Thursday, April 09, 2009

"It behaved just as you would expect a ghost to behave," or, Going on an online ghost hunt

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The other night, I found myself in a position that will be frustratingly familiar to any bookseller (and that, if you enjoy this sort of thing, you can experience vicariously every couple of weeks through the Book Lady's Blog): a customer was looking for a particular book, but he didn't remember who had written it or what the title was. Oh, and he was pretty sure it was out of print.

What was strange about this situation, aside from the fact that I haven't worked as a bookseller for going on ten years now, is that the customer was me. When I was a boy, I read a small paperback book of ghost stories over and over again. It had belonged to my father when he was young, and in recent years, I'd looked for it now and then when I'd been at my parents' house, but I hadn't seen it in years. Nevertheless, it returned to my mind with remarkable regularity: to say that I thought of its stories every time the wind howled, or the fallen leaves rustled, or bare branches scraped at a window would be to exaggerate, but not by that much.

So on an absurdly blustery night recently, I determined to find it. All I had to go on were two stories that I knew it contained: Walter R. Brooks's "Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons," which I'd later encountered in another anthology and a story about a watery ghost. Armed with that information and a cup of fortifying tea, I hied myself to the Internet.

And oh, the glories of to be found therein! The search took all of three minutes. Looking for "Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons" on Google Books turned up a volume from Greenwood Publishing, The Supernatural Index: A Listing of Fantasy, Supernatural, Occult, Weird, and Horror Anthologies (1995), edited by Mike Ashley and William G. Contento. Page 140 gave me a listing of stories by Walter R. Brooks, each followed by a list of all the anthologies in which it had appeared; a search on "water ghost" within that book turned up the same for John Kendrick Bangs's "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall." From there, I was a cross-reference away from my book: the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories (1964), edited by Nora Kramer and published by Scholastic.

Used copies, it turned out, were readily available for less than $2, so now I have the book in hand, and though it's as much fun as I remember. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this book introduced me to "The King of the Cats," whose hold over my imagination I've written about before. And, as with my recent re-reading of "The Birds," I astonished at how many distinct descriptions and phrases quickly revealed themselves as familiar, word for word, as I made my way through the stories.

Though none of the tales is of the sort to scare an adult, it's easy to see how they cast such a spell over me when I was young. For the most part, they draw on the uneasy relationship between the human world and the forest, the settled and the unsettled, the way that darkness can work a sinister transformation on our everyday surroundings. In J. B. Esenwein and Marietta Stockard's "The Woodman and the Goblins," a woodman, having stayed too late in the village, sets out for home on a dark Hallowe'en night:
Now the old Woodman would have told you that he could find his way home with his eyes shut, but suddenly, to his great surprise, he saw that the road looked very strange. He was lost! As he went forward, the woods became thicker and thicker. The trees were so close together he could hardly squeeze through. But he walked on, jumping at every sound, for it was very dark indeed, and he could not help thinking of witches, goblins, and ghosts.
In Barbee Oliver Carleton's "The Wonderful Cat of Cobbie Bean," Cobbie Bean is out in his field, hoeing by moonlight, when:
Then it happened. Alone in the moonlight, Cobbie heard something more than the peepers in the marsh below. He heard a strange voice whisper, "Cobbie Bean . . . Cobbie Bean . . . " It was the voice of the wind or of the sea. But there was no wind at all that night. Nor could the sound of the sea be heard from Cobbie's lonely hill. Under the hobblebush there was nothing but moon-shadow. Cobbie felt the hair prickle on his neck.
I grew up in rural Illinois, living in a house in the country, but there were always neighbors around, and no matter where you were, you were never far from a paved road or a lighted house. The vision these stories presented was of an earlier, less populous, less settled, less known America, where you just might get lost and suddenly find yourself surrounded by Longfellow's unmapped forest:
Dark behind it rose the forest
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees
As much as anything else except Washington Irving (and, later, Stephen King), the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories served to establish for me that New England, and the colonial past it represented, were the home of ghosts. Now that I'm an adult, despite the fact that I know much more about the realities of American history and those dark forests, that's where ghosts and spirits still live for me, and it seems natural to find them lurking in everything from the shadows of Hudson River school paintings to the Berkshire towns of John Crowley.

My ten-year-old nephew is coming to town this weekend for his first solo visit to me and Stacey at the Rocketship; here's hoping he's not already too old to enjoy a couple of these stories, read aloud in front of the fire.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out and for sharing your story. I think all readers, myself included, have had those moments where we're at the bookstore and we don't know much about what we're looking for. That's not the problem.

    The problem is that many customers don't use the resources available to them (i.e. the glory of the world wide interweb) to figure out what they're looking for, as you did. That's when we end up hearing, "I think the cover was blue...and it was a mystery. Or wait, maybe it was a romance..."

    So glad you found what you were looking for! It's nice when it works out that way.

  2. Rebecca,
    Thanks for the note. I always really enjoy your retail stories; they simultaneously remind me of how much fun bookselling was and how glad I am I'm not doing it these days. Keep 'em coming!

    {By the way: I realized earlier this morning that I forgot to actually link to your blog in that post; I'm planning to remedy that, but it'll have to wait until I'm back home.