Haunted Houses, Coming Full Circle, and the Echoes of Ghost Wolves

Up the road from where I live, there is an old, abandoned house.  It sits back from the road, with overgrown shrubs obscuring the windows, a sagging front porch, a rusty metal roof, and an unlocked bulkhead that leads to what surely is an unfinished basement with a dirt floor and perhaps a tight crawlspace.  I know the bulkhead is unlocked because I tried it once.  It squeaked open without resistance, revealing a descent into darkness.  It was a descent I did not take.

 

The house, you see, is haunted.

Or, at least, some of the locals say it is.  And I don’t doubt them. It’s flanked by mature woodlands that encroach closer and closer with each passing year.  There are no nearby neighbors.  Rarely have I heard the birds sing when I visit the property, as if even they, on an instinctual level, detect a sense of malice and ill will about the place.  Yet, for all that, I feel drawn to the house.  I never go more than a month or two without stopping and looking and wondering.

 

And remembering . . .

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“Hey, let’s go inside!”

My friend Matt uttered these words, but I doubted he wanted to act out on them.  He and I had taken a stroll through the neighborhood.  We didn’t really have a destination or a plan–we were eleven years old.  Who needed plans?  But as if guided by an invisible magnet that zeroed in on preteen boys, we found ourselves in front of the Ivy House.

 

The Ivy House was so named because rows of leafy, green ivy climbed up its clapboard siding like a pack of pythons seeking an unseen but sought-after prey.  It sat at the end of the street, with several tall maples providing shade and making the yard perpetually dark and cool.  It was also empty.  It had been unoccupied as long as I had been alive, and years before, to boot.

 

More riveting still, it was rumored to be cursed.  Stories varied depending on who you talked to.  My brother had told me a murder had occurred at the Ivy House in the 1920s, and the victim’s ghost wandered the rooms and halls, seeking vengeance on anyone she came across.  Matt’s brother had told him an old man once lived there, friendless and ornery.  He ate raw squirrels and racoon hearts, and fed the leftovers to a pet wolf.  This seemed far-fetched, even to my eleven-year-old, imagination-always-on-overdrive brain.  But Matt vouched for its veracity.  “It’s the truth,” he said, solemn as a tax return.  “A wolf.  People used to hear it howl at night.”

 

I nodded.  I still wasn’t sure I believed him.  But I wanted to.

As we stood there, the wind picked up, and I pulled my jacket in tighter.  It was early November, barely above freezing, winter’s approach unmistakable in the air.  Dried, fallen leaves swirled along the street, crackling.

 

“So, you really want to go inside?” I said then.  A woman walking her dog strolled past, giving us a sideways glance, surely wondering what we were doing loitering in front of the Ivy House.

 

Matt hesitated.  Shrugged.

“Chicken,” I said.  The house brooded in front of us, hidden behind the ivy.

You’re the chicken,” he shot back.  I bet you wouldn’t go in there.”

He had a point.  I couldn’t really refute his logic.  But if we both went, together . . .

We didn’t.  We never did.

The Ivy House was torn down a decade later.  A new, cookie-cutter ranch home now sits in its place, the maple trees in the front yard gone, the ivy a memory, a ghost from childhood, an echo whispering across the years.

 

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It’s late October 2017.  On my way to work, early, the sun still a rumor, the sky dark and speckled with stars, I pull over in front of the abandoned house and get out of the car.  I am ahead of schedule on this day.  I have the time.

 

I walk through the front yard, up to the door.  Haunted, is it?  And I remember the Ivy House, the way it seemed animate to me in my boyhood, a living, sentient thing with a heartbeat and a soul.  This house is no different.  Perhaps all houses are alive.  Especially the old ones.

 

As I stand there, a hoot owl calls out, and I hear a rustling in the woods off to the right.  A fisher cat on the prowl?  A rodent rummaging for food?  Pennywise the Dancing Clown, come to Vermont from Derry, Maine?  But nothing emerges, and everything goes silent once again.

 

And I ponder–about life, about time, about the way things often come full circle.  Take Mitchell Brant, for instance.  Nine years ago, I began writing The Eye-Dancers, and the book began with Mitchell.  Now, on the verge of finishing the final edits, of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s for The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, I am ending where I began–with Mitchell Brant.  The story ends with him.  He was there at the start.  He is there at the end.  He’s been with me, in spirit, on the written page, vying for my attention and understanding, for nearly a decade.

 

I tip an invisible cap to Mitchell.  To childhood.  To legends and ghosts.  To haunted houses.  To the unlimited vistas of the imagination.  To explorations of the mind and the universe.

 

To the creative life.

And somewhere, in the distance, despite the geographical impossibility of it, I am sure I can hear the howling of a wolf.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

A Land of Long Shadows

The hill country of east-central Vermont, where I have lived for over a dozen years now, is famous for its fall colors.  Tourists flock to the Green Mountain State from across the nation, and the world, to catch a glimpse of the reds, oranges, and golds that light up the hillsides every October.  The blazing foliage of autumn is as synonymous with Vermont as its ski slopes, dairy farms, and Rockwellesque small towns.

