger partner, she must choose between the partner—a man who treats her like property—and James Youngblood—a kind man she hardly knows who has a troubled past.
When she confronts her father, he beats her and turns her out of the house, breaking all ties, so she decides to elope with James to Kansas City with hardly a penny to their names.
In the tradition of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Earth’s Imagined Corners is a novel that comprehends the great kindnesses and violences we do to each other.
Available at Amazon
Anamosa, Iowa, 1885
Sara Moore should have nothing to fear this week. She had been meticulous in her entering into the ledger the amounts that Minnie the cook requested she spend on groceries. She had remembered, just, to include her brother Ed’s purchase of materials to mend sister Maisie’s doll house and to subtract the pickling salt that she had purchased for sister Esther but for which Esther’s husband Gerald had reimbursed her. She stood at her father’s shoulder as he went over the weekly household accounts, and even though her father owned Moore Grocer & Sundries from which she ordered the family’s groceries, he still insisted she account for the full price in the ledger. “No daughter of mine,” he often said, though sometimes he would finish the thought and sometimes his neatly trimmed eyebrows would merely bristle.
Despite the buttressing of her corset, Sara hunched forward, somewhat reducing her tall frame. She intertwined her fingers so that she would not fiddle with the gathers of soft navy wool in her overskirt, and she tried not to breathe too loudly, so as not to bother him, nor to breathe too deeply, in order to take in little of the cigar smoke curling up from his elephant-ivory ashtray on the hulking plantation desk.
As always, the heavy brocade curtains armored Colonel Moore’s study against the Iowa day, so the coal oil lamps flickered in their brackets. Per instructions, Sipsy the maid lit them early every morning, snuffed them when he left for the grocery, lit them again in anticipation of his return at seven, and then snuffed them again after he retired. It was an expense, surely, but one that Sara knew better than to question. The walls of the study were lined with volumes of military history and maps of Virginia and Georgia covered in lines, symbols, and labels carefully inked in Colonel Moore’s hand. In its glass case on the bureau rested Colonel Moore’s 1851, an intricately engraved pistol awarded to him during the War of Northern Aggression. Sipsy dusted daily, under stern directive that not a speck should gather upon any surface in the room.
Sara’s father let out a sound between an outlet of breath and a groan. This was not good. He was not pleased. Sara straightened her shoulders and took a breath and held it but let her shoulders slump forward once more.
“My dear,” he said, his drawl at a minimum, “your figures, once again, are disproportionate top to bottom. And there is too much slant, as always, in their curvatures. I urge you to practice your penmanship.” His tone was one of indulgence.
Inaudibly, Sara let out her breath. If he was criticizing her chirography, then he had found nothing amiss in the numbers. The accounts were sound for another week. Later, when he checked the numbers against the accounts at the grocery, there was less of a chance that she had missed something.
He closed the ledger, turned his chair, and with both hands held the ledger out to her. She received it palms up and said, “I will do better, Father.”
“You would not want to disappoint to your mother.” His drawl was more pronounced.
So he had regretted his indulgence and was not satisfied to let her go unchecked. His wife, Sara’s mother, had been dead these five years, and since then Sara had grown to take her place, running the household, directing the servants, and caring for six year-old Maisie. Ed needed little looking after, as he was older than Sara, though unmarried, and Esther, the oldest, was married with two daughters and farm of her own.
Sara straightened her shoulders again and hugged the ledger to her chest. “Yes, Father,” she said and turned and left the room, trying to keep her pace tranquil and unhurried. She went to the kitchen, where Minnie had a cup of coffee doused with cream and sugar awaiting her. Minnie gave her an encouraging smile, and though Sara did not acknowledge what went unsaid between them—one must shun familiarity with the servants—she lifted her shoulders slightly and said, “Thank you, Minnie.” Minnie, with the round figure and dark eyes of a Bohemian, understood English well, though she still talked with a pronounced accent, and Sara had only heard her speak the round vowels and chipped consonants of her native tongue once, when a delivery man indigenous to her country of origin walked into the kitchen with mud on his boots. Sara tucked the ledger in its place on a high shelf and then allowed herself five minutes of sipping coffee amid the wonderful smells of Minnie’s pompion tart. Then she rose, rinsed her cup, and applied herself to her day.
The driver had Father’s horse and gig waiting, as always, at twenty minutes to nine. As Father stretched his fingers into his gloves, pulling them tight by the wrist leather, he told Sara, “When you come at noon, I have something unusual to show you.”
“Yes, Father,” she said.
It seemed odd that he would concern her with anything to do with business. He left her to the household. He had long tried to coerce Ed into the business, but Ed’s abilities trended more toward the physical. He was a skilled carpenter, though Father kept a close rein on where he took jobs and whom he worked for. All talk of renaming the business Moore & Son had been dropped when Father had recently promoted the young man who was his assistant, Chester O’Hanlin, to partner. Mr. O’Hanlin had droopy red muttonchops and a body so long and thin he looked a hand-span taller than he really was, which was actually a bit shorter than Sara. Mr. O’Hanlin didn’t talk much, either, and he seemed always to be listening. He held himself oddly, cocking his head to one side, first one way and then the other, his small dark eyes focusing off to the left or right of the speaker. His nose, long and wedge-shaped, seemed to take up half his face. “Chester, the Chinaman,” Maisie called him outside of his presence because of the way he stooped and bobbed whenever their father entered the room.
About the Author:
Tamara Linse jokes that she was raised in the 1880s, and so it was natural for her to set a book there. She is the author of the short story collection How to Be a Man and the novel Deep Down Things and earned her master’s in English from the University of Wyoming, where she taught writing. Her work appears in the Georgetown Review, South Dakota Review, and Talking River, among others, and she was a finalist for an Arts & Letters and Glimmer Train contests, as well as the Black Lawrence Press Hudson Prize for a book of short stories. She works as an editor for a foundation and a freelancer.
Find her online at www.tamaralinse.com and her blog Writer, Cogitator, Recovering Ranch Girl at www.tamara-linse.blogspot.com