When I wrote the thirteen chronicles in Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries (1899-1909), I decided to make the first half of the book lean toward telling Lucille’s story. Her immigrant past. Her father dying. Her mother, who didn’t speak English well, doing what she could to keep her family of two alive in the U.S. And the daughter’s resentment of how her mother succeeded at doing that.
This month’s free story, “Shadows Cast from Behind Me,” starts to bring closure to that narrative. It does so on a positive note, I think. It’s a story about the past but also very much about the future. Those who’ve read the entire book know what an important role Eric “Rick” Bergson comes to play in the life of Vera’s sidekick, and he returns here from “Skittering Holes.” For myself, this is an especially important story in terms of the future because it introduces my great-grandfather and gets him to Chicago! If that hadn’t happened . . . well, I’m happy it did.
Please enjoy “Shadows Cast from Behind Me” on the A Complimentary Haunting page of my Ghostly Mysteries site. You’ll find a link to download the story in .pdf, .epub, or .mobi (Kindle) format.
If nothing else, “Shadows” depicts a curious moment in cinema history: the transition to watching movies projected onto a screen.
Algernon Blackwood left an interesting puzzle for fans of occult detective fiction. It’s his four stories featuring a character named Jim Shorthouse. My research suggests the earliest one to be published was “A Case of Eavesdropping,” which appeared in the December 1900 issue of Pall Mall Magazine. As far as I can tell, the remaining three Shorthouse tales were first published in Blackwood’s collection The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories, which also reprinted the first.
The puzzle is 1) why Blackwood scattered the stories throughout in the collection rather than putting them side-by-side and 2) why they seem to be in no particular order at all even though Shorthouse pretty clearly evolves. The solution might well be that, even when put into a seemingly sensible sequence, the stories still feel a bit disjointed — as if Blackwood never saw them as a cohesive series but just found the name “Jim Shorthouse” interesting or handy. Scattering and jumbling the four stories in The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories reinforces the idea that they were never meant to be read as sequential.
Just the same, I suggest that there is a fairly logical order to the tales, one that reveals Shorthouse’s growth toward becoming an occult detective as well as the character’s evolution in mastering fear. The order I suggest is this: “A Case of Eavesdropping,” “The Strange Adventures of a New York Secretary,” “The Empty House,” and then “With Intent to Steal.”
I suspect most readers would agree that “A Case of Eavesdropping” should come first. By itself, it really doesn’t qualify as an occult detective story, since a young Shorthouse arrives in (presumably) New York City from England, moves into a room with noisy neighbors, gets very scared when he discovers they’re dead, and ends the story by vamoosing. There’s no detecting here and no clear detective/client or detective/criminal relationship. However, we do learn that Shorthouse can see ghosts when others cannot. This is a first step toward becoming a ghost-hunter when read with the other tales in mind. Also, when young Shorthouse flees the haunted room in the end, we see that fear has beaten him.
In a way, the next story in my ordering of them is the oddest, perhaps as its name suggests. “The Strange Adventures of a New York Secretary” shows a more settled, more mature Shorthouse. He’s considering his financial future, after all. He’s not much more adept at occult detection, though he jokes about feeling like a detective at one point. Despite these small steps forward, he’s now much tougher when it comes to coping with the crazy (and kind of hokey) menagerie of Gothic creepiness into which Blackwood drops him. Important to his overall character evolution, he’s now much more cognizant of how to manage, if not master, his fear.
It’s in “The Empty House” where Shorthouse reveals glimmers of becoming a good occult detective — or, at least, a good “psychical researcher” of haunted houses. This time, he doesn’t just accidentally find himself in a haunted place; he accepts an invitation to explore one! And he knows the right and proper investigative routine, making notes as he goes. Though Blackwood describes him a “young” man in passing, his wrinkle-cheeked, “elderly spinster aunt” accompanies him on the investigation. Not his grandmother, mind you, who would be a full two generations removed but his aunt. Our young man is growing up, in other words.
He’s growing up in terms of facing fear, too, since this time he has to manage not just his own fear — but that of his companion, too. If not for this element of the story, one could probably swap “Empty House” and “Strange Adventures” either way. However, I maintain that Shorthouse’s experience with having his aunt along with him as his companion leads especially well into the final story. I suppose the fact that “Eavesdropping” and “Strange Adventures” are both set in New York also helps. Though it’s inconclusive, “Empty House” suggests that Shorthouse just might have moved back to England.
Much as it’s easy to put “Eavesdropping” first, it’s also easy to put “With Intent to Steal” last. Shorthouse is now decidedly more mature — even worldly — and he’s fully committed to combating supernatural evil. His relationship with a companion, as I say above, is also central to this case. That companion serves as the narrator in the style of Dr. Watson, reinforcing the notion that Shorthouse has very much arrived as a true occult detective. As the two characters spend the night in a haunted barn, Shorthouse tells of his earlier experiences, and a reader might wonder if the companion here isn’t, in fact, the narrator of the earlier three stories, too! Blackwood never resolves that issue once and for all, though.
But why does it matter what order we put them in? Why can’t the stories just be read in the order Blackwood put them in The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories — or in any order the reader chooses? Well, of course, this is all an exercise in building a Shorthouse of cards. There’s no real point other than . . . why not? It’s this or go buy some milk. After all, I am out of milk.
And I’m in the final stage of editing a new anthology for Coachwhip Publications’ growing series of occult detective books. My book is made up of occult detective “short series,” each series spotlighting a character whose two, three, or four adventures weren’t enough to fill a book by themselves. Jim Shorthouse is one of those characters, and I had to find some defensible order to place the stories. I’ll give more specifics about this anthology as the publication date approaches, so stop by from time to time to learn about Giving Up the Ghosts: Short-Lived Occult Detective Series by Six Renowned Authors. I think it’ll be a fun addition to the libraries of occult detective fans.
Personally, I prefer transparency when it comes to ghostly manifestations. Let everybody see what’s what, not just a privileged few!
However, there’s a long tradition of ghost-seers, individuals with the unique ability to see — even chat with — dead people. In some cases, those with mediumistic powers actually aid spirits in manifesting in the physical world (by lending ectoplasm or energy, etc.). During the heyday of Spiritualism, psychic mediums claimed to have that ability, and many of those without it were willing to pay to communicate with the dearly departed. These days, you see the same general idea played out in movies like The Sixth Sense and TV programs like The Ghost Whisperer.
But would anyone really want to be a ghost-seer? Would your life be your own, or would you have to dedicate yourself to helping ghosts move on? Or would you become a kind of Lieutenant Uhura of the U.S.S. Afterlife, shuttling sub-dimensional communications between the Great Beyond and a federation of mourners? Would you be labeled a loony or, far worse, a reality-TV sensation?
This is the dilemma Jacqueline E. Smith explores in Cemetery Tours. Michael Sinclair is a ghost-seer from birth, and he’s far from happy about it. He doesn’t quite know what to do with this, uhm, “gift.” So Smith throws two situations at him to help him decide.
The main plot involves the attractive — and literal — girl-next-door, Kate Avery, whose brother’s energy is being drained by . . . something. We learn pretty quickly that it’s an angry ghost, and I liked the idea that, when ghosts interact with the living, they become a bit psychic vampire-y. That’s a complication that makes ghosts more dangerous than they tend to be in fiction.
And Michael and Kate look to be our romantic leads. At first.
But then the dashing and cocky Luke Rainer shows up. He’s a, uhm, reality-TV sensation. He has one of those ghost-hunting shows that a lot of people seem to like. (Not a fan. Too much build-up, too little pay-off for my tastes.) At first, it looks as if Smith is going to pull a Hot-Chick-Ignores-Cute-Dork-in-Favor-of-Dashing-Jerk-But-Finally-Learns-that-Cute-Dork-Is-the-Man-for-Her formula we know from so many 1980s movies. At first. But Kate and Luke’s first date fizzles, and it turns out that Luke is actually more interested in Michael! Well. Luke only wants Micheal for his paranormal vision. What’s great here is the turn-around. Smith is quite good at setting up certain expectations — and then surprising readers by heading somewhere else. This makes things feel much more true-to-life.
A second plot line develops when Michael, Kate, and Luke go ghost hunting. What about Kate’s energy-depleted brother? Hmm, yeah, that gets curiously neglected for a time, but we do get back to it before too long, and it grows into a very complicated, very interesting dilemma. It deals with the strangeness of the human brain, with memory, and with healing — all matters that Smith makes central to her novel from the very start. What I liked most about this novel is the situation surrounding the brother’s haunting, a scary thing that evolved from an effort to do the right thing. There’s something very human in it. (To say much more would be to spoil the drama.)
Once that begins to be resolved, that ghost investigation that earlier pulled attention away comes rushing back. Here, the book inches toward becoming big Hollywood finale-ish, but Smith is still dealing with that theme of good intentions gone frighteningly wrong. And she’s still testing Michael, forcing him to decide what to do about his ghost-sight. It’s refreshing to read a ghost novel, one that might be considered a beach novel, that has a thoughtful theme running through it and is very much concerned with exploring character. The ending itself is complicated, too. Not a tragic ending, mind you, but not a fairy tale ending, either. It’s a smart, honest ending.
And there’s a sequel. It’s titled Between Worlds.
Let me end by discussing one more of the novel’s charms: its local color. It’s set in and around Dallas, Texas, and I wished there had been one or two more regional references if only because I’ve visited that area. That said, I do have to comment on what might be considered the very subtle, very indirect “Red River Rivalry” smack talk Smith embedded in the story. The Red River runs between Texas and Oklahoma, the latter state being where I’ve spent the last fifteen years. Like everywhere else I’ve lived in the U.S., the next-state-over is a target for lighthearted belittlement. On behalf of Okies, all I’ll say in reply to Smith is this: I know you Texans need everything to be bigger, but Muricans say “amid” and “among,” not “amidst” and “amongst.” Kind of like how we say “while” instead of “whilst.”
And, honestly, if that’s the nastiest thing I can say about the novel, it must be a very good novel indeed.
Three years ago this month, Decoder Ring Theatre posted their production of my audio drama “Plotting for Perfection.” What first catches my attention most about this tale is how it keeps jumping around in time, which is very appropriate given its time-jumping topic. It started as a short story that a “little magazine” called Outer Darkness published in 2002. The story sat for a long time, then I adapted it to audio–making fairly significant changes–to be posted in 2012. That production was then broadcast across Australia on a show called Top of the Pods later that year–and, at the close of 2012, the folks at SFFaudio asked me do a reading of the original short story. So feel free to read the original, listen to the adaptation, or listen to me read the original.
There’s something about this one that really makes me understand why the Marvellous Boxes anthology was spoken of as following in the tradition of The Twilight Zone. It might be Gregg Taylor’s performance as Brent, the perfectionist photographer. His characterization has a nice balance between believability and cartoonishness. (Brent’s obsession with perfectionism makes him somewhat cartoonish.) Maybe it’s the experimental storytelling technique involving jumping through time, something which challenges the audience at least a bit. And there certainly is a moral at the end . . . though I tried to add a touch more ambiguity than I remember from Twilight Zone episodes in my tragic ending — with a ray of hope.
It’s funny. Poor Brent — who does and doesn’t illicit my sympathy, since he’s pretty much a jerk — keeps coming back into my life. And he’s a character haunted by guilt, something I explore at far greater length in Help for the Haunted.
But what makes Brent very different is: he’s not haunted by his past. He’s haunted by his future.