Conjuring the proper ghosts

A cat peering at a Macbook Pro.
Sometimes there’s a lot more staring at the screen than pressing of the keys.
For the last 19 Christmas seasons I have written a new Christmas ghost story to read to friends at our Christmas party. It started out simple enough. The holiday party was scheduled for the third Saturday of December because we usually got together on the third Saturday of every month for a writers’ night—an event where several people bring a story or a partial story we are working on, we read it, and everyone gives a critique. The December meeting wound up having a Christmas Party feel no matter what, because we were all friends and it was an extremely convenient time to exchange gifts.

Some members of the group came from families that had a tradition of requiring everyone in attendance at the Christmas celebration to recite a poem, or sing a song, or do some other small performance, so as the December meetings more often began being referred to as a holiday party, folks started bringing something other than a story to share, and we did a lot less critiquing of the story-like things that were performed.

So, one year, it occurred to me that I should try my hand at writing a Christmas Ghost Story to read aloud at the party. My first one wasn’t bad. The second year was a bit better, though I think it was too predictable.

After the party, my partner, Ray, and I were discussing some of the family gifts shopping that we still needed to get done. I needed to box up my mom’s presents and get them in the mail, and time was running out. Ray suggested that I should send Mom one more present. “Print out last year’s ghost story and this year’s, put them in a nice binder, and wrap it up as a present for your mom. Then next year you can sent her a print out of the next one, and so on. I think she’d like getting a story from you for Christmas.”

And that’s what we did.

Not quite eleven months later, about six weeks after Ray’s second round of chemotherapy, Ray had a seizure, went into a coma, and then died. I was more than a bit discombobulated for some time after. There was a point when the friends who usually attended the party asked if I wanted to cancel it, or simply let someone else host it (it had been scheduled for our place that year). I felt that I needed more time with my friends, not less, and insisted that we keep it at our place.

A few days before the party, it suddenly hit me: I didn’t have a Ghost story to read for the party. I had a short list of ideas that I’d been jotting down from time to time over the course of the previous two years, but I hadn’t spent any time plotting them.

A rational person might have said, “Well, all my friends are surprised I want to have the party at all, so no one is going to feel disappointed if I don’t have a ghost story to read.” And I’m pretty sure that at least one tiny corner of my brain had exactly that thought. However, seeing as it was only, at that point, a few weeks after my husband had died, I wasn’t a rational person.

At all.

So what I remember thinking was: “OH, MY GOD! Last year Ray suggested I should write a new Christmas ghost story every year, and I SAID YES! I PROMISED him I’d write a new ghost story this year. PROMISED. I have to write a new ghost story!!!”

Did I mention I was irrational?

So, with only a few days to go (days which also included going to work, cleaning the house, baking for the party, et cetera), I opened a new file on my computer, stared at it a moment, and then typed the words: ‘Victor was eleven when the demon first whispered to him.’ And I was off.

That was the first time that I wrote a Christmas ghost story that didn’t have a literal ghost. It wasn’t even, technically, set at Christmas. It was a science fiction story, about a troubled orphan who lived on a distant colony in the far future where they celebrated a cross-cultural Solstice festival, who was about to learn some disturbing things about medical experiments that had been performed on him.

There were poinsettias and ornaments hung on trees. There was the mysterious voice that whispered to the young protagonist, and more than a slight implication that the voice was a symptom of a memory transference experiment that might have been more successful than it initially appeared. So it was a type of Christmas story with a hypothetical metaphorical ghost.

It was also the darkest ghost story I had yet written. The two previous had both involved ghosts who help the living protagonist in one way or another. This story dealt with themes of abuse, non-consensual activities, rivalry, and revenge. As a friend who didn’t read the story until much later said when he learned the circumstances observed, “It makes sense you wrote this while you were grieving.”

It was the first time that I played with the idea of ghost. By which I mean, a ghost doesn’t have to be a spirit of a deceased person hanging about. I’ve written Christmas ghost stories in “contemporary” settings, hard science fiction settings, high fantasy settings, Victorian settings, and steampunk settings. Sometimes the ghost is a trick that someone is pulling on the protagonist. Sometimes it’s an unexplained phenomenon that might be a ghost. Once it was an ancient Egyptian corpse that someone was trying to reanimate. Another time it was a child who had been stolen twenty years before by fairies. A couple of times the ghost as been nothing more than the protagonist reminiscing.

All of which has made me think a lot about the purpose and uses of the ghost as a literary device. Ghosts represent things that are intangible and elusive. They often represent regret or unfinished business. The regret isn’t always about the past, sometimes its about the future. Many ghost stories are about a character who is unable to move on with their life after the death of a loved one, for instance.

All stories are a means for us to make sense of the world. Humans want explanations for things; we don’t like the notion that some things in life are random or out of our control. The more supernatural, scary kinds of ghost stories allow us to explain away some of the capriciousness of life as the work of spirits, often irrational spirits. The more melancholy tales allow us to fantasize about making amends or even undoing past mistakes, even if only after death—the ultimate second chance, if you will.

I’ve written a lot of funny ghost stories. In some, the humor leavens a more serious plot, but in others the humor is the primary focus. I’ve been trying to find a theme among those humorous stories, some common way in which I used the ghost in each. The closest I can come is a kind of redemption, though I have to stretch it a bit on a couple of them.

Of course, Christmas Ghost Story is an arbitrary category. I happen to be very fond of a lot of such stories from 19th Century publications (A Christmas Carol is merely the most famous of a rather large number of such stories written by many writers at the time), but I am also quite fond of several more recently written ones. My list of plot ideas for possible future ghost stories keeps getting longer, as I come up with more than one a year.

So I haven’t yet run out of the kinds and ways such stories can be told. And I hope I never do.

1 thought on “Conjuring the proper ghosts

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