December 7th, 1899

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     In Georgia, in February of 1865, young Adelaide McCutcheon was deafened by her master shortly before she and her family were freed by Federal troops.

     Adelaide was a child of stunning intellect, and as she grew older, she matured into a beautiful woman. As Adelaide she traveled north, she found that while her heritage could be an issue, it was not always so.

     The most accepting town, she discovered, was Cross, and she settled there. She found work at the library, shelving and managing the library’s financial affairs.

     On December 7th, 1899, she was returning from a dinner out with Duncan Blood, her new suitor, when a commotion began near the restaurant.

     A young man carrying a haversack staggered up the street. His face was pale and set in a visage of pain. Others near him fell away, vomiting into the snow.

     Duncan clamped his hands over his own ears as he and Adelaide approached the young man. They watched as the stranger’s eyes rolled up and he pitched forward, the haversack opening and books spilling out onto the ground.

     Adelaide quickly swept them back into the bag, and together she and Duncan brought the books to his home. In the safety of his library, Duncan could hear the books whispering, and what they told him turned his stomach.

     A second, smaller library was soon built as an addition onto his home, and the books were placed within the safety of its soundproofed walls. Adelaide became the librarian of the whispering books and took the last name of Blood as she and Duncan were wed.

     There has been no other librarian since her death, and any who are invited into Duncan’s home are advised to stay away from the door.

     Beyond it, the soft whispers of madness can be heard.

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The Horror of Shirley Jackson

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     One of my favorite dedications by an author is the one written by Stephen King for his novel Firestarter. In it King states that the book is dedicated, “to Shirley Jackson, who never had to raise her voice.”

     If you have ever read any of Shirley Jackson’s books or short stories – The Lottery, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House to name a few – you know that King spoke the truth. The subtle terror Jackson wove through her stories was enough to leave you wondering if you were mad, if she was mad, or if you even existed at all. You doubted everything you saw, whether it was the tranquility of the New England village you drove through on a Sunday afternoon, or if you should really accept a cup of tea from a neighbor.

     Shirley Jackson was, in a word, magnificent.

     Not only was she a master of terror (and for an excellent explanation of the difference between terror, horror, and the ‘gross out,’ please read Stephen King’s On Writing and Danse Macabre, two excellent works on both the craft of writing and horror in literature), she was also a master of humor. There is a pair of books about her family and their time in Vermont. The two books, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, are pieces that show the breadth and depth of her abilities.

     Shirley Jackson’s works are subtle, with plots and characters that are believable enough to keep you thinking for decades, which I feel was the point.

     Stephen King was absolutely correct when he said she never had to raise her voice. It’s up to us to listen for what she’s saying, and to try to understand what she means with each carefully chosen word.

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What Scares You?

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     Trees frighten me.

     Let me clarify this: old New England trees scare me. There is something I find to be undeniably sinister about them. I see them as both cheerless and deadly. Tree worship is neither difficult to understand nor is it implausible to me.

     I can see elder gods and ancient spirits in the twisted branches and gnarled trunks of apple trees, in the swaying, whip-like branches of the weeping willows, and in the long, drooping boughs of evergreens.

     These trees are waiting for me to commit some sacrilege, to forget to show obeisance or to commit some other transgression – real or imagined.

     When people speak to me of their fondness for nature, of the desire they have to go hiking or camping, I can only nod politely while I hide my own shrieking horror. I know that the trees are waiting for me to stroll carelessly near them, or to fall asleep close to their roots.

     Yes, I say, the reason I wish to remain out of the woods is to avoid bears and mountain lions.

     But the truth is simpler and rooted in a far more primal seat.

     I know the old gods are in the trees, and they wait, as they wait for everything – patiently, and with the sure, terrifying knowledge that they will outlast me.

     When I write my stories and work on my scenes, I tap into this fear. I use it to propel myself along lines of thought I would much rather not travel, and I hope I use it well enough to frighten my readers.

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Giving Them Horror to Remember

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           What makes a building scary? What makes it ripe for a haunting? Is it the structure’s location? Is it the history of the place?

           When the phrase ‘haunted house’ is mentioned, there’s a certain expectation on the part of the reader. The reader, rightly or wrongly, believes that the house should be a house. A home. A structure where someone once lived. Generally, this means that the building should have the appearance that we are familiar with. If it is an older house, it should be a Victorian, perhaps Edwardian. Should the setting be in the South, then we believe it should be a grand old plantation. Further up into New England, we expect farmhouses or cottages at the least. In the cities, we look for tenement buildings. Out west, entire towns of false-front buildings. And on the West Coast, we expect beachfront villas.

           But what about those in-between places?

         What if in the city it’s not an apartment building, but a rundown garage? Or if it’s the seacoast, why not part of a marina? In a New England town, why not an old store?

          Horror and terror shouldn’t be confined to stereotypes, no matter how comfortable that might make a reader feel. Because no matter how much they might enjoy the ghost story or terrifying tale, if it doesn’t push them, at least a little bit, then they’re not going to be moved by the story.

           Yes, a haunted Victorian is interesting. Yes, it could even be disturbing if there was the ghost of a cannibal in it.