 

For me, though, October in Vermont is about much more than multicolored tree leaves.  Don’t get me wrong.  I marvel at the beauty of the season as much as anyone.  There is nothing quite like a stroll along a country lane in Vermont in the fall.  But it is the subtler, less showy aspects of the season that leave the most indelible mark.  The musky scent of woodsmoke on the air.  Fallen leaves crunching underfoot.  Warm, sunny days, the humidity of high summer over and gone.  Crisp, starry nights, quiet, the chorus of crickets silenced by frost and the encroaching winter.

 

And shadows.

Just the other day, I took a walk out back, in the meadow behind the house.  The land slopes down, gently in places, steeply in others, to the meadow, which is here and there interspersed with maple trees and elm trees and birches, their bark white and clean against the copper-yellow of the autumn leaves.

 

It was late afternoon, the sun was sinking to the west, and a recent end-of-summer heat wave was in the process of retreating, moving south like a migrating bird, leaving New England to the rightful, cooler temperatures of the season.  I looked at the maple trees at the top end of the meadow, standing, side by side, like deciduous twins, their leaves mostly green still, with the occasional flash of gold.  The sun was hitting them just so, and their shadows reached out across the expanse like dark, giant fingers.  My own shadow was long, too, as I stood in the path of the westering sun.  It spread across the grass, comically elongated, as if I were a colossus, a wanderer come down from Brobdingnag.  I walked south, changed direction to the east.  My shadow followed, sometimes merging with the shadows of the maples or the birches, or the woods, which ringed the meadow on all sides.  No matter where I walked, it came with me, always there.  Always present.

 

There was no escape.

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There have been times when I was told that I am not always present–not fully, anyway.  “Sometimes, even when you’re here, you’re not here,” a friend told me once.  And I don’t deny it.  Ever since I was a boy, my mind has had a tendency to wander, to daydream, to roam over hills and valleys in search of the unknown and the unexplored.  Sometimes it’s playacting.  I spent more time than I like to admit growing up visualizing, in vivid detail, myself winning Wimbledon or batting in the bottom of the ninth inning in the World Series, the game on the line.  I’d pretend to hold an interview with the press afterwards, going through an elaborate question-and-answer session.  I’d think of new games to invent, new theories to drum up, new ways of looking at the tried-and-true.  Often, at night, I’d look up at the sky, count the stars, realizing that, as numerous as the visible stars were, they represented but a tiny fraction of the whole–just a slice of the firmament, a drop in a cosmic sea without end.

 

Truth be told, I still do all of these things from time to time.  Not as much as I used to, but I still do them.  On one level, it’s embarrassing.  I’m not a kid anymore, after all.  On another level, I hang onto these wonderings, these musings left over from childhood.  Without them, something essential, something life-affirming and good, would be lost.

 

More than anything, though, I get lost in my stories.  That’s to be expected while I’m hunkered down at my PC, of course, frantically pecking away at the keyboard.  (I’m old school.  I don’t have a laptop.  I still prefer the bulky old desktop.)  But it’s not only when I’m physically writing.  My stories are with me always–especially the novels.  I can be seated at my desk at work, out taking a walk along the shoulder of the road or through the woods, showering in the bathroom, even visiting friends or family–and suddenly, out of the blue, an idea will hit me.  So that’s how chapter 27 should be resolved!  Oh, so Ryan shouldn’t do that, he should do this.  I’m not sure if Joe handled that the way he really might have.  How about this . . .?  And on and on it goes.

 

Beginning with The Eye-Dancers, which I started in 2009, and continuing on through its sequel, The Singularity Wheel, still on schedule to be released in November, I have lived and breathed with the protagonists in these tales for almost a decade.  They are never far from my thoughts, always ready to intervene or interrupt, as if to say, “Hey, remember me?  You got that last scene all wrong, partner.  I would never do that!  You better go back and fix it.”  Or the story itself, like a living, breathing entity, a sentient thing, will communicate with me, vying for my attention.  If I’m not sure what to do in an upcoming chapter, it does not stay silent, tucked away in the background.  It speaks, shouts, demands to be solved.

 

So forgive me if, while we talk, I occasionally have a distant, faraway look in my eye.  The story never sleeps.  The characters can never be put to bed.  The questions and musings and machinations of the creative process are as stubbornly and persistently present as shadows.

 

And while there are times when this is taxing, draining, even downright annoying, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Ready to come inside, I walked back up the slope, leaving the meadow behind me.  As I crested the hill, I paused to take another look at the trees and the grass and the deep, forever blue of the sky.  I stood there like that, taking in the scene, pondering its beauty and its vastness, and its truth.  Then I turned around, and headed for the house.

 

My shadow followed me every step of the way.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

From Frost to Thor, with a Cup of Hot Cocoa (Or, the Literary Dualism of a New England Stick Season)

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live year-round in balmy, gentle conditions, where palm trees sway in midwinter and heavy, insulated coats are strange accoutrements only seen on television.  I’ve never experienced anything like that–not even close.  I grew up in Rochester, in upstate New York, famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for its long winters and the lake-effect snow machine that produces blizzards and white-outs with alarming regularity.

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So, what did I ultimately do?  Move to Southern California, the South of France?  Tahiti?  Not quite.  I moved to Vermont, colder and harsher still than Rochester!  I have no regrets.  Vermont is a rural gem, a rugged little state tucked away in the far northwest corner of New England.  It’s one of the most beautiful places you will ever see.  It is also, to put it mildly, a land of extremes.  Few locales on earth experience such robust, exaggerated seasons–there is nothing subtle about the weather in New England.  The region, according to Henry Cabot Lodge so many years ago, yet still as appropriate today as when he proclaimed it, “has a harsh climate, a barren soil, [and] a rough and stormy coast.”

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And yet . . . there is one time of year in New England that is more subdued, nondescript, and soft-spoken, almost shy in its fundamental drabness . . . The month of November, tucked away in hiding for so long, creeps up on the calendar, whisper-quiet, as if inching forward on its tiptoes.  And, once arrived, it has a personality, a starkness, all its own.

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The flowers and blooms of spring are a distant memory, as are the ripe fields, muggy nights, and poolside gatherings of high summer.  October, with its breathtaking, almost narcissistic display of reds, golds, and oranges, is still fresh in the mind’s eye, but it’s a brief performance, a limited run.  The hillsides, afire with splashes of color only a fortnight ago, now lay stripped, with row on row of gray tree trunks and skeletal limbs reaching for the cold, late-autumn sky.

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So, yes.  In many ways, November (what the locals sometimes refer to as “stick season” around here) is a somber, even depressive month.  The days grow successively shorter, colder, as the interminable New England winter approaches. There is a stillness to the land, a sharp crispness to the air, and all too often a succession of leaden-sky days with low-lying clouds hovering like bruises over the earth.

There is also, at least for me, a sense of slowing down, of stepping back, looking over the bare, windswept terrain and pausing for reflection.

It’s easy to see, walking along a Vermont country road littered with the desiccated harvest of fallen October leaves, or climbing a knoll and looking out at the ancient, rounded spine of the Green Mountains, how this area has served as an inspiration for some of the world’s great writers and poets.  Something in the rocky soil, the rugged, unyielding terrain, the windswept contours of a rolling New England field in the fall instills a serious quality to an author’s prose, or a poet’s verses.  Frost, Emerson, Thoreau, Plath, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Dickinson . . . the list goes on and on.  Surely, there is something special about this place.

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I feel it throughout the year, but at no point does it affect me more than the month of November.  November brings out the serious and the brooding in my writing, makes me want to try my hand at poetry (a proclivity I rarely feel over the course of the eleven other months) and pen an introspective novel, light on the action and saturated with layered themes, obscure symbols, and tortured, existential characters.  I want to reach, pursue, challenge myself to write about the subterranean undercurrents of life, raging beneath the surface, often hidden beneath a civilized and well-practiced facade.  I want to produce art, works that inspire and examine, question and illuminate.

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Worthy aspirations, all, but sometimes, when unchecked, they can become an albatross, long-winged and sharp-beaked, weighing me down, choking off my airflow.  I appreciate the masters of the craft and serious literature as much as anyone, and hope a small smattering of my own output can be labeled “literary,” but at the same time, at least for me, there is an element even more important than the profound, more essential than the sublime.

albatross

Thankfully, the month of November also speaks to this lighter aspect.

I find November, with its protracted evenings and roaring, crackling hearth fires and frost-covered windows, to be one of the coziest times of the year.  There are few treats I enjoy more on a cold fall night than preparing a mug of hot chocolate, maybe popping a generous portion of popcorn, and settling in to watch an old black-and-white classic–nothing extraordinary, not necessarily an Oscar- or Emmy-winning masterpiece, but rather something fun, silly even.  Perhaps I’ll binge-watch episodes of The Honeymooners, or tune in to a corny old sci-fi movie with bug-eyed monsters, mutated spiders, or ever-expanding gelatinous blobs from outer space.

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Other times, I’ll dig into my vintage comic book collection, perhaps pulling out a science-fiction title from the 1950s like Strange Adventures or Mystery in Space.  If I’m feeling more superhero-minded, maybe I’ll flip through an old issue of Journey into Mystery with the Mighty Thor or, Mitchell Brant‘s favorite, The Fantastic Four.  Whichever choice I make, a classic sitcom; a cliched but riveting movie produced decades ago, short on character but high on smiles; or a vintage comic complete with nostalgic ads and the musty, old smell all comic book collectors know and love, I’m just glad that Old Man November, with all its grays and dark, wistful sighs, has its lighter side to help me keep things in balance.

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It’s a noble thing, a calling, really, for artists and writers and creative souls the world over to want to imbue their work with meaning and thoughts, words, and images that move their audience from tears to laughter and back again.  It’s something every serious artist should have, and cultivate.  But if our creative process isn’t also fun, if we don’t love what we do, that, too, will be reflected in the final output.

“Write only what you love,” Ray Bradbury once said, “and love what you write.  The key word is love.  You have to get up in the morning and write something you love.”

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Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with some hot cocoa, freshly popped popcorn, and a legion of telepathic crab monsters.

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Thanks so much reading!

–Mike

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