What Are Ghost Stories Really About?
Ghost stories are about ghosts. End of blog … Okay, there are other characters too. It’s possible to just have the ghosts floating around haunting each other, but generally the only thing that makes a ghost story interesting is going to be the living humans forced to deal with these spirits in some way. That interaction between life and death is significant to the story and as pervasive as the ghost story is to our culture, it must have significance to us as the audience and story tellers.
My father loved ghost stories. When I was in Boy Scouts, ghost stories around a camp fire were a staple of our camping experience. The darkness and isolation enhanced the atmosphere. There was an edge to the fear. The ratio of rationality to superstition shifts with the cycles of day and night.
Really good ghost stories tend to be about unfinished business. Death has a finality to it on this side of the veil. Even for those that believe in an afterlife or an eternal reward, the moment a life ceases has an impact. There were the moments before and the moments after and that cross over in the timeline changes everything for those left behind. Even the best of us will consider things that might have been done differently in the time before or things that could have or should have been said. Those of us that did not manage to live our best in the time we had with someone may feel regret and be haunted by wasted opportunities. The ghost story picks up that timeline and takes up those unfinished tasks. These stories can address relationships, lost love, or revenge. The full range of things uncompleted missions are available in these stories.
The conflict comes in the haunting. We may all be haunted by something whether we believe in ghosts or not. The impact of abusers can stay with a person long after they are out of our lives. The fear of those that hurt us can hang with us long after they are dead and gone. The need for forgiveness often remains even after the ones seeking it or the ones that might extend it are in the grave. These relationships haunt us and shape our lives no matter where we are in the time line of the life and death of those relationships.
I have written a few ghost stories. I tend toward other things in writing horror, but I revisit ghosts fairly regularly. I try to find some angle that changes the script or reorients the threat involved in the hauntings.
The Enemy Held Near, which I coauthored with Armand Rosamilia, is my first ghost story or haunted house story I’ve written at novel length. We had coauthored other work before including a horror humor trilogy. As we discussed the possibility of doing something more serious, we were standing behind a convention table selling our work to readers. We began to talk about what we had written before and what stories interested us now.
The discussion led us to the idea of a ghost story where the main characters dealing with the haunting perceive the events differently from one another. We also discussed that typically haunted house stories find some way to trap the characters in the house. Usually it begins by their own choice to stay despite the early signs of danger and then later they know they need to go, but find themselves physically trapped and fighting for their lives. We discussed the idea of our characters experiencing both options: one character stays and the other goes. Both choices have consequences and we wanted to see both in our story.
This led us to trying to put the meat on the bones of this skeleton of an idea. Who were these people, why did they see things differently, and why would they be led to opposite choices. We realized that we were describing a circumstance that happens in relationships all the time. This particular haunting was the framework of a break up or a troubled marriage. In the sense that we are all haunted by something, every home carries the ghosts of the pasts of all the members of that household. They all bring their baggage in with their earthly possessions. Sometimes the weight of those pasts and the choices in the present push us apart. The haunting becomes too much. Every day in homes all around us, someone stays and someone leaves.
The ghost story in The Enemy Held Near explores those generations of family baggage attached to a house and the people living in it. We set the story in Atlanta where I grew up and Armand and his wife visit often. It is a haunted city. It has a deep and diverse past. It has trouble in its past too. You have old wealthy neighborhoods across a highway from poor neighborhoods. The city is a patchwork of the remnants of its past. Southern families have storied histories as well with endless tales to tell.
We attached our haunting to the breakup of a marriage and we dove into the beginning of the story right in the heat of the coming conflict. The struggle to hold a family together while forces within and without pull the relationships apart is an all too familiar story. The escalation of our haunting mirrored the family struggle well. The inclusion of children in these struggles ups the stakes too. In The Enemy Held Near, we were able to look into the time when our characters saved and fought for each other and when they found themselves working against each other in their anger and resentment. Eventually, the good of the family requires sacrifice and demands that they find what made them fight for each other in the beginning. As with all hauntings like this, it might be too late to find that spark again in time.
Working together on the story, Armand and I found deeper and more interesting character dynamics and motivations than we could have conjured up alone. We traded back and forth with the narrative, moving in and out the various characters’ minds. We as the authors were the ones possessing them and moving them through the story. Some characters were haunted by both of us as they dealt with their conflicts. Others were voiced primarily by Armand or primarily by me. The living characters as well as the spirits took on personalities of their own that were completely apart from either one of us. As we blended and adjusted the story once we were finished, we were pleased and surprised at the emotion and action that had found its way into the tale.
We are all haunted by something. We hope we have created a ghost story in The Enemy Held Near that haunts readers because we both love and respect ghost stories so much. These characters became something special for both of us as their heartaches played out on the pages. We hope readers will root for them as much as we did. The Enemy Held Near is a ghost story that may reveal the hauntings in our own lives outside of the pages because that is what ghost stories are really about.