           But can such a structure compete with an old corner store, if the same sort of tale was told in it? We expect something horrible to exist within the confines of a Victorian. How about the closed down bar at the end of the street? Do we really expect some hideous entity to be patiently waiting in the cellar? Or beneath the bar?

           No, we don’t. And it’s there –  when we challenge the reader’s expectations – that we will succeed in the main goal of storytelling: giving them something to remember and to reflect on.

           Scaring them is easy.

           Making them remember why they were scared a year or two down the road, that’s the real challenge.

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November 30, 1994

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     She is referred to as the Flickering Woman.

     Celina Zaccardi lived in Boston, Massachusetts, making lace as a way to supplement her meager income.

     In 1911, she was one of many people to be photographed in the tenement buildings in an effort to bring to light the deplorable conditions of many of the Nation’s poorest citizens.

     When the image was developed several days later, Celina, along with several others in her building, vanished.

     And while none of the others – or their remains – ever resurfaced, Celina did.

     Or, rather, she did in a peculiar manner.

     On November 30, 1994, Celina’s picture was found in a sealed steamer trunk purchased at an estate sale. The buyer, Ms. Ann O’Mally, promptly framed the photograph and put it on her mantel. That evening, as Ann entertained friends, they all witnessed the arrival of Celina.

     It took place over a matter of 10 seconds, long enough for people to see her clearly as she sat down in an unoccupied chair. She looked confused as she adjusted her dress, prepared lace for more work, and then vanished.

     For 25 years Celina has flickered in and out of reality at various times, never remaining for any longer than 15 seconds.

     After the third event, Ann began a journal and managed to create a way she and Celina could communicate.

     Since the beginning of their conversation, Ann has remained in the same house, slowly creating a room populated only with items built prior to 1911. For while the world has seen a century pass since her disappearance, Celina has been gone for only minutes in her own.

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What drives you to succeed?

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     Is it a need to be the best at your chosen profession? Is it a contrariness in your nature, to make certain that all who doubt you will have to eat crow?

     Are you obsessed and can do nothing other than what you’re doing?

     For me, I’ve always been driven to succeed with my writing. I like to tell stories. Some of them are true. Most aren’t. I’d like to be known for the truths I tell. I’d like to be admired for my ability to write about historical events. The fact of the matter is I can’t. When it comes to writing military history, I need to know everything.

     Absolutely everything about a subject before I feel comfortable enough to write intelligently about it. If there’s a document out there, I need to read it. Someone who lived it? I need to speak with them about it.

     But just as I’m driven to know everything about an historical subject, so too am I driven to write my stories. This focus in regards to my fiction is both good and bad, like so many other qualities in a person.

     The pros, well, I want the story to be the finest I can craft before I set it free into the wild.

     The cons, well, I want the story to be the finest I can craft before I set it free into the wild.

     Do you see the dilemma?

     I’m sure that you, as an equally driven individual, can see it as easily as I do. And so we come to the real question: what do we do about it? When can we let go of the story and say, ‘Go then, and do what you will.’?

     That has always been the most difficult part of writing fiction, deciding when the story is ready to go. I’ve been fortunate in finding a few magazines and publications that have been willing to take a chance on me. But it took a long time, and it requires drive and focus.

     Focus on what you want, and drive yourself toward it.

     There’s no guarantee of success. There’s no guarantee of greatness.

     But there sure as hell isn’t if you never try.

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November 29, 1852

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     The residents of Cross know there is nothing pleasant or delightful about the presence of vampires in the world.

     Men and women have always taken up arms against the undead, and the first resident of Cross to do so was Shelby Thorne.

     In 1841, at the age of 10, Shelby apprenticed to a carpenter, where he learned not only to carve the delicate feathers of an American eagle but to bring a mallet down with force and accuracy.

     In the fall of 1852, a trio of vampires settled into an abandoned house on the Cross and Pepperell border. The undead were quite content with feasting upon farm animals, but they did occasionally supplement their innocuous diet with human blood when the opportunity presented itself.

     On November 22, 1852, Shelby entered his master’s workshop to find the man bled dry, his head and heart missing. While his master’s death was declared a murder, and the town went on a rampage searching for the killer, Shelby was disturbed by the lack of blood.

     He sought out the wisdom of Duncan Blood, who – after hearing details of the crime – stated his belief that the murder was committed by at least one vampire.

     Shelby was not a man given to flights of imagination, but he was one who trusted his elders. With Duncan as his instructor, Shelby hunted down the undead. With ash stakes carved by his own hands, and with the mallet shown in his photograph, Shelby Thorne destroyed the three vampires when he came upon them on November 29, 1852.

     It is said that the descendants of Thorne hunt vampires still, and that you will know them by the tattoo over the heart: Celeritate et Diligentia.

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November 28, 1897

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     Cemeteries can be disturbing for some people.

     And Emily Laurion was terrified of them.

     At the age of 31 in 1897, Emily was a spinster. She was not married, had no intention of being married, and no illusions as to her attractiveness to a potential mate. Emily was neither pleasing to the eye, nor was she wealthy enough for an ambitious – if vulgar – gentleman to overlook her physical shortcomings.

     Both Emily’s parents had been carried away by fever when she was 22, and she suffered from terrible nightmares that they were still alive in their graves. When forced to pass Old Cross Cemetery, where her parents were buried, she often did so with eyes downcast and quick steps.

     On the afternoon of November 28, 1897, Emily was returning from a trip to town, walking as swiftly as she could past the graves of her parents when she heard a mournful, frightened cry.

     For the first time since her parents’ burial, Emily stopped and peered into the cemetery. The sound continued unabated, and she realized it came from a headstone near her parents. She went running into the cemetery, fell to her knees and began digging furiously at the grave of Jos. Eustace St. John (Died 1772 – Age 8yrs.).

     When others came upon the scene, they found her nearly 3 feet down, and they helped her dig the last two feet, the cries growing louder. When they reached the old hardwood of the coffin, Emily tore the top off and revealed a young boy of 8 years, weeping in his coffin.

     On November 28, 1957, Emily Laurion was buried beside her parents by her son, Joshua E. St. John-Laurion.

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My Father and Writing

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     Each of us views the world through our own particular lenses, and these are crafted by our experiences.

     My father is an intelligent and difficult man. He was raised in a hard household, and he made certain not to pass on certain experiences of his own, for which I am exceptionally thankful. While I have written of my father’s experiences as a child, it was done through a filter, and with the goal of keeping some elements of the family’s history private.

     That being said, there were certain expectations placed upon me as a child and as a young man. I am the eldest of his sons, the first born, the one to carry his father’s name. It was my responsibility to not only protect my younger brother, and to shield him from the world as much as possible, but to produce children and carry on the name when it was time.

     My father was raised in a Greek home, and learned the lessons of patriarchy well. Add to this the ferocious demands upon males in American culture in my father’s generation, and you will understand some of the pressure I felt as a young man. In addition to this, there is a history of mental illness in the family.

     Expressing emotions – other than devotion and loyalty to my father and brother – was not only frowned upon, but ridiculed. Acknowledging pain and fear was taboo as well.

     My mental image of my father has always been that of a man of stone. A frightening God at the best and worst of times.

     He has, in no small way, affected my life. It is difficult to move beyond some of those experiences, to write past them, and to be an adult who has emotions and fears.

     Over the years my father has begun to change. To soften. And it is frightening.

     Imagine seeing a great stone edifice slowly crumble, with large chunks breaking off suddenly and for no understandable reason, and you will understand my sense of shock each time my father makes a statement completely out of character.

     Years ago, when I was riding shotgun in a snow-plow, during a particularly brutal nor’easter, the plow I was in passed by an accident. This wasn’t a minor fender bender, or even a car off the road. Someone had lost control of their vehicle, and slammed into a telephone pole, breaking the pole in half.

     People were beginning to stop, trying to get to the vehicle to check on the driver.

     I asked the driver of my truck to pull over, to see if we could help. Even if it was nothing more than parking our large vehicle behind the wreck and directing traffic around it.

     My driver wouldn’t. He shook his head and said other people would help. I was furious, but could do nothing as he turned the truck onto another street and left the scene.

     Later on I learned the driver of the car had been killed.

     When speaking with my father several days later, I told him about what had happened, and how I was angry that the driver of my plow didn’t stop and try to help.

     And my father surprised me.

     “He was afraid,” my father said. “Some men can’t deal with death. You have to cut them some slack, kid. They’re not made like you and me.”

     My father’s compliments are rare. His understanding of the fears of others, and his acceptance of them, was something I had never seen before.

     And like everything else my father has said and done in my presence, it has affected me, and its effect on my writing can still be seen when I craft my characters, and seek some understanding for their actions.

 

 

 

 

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November 27, 1941

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     Raymond Bassett was an avid collector of insects and arachnids from around the world. At the age of 16, he had amassed an impressive collection of identified and – according to his parents – dead creatures. His father, who suffered from a severe phobia of anything with more than two legs, refused to enter Raymond’s room, and stated he would ‘burn the bugs out’ should they ever escape.

     The fact that the bugs were already dead did not stop him from repeating this threat constantly.

     On November 26, 1941, Raymond received a package from an African dealer of rare insects. What the bugs were, Raymond didn’t say, nor did anything later examined reveal where exactly the creatures had originated from.

     When Mr. and Mrs. Bassett retired for the evening, Raymond was in his room, examining his new collection. Raymond was at his happiest when he had a creature to devote his attention to.

     At 6:34 AM, November 27, Mrs. Bassett went to wake Raymond up for breakfast, and when he didn’t answer she opened his door. Her scream brought Mr. Bassett rushing out of the bathroom, and when he peered into their son’s room, he fainted.

     When the police arrived on the scene, Mrs. Bassett had succeeded in dragging her husband outside. The skeletal remains of Raymond were found in his room, and unknown beetles were devouring the marrow in his bones.

     Despite an intense fumigation, the house could not be saved.

     A short time later, the structure was soaked in kerosene and set ablaze.

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