Thursday, 10 August 2017

But Enough About Me #10

I was having lunch with that nice young Hirshberg fellow a couple of weeks back and he mentioned that he'd recently read a few pieces, including mine, from DANCING WITH THE DARK, a non-fiction anthology put together by Steve Jones. I don't know what prompted his reading -- perhaps his bathroom had run out of old ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLYs and NEW YORKERs -- but it made me realize that, astonishingly, 2017 marked the twentieth anniversary of the book's first publication.

Steve's bright idea back in 1997 was to ask various practicioners of the fictional macabre if they'd ever had any run-ins with the real stuff and, if so, to spill the beans. He put together quite a list of contributors including, by dint of selective culling from older sources, many authors who by then would have been ghosts themselves. The book saw many editions, foreign and domestic, and is still in print today from Barnes & Noble under the revised title A GHOSTLY CRY.

Here's my effort as a little taster. Don't let its failings put you off checking out the book itself, which is an entertaining and intriguing read.



You know, I've waited all my life for a manifestation or two. I've read all the right books, taken all the right drugs, and surely offended enough people then-living and now-dead to ensure a quick night-time visit from a wrathful revenant.

And what's been the result? Bugger all. The world has remained resolutely solid, all visitors decidedly corporeal. Nothing. Not a shimmer. Not a wail. No cold spots in the house, no unexplained tracks in the unswept floors, no ghostly tread on the  midnight staircase.

Ghosts. Screw 'em. If they don't want to play, that's their problem. So I never shook a spectral hand. Big deal.

Because I did see a UFO.

And I did shine an impossible light from my eyes in the middle of the night.

And, when my mother was eight years old, she was supernaturally warned that her grandmother was going to die. And her grandmother did.

It was a very bright afternoon in the summer of 1965. I was nine years old, and so were Kenny Woodman, Alan Leech, and Les Thompson. It was maybe ten minutes after four o'clock and we were walking home from the playing field that our school -- too poor to have its own -- rented from a cricket club about a mile from the redbrick shed that was Heygreen Road County Primary.

It was Les Thompson who saw it first. I'd like to say for the sake of drama that it was the gravity of what he was seeing that rendered him speechless, but Les was close-mouthed at the best of times. He simply pointed to an area somewhere above the roofs of the row houses on the other side of the street and all our heads turned to follow the direction of his finger.

The object was triangular and white. But its whiteness was odd -- the whiteness not of metal or plastic or of any manufactured material, but the whiteness of clouds. This thing wasn't a cloud, though. Its edges and angles were sharp and precise and it was moving very steadily in a straight line across the sky parallel to the roofs below it.

One point of the triangle was at the top. Near the left hand side of the straight line that formed its bottom there was a small square area (probably about a tenth of the total mass) that seemed to be open to the sky behind it.

Apart from the thing itself, the sky, blue and cloudless, was empty. So it was difficult for us to judge distance or size. It was either small and very close or huge and very far away. Apart from an initial "What is it?" or so, I don't remember any of us saying anything. We simply kept walking and kept looking. It was moving in the same direction as us and not much faster. It had gained maybe a block on us when we lost sight of it.

What's interesting is that I mean that quite literally. The object didn't disappear behind a building or a cloud, and nor did it drop out of view below the artificial horizon of the roofs. Instead, it simply ceased to be visible, slowly fading out of view like a process-shot dissolve in a movie.

We got back to school a couple of minutes later and caught our various buses home. I told my mother about what I'd seen and suggested we tell the police. She said that was a very good idea but why didn't we eat first. So I ate. Then I turned on the TV and watched JOHNNY QUEST (or some other essential viewing for nine year olds) and later went out to play with Dave Rae and Billy Hogan. I never did get around to informing the authorities.

In the winter of 1979 I was living in a one-room flat in the north London district of Crouch End. I was working with The Dog Company, an avant-garde theatre group whose members also included Clive Barker and Doug Bradley. Having no money whatsoever, we were reliant on the kindness of friends for rehearsal space and were currently using the upstairs room of a health-food restaurant called Earth Exchange, a place that was a fair walk from the district in which we all lived.

Consequently, being on time involved me waking up at eight in the morning, a trick I've never managed to perfect without artificial aid. My alarm clock at the time was an old-fashioned hand-wound thing with no light and which was, to say the least, idiosyncratic.

The way I figured it was that each morning it woke up first, cast a bleary eye around at the day and then, based on certain factors such as light, temperature, and how it damn well felt, made a decision as to whether it should ring or not. I can only assume it had my best interests at heart, but its paternalism meant that I was regularly late for rehearsals.

Normally, this didn't matter much. One day though, and I forget the reason, it was deemed imperative that I be on time. I couldn't afford a new alarm clock -- and besides I rather liked the working arrangement I had with the existing one -- so when I went to sleep I tried to impress upon it how important it was that it should ring the next morning. It promised it would.

Now call me untrusting, but anxiety woke me at some unspecified time the next morning. It was winter and my room was pitch black. I didn't know what time it was, I couldn't see the clock face in the darkness, and my cigarette lighter was nowhere near my bed. I was in a hypnogogic state, neither fully awake nor asleep, so without thinking I turned to look at the clock. A light shone from my eyes, illuminating the dial perfectly. It was only five o'clock and so, relieved, and thinking nothing of what had just happened, I went back to sleep.

The alarm rang on time three hours later and I made the rehearsal.

When  my mother was eight years old, she and several of her friends took a glass and some pieces of paper with the letters of the alphabet hand-written on them and, with this impromptu Ouija Board, made contact with the dead. Apparently, this was a fairly common parlor game for kids in the 1930s.

She can't recall any of the other questions that were asked of whatever spirit they had managed to summon, but she remembers clearly asking if it had any advice for her. The glass spun among the letters and spelled out the message, TAKE CARE OF GRANDMA.

Three days later her grandmother fell down the stairs, broke her neck, and died.

My mother, in case you're wondering, was nowhere near the house at the time.

I don't know how direct an influence these tiny incidents had on my fiction, but I think it's safe to say they helped convince me subconsciously that we live permanently in the proximity of things beyond the everyday and that, if the veil that keeps them from us can be rent at all, it is rent accidentally and arbitrarily and when we least expect it.

A concomitant conclusion is that any effort deliberately to pierce the veil is somehow doomed to failure. It is in the unguarded moment -- when we are cameraless and unprepared -- that we may see, however briefly, beyond the fields we know.


(What I didn't say back in 1997 was that I'm not the one in the family with that pesky gift that is sometimes the bitter-sweet blessing of an Irish bloodline. Maybe one day the person concerned will let me tell the story of Bertie Blackwell's Ghostly Hand ... )