Chapter 5 excerpt from Remains to be Seen. Chapter 1 of this book posted in 2021…

‘Christmas, the witching time for story telling.’ Dickens

‘A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one, of sprites & goblins…’ Shakespeare’s Mamillius, The Winter’s Tale

Dear Esteemed Ghost Story Lovers:

Besides Christmas in July, there’s roughly two months of nostalgia, hustle/bustle, well wishing, and whistle wetting—in the Fezziwiggish version of Yule. Its 12 smells are replete with balsam, peppermint, baking gingerbread, frosty air, crackling firewood. Jewel toned eye candy abounds, and holiday tunes ring out multiple renditions of Jingle Bells, The First Noel, and ever singable Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Dea, protagonist of my novel Remains to be Seen experienced a darker, spookier kind of holiday. What’s scarier in the a 21stc (besides the future) than goons embracing lies, skyrocketing costs, constant germ/mortality reminders, eco crises, and wars waged while the world watches? Could it be a titillating, teeth chattering holiday ghost story, filled with specters more frightening than a politician’s lies and insidious consequences, more disgusting than robbing and polluting, worldwide, sacred signs & places…?

Dea was frequently on someone’s naughty list. She was a child haunted by death and decisions made on her behalf though not for her benefit. As an adult, she was haunted by ghosts of those she lost, and those whose achievements remained untold. No small wonder she devoured holiday ghost stories and became a witty raconteur herself. She was fond of telling spooky tales that mixed tinsel with terror and white snow with cremation ashes. Some of Dea’s ancestors related to her their version of scary winter tales. They wrote of years between 1648 and 1681 when Yule and related celebrations were disavowed by pompous Puritans and goons like Oliver Cromwell. If you were caught being festive, a punishment worse than a stake of holly through the heart was forthcoming.

Holiday celebrations would lack vigor for the next 200 years, despite efforts of writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, and Oscar Wilde. It wasn’t until a Dicken’s of a man wrote A Christmas Carol in the mid 1800s holiday spirits and festive folk traditions were revived. Other writers rushed in to fill the void after Dickens died, but without applying his sentimental sense of moralness & mercy. Readership changed as well, or perhaps folks grew cynical in their estimation of powers ghosts could wield—or a person’s inclination to change or become charitable overnight.

As the popularity of Christmas ghost stories waned, a new holiday took its place, Halloween (Samhain). By the mid 20thc and the arrival of mass media & commercialism, the holiday season and its ghosts extended from October to the New Year. Stories of the nearness of and visitations by both wicked and beloved dead mingled with tales of vengeful ghouls and heartsick lovers. Churches saw this as an opportunity to remind charity begins at home and forgiveness and tenderness earns bonus points.

In the 21stc, during a season fraught with trepidation and a soupcon of optimism regarding the future, a good ghost story is a welcome diversion. Do we enjoy these stories because it describes that which isn’t but just might be? Why do we embrace a holiday filled with fabulous fabrications—from jolly old men with Buddha bellies—to tiny elves with pointy hats and ancient myths repurposed as popular prose? Read last’s year’s holiday missive from yours truly for a few clues about myths of yore (12/2021).

Just what is a ghost? Opinions range from an unfortunate encounter with a time loop of energy to somethings that’s part figment/hallucination, part overthinking/indigestion. To date, no scientific proof’s been offered. When what happens after we die is  widely known, we’ll know the why and wherefore of ghosts. Until then, most avoid the subject altogether or rely on reports from the outer limits of—credibility.

Dea was different. She had proof, but she wasn’t willing to share it until… Actually, her first encounter, which occurred over a holiday school break, a few days before solstice, left twelve year old Dea as baffled as you might have been esteemed ghost story lover. What were these beings, she pondered—playful demons, ghosts, ghouls, demons, polