I tend to binge read certain kinds of literature, like people compulsively watch every episode of a television series. Something will fit a certain need and I begin read the books one after another until the desire is sated. Recently, it was the Russians.
My favorite is always The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, an incredible work of magical realism about Satan visiting the Soviet Union. There’s something comforting in the insanity of it, the clash between the absurd atheist bureaucracy and the equally absurd supernatural with ordinary people caught in between the two powerful, unyielding forces.
The most powerful piece I read, or the one that affected me the most deeply, was The Seagull by Chekov. In the collection I picked up from the library, the play is described as a comedy. That is completely baffling to me. Even with my inappropriate sense of humor, I wasn’t laughing at the inevitable tragedy of the characters. I just pitied them all.
The main character kills a seagull, a metaphor for the woman he loves because she has rejected him for another man. Worse still, she loves another writer and his work. But there was no need for the bird to die, as the woman herself will be destroyed by her own choices. And in the end, he takes his own life feeling that he has failed in obtaining his only two passions – the seagull and literary success.
The only characters that were happy were the ones capable of lying to themselves. The writer whose callous actions cause so much pain to those around him scribbles in his notebook with happy oblivion, disturbed only by his need to continue his artistic pursuits. The husband, who loves his wife though he can see she does not return his affections and loves another man, is still able to smile because he has so thoroughly convinced himself that his wife will return home to him and their child.
Domesticity is bearable only through denial. Because when you look too closely at the bonds that bind family together – husband and wife, brother and sister, mother and son – you will see that the cords are frayed and the skin is bruised and chafed.
I think I’m ready to stop reading the Russians now, whatever inner needs that compelled me to consume the works has been satisfied. I think I’d enjoy something with a little less honesty.
While I didn’t bring home any ghosts from Eureka Springs, I did bring home a new friend. This is Precious, a creation of Valerie Hubbard Damon . She is an author, illustrator, publisher, sculptor and multi-dimensional artist. I was fortunate to meet her at the gallery Iris at the Basin Park. If you are not familiar with her work, you might start with her children’s books. They are very imaginative and beautifully illustrated.
Recently I had the experience of staying in a haunted house in Eureka Springs. I generally tend to avoid staying in haunted places or participating in paranormal studies because I do believe in ghosts and the thought of seeking them out is profoundly terrifying. Vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural nasties are easy for me to scoff at as a skeptic, but ghosts – well, there I struggle to maintain a rational mind and often find myself shivering at the cold spots and phantom footsteps that occupy unfamiliar spaces.
I did not know the house was haunted at first. Honestly, I didn’t. Had I done a more thorough internet search about my choice in destinations, I would have found out. But I didn’t and our experience was all the richer for it.
For my birthday, I rented Maplewood Manor 1883 and invited some friends to join my fiancée, Mona, and I for a weekend of art, food, and wine. Then around one in the morning, while playing a game and finishing our third bottle of red, Lastacia asked if any one else could hear footsteps in the hallway upstairs. While Liz agreed, the rest of us loudly (and a little drunkenly) shouted our objections. No! Of course not! That’s just the noise from the road.
We went to sleep that night a little nervously, unsure if it was really just the air conditioner making the lights flicker and if it was really just the wine that made the wooden mask in the red bedroom seem a little more sinister.
The next day we wandered the town shopping and browsing the beautiful galleries. Late in the afternoon, we went to Crystal Waters. It is one of my favorite places to visit in Eureka Springs, a gorgeous shop of stones and crystals with wonderful staff who are always happy to talk and share their knowledge.
They had a selection of pendulums and we spent a long time playing one, asking it various serious and frivolous questions then marveling at the accuracy of the answers. Then someone asked it a very simple question, “Will we go on a ghost tour tonight?” It answered in the affirmative.
That was not a surprise. While we had kept the trip mostly unplanned, one of the only things we were sure we would do was go on a ghost tour our second evening in Eureka Springs. But when I tried to find tickets to a nearby tour, I found that everywhere was sold out or cancelled for a private event. We were sad, but also a little confused. The pendulum had assured us we would be going on a ghost tour. And it had been right about everything else.
We returned to Maplewood Manor to drink some more wine and sit on the beautiful brick patio, enjoying the cool, spring evening. When as darkness began to fall and cast us in those beautiful blue shadows of twilight, a small crowd of people arrived led by a friendly tour guide. The pendulum had been right after all. Only we weren’t going on the ghost tour; we were already ON the ghost tour!
I won’t tell you the stories the tour guide shared with us, for that you should visit Eureka Springs and take the Haunted Eureka Springs tour. But they did confirm some of our own experiences from the night before.
We spent the rest of the night trying to communicate with the spirits that occupy that house, though our efforts may have been hindered by the amount of wine we were drinking during our investigation.
It was only after we went to bed that the ghosts made their presence known. The next morning, we shared our experiences. Most of us reported waking up around 3:30am to strange noises, footsteps and the sounds of things moving around the house. Alana thought she heard something outside her door, she described it as coffee beans being spilled on hardwood floors.
The most terrifying was Lena’s. She swore that in the middle of the night she woke up with the tremendous feeling that something was in her room. As she lay on her side, it was standing in front of her and she knew that if she opened her eyes that she would see it it looking back at her. But she wouldn’t open her eyes. Slowly she felt it move around the bed until it was behind her. Still, she would not open her eyes. Then some thing slammed down on the bed, shaking the mattress, like a child trying to rouse it’s mother in the middle of the night. But she would not move, would not open her eyes. And it went away.
Hearing Lena’s story, I was a little relieved we were leaving that morning. While I truly enjoyed my stay in Maplewood Manor, the only thing I want jumping on my bed in the middle of the night is one of our cats. Still, it was an incredible weekend and I can honestly say the best birthday party I’ve ever had, even if it had a few extra paranormal attendees.
It has not been an easy month for me, or several months for that matter. As I often tend to, I have taken comfort in horror. I have been reading Shirley Jackson and watching horror movies (I’m currently watching Feast right now, because you’ve got to love a horror movie that actually offers the life expectancies of the characters and then defies them).
I have been a fan of Monica Gallagher’s comics for a very long time, especially Bonnie N. Collide. I’ll also admit I’ve written her at least one fan letter. I’m not embarrassed…much. But she’s an incredibly talented story teller and artist entirely deserving of everyone’s praise and admiration.
The comfort of horror is this:
At least in horror movies they acknowledge horrible things happen to people. No matter if they’re good or bad. No matter if they deserve it or not. And at the end of the movie, at least someone gets out alive.
While I tend to do most of my writing on my laptop where I can edit and re-edit and re-edit, there is no substitute for writing in a notebook while drinking espresso in a coffeeshop.
I’m currently re-reading The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark. It is a book that has had a uniquely lasting impression on me. Over ten years later, I can recall not just specific passages, but the physical experience of reading them for the first time – where I was at that moment, how the page looked, how the book felt in my hands, and how my heart felt as it beat hard and heavy in my chest.
Very few writers can create stories that are a visceral experience to read. Muriel Spark is one. Shirley Jackson is another.
When I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I couldn’t stay seated during the fire scene. An incredible sense of urgency came over me, I struggled to read one word at a time and not tear through the pages as I paced around my house with the book held out in front of me as if it was guiding me from room to room. Now, even a reference to the book or the name Merricat renews that sense of fear and panic that Shirley Jackson inspires in her text. And it is not lost in repetition. I re-read the fire scene several times, worried I had missed something in my hurry to read it and the feelings returned each time when I re-read it.
Muriel Spark and Shirley Jackson don’t just create stories, they create experiences. As I reader, I don’t just remember what was told. I remember the physical and emotion response I have to the telling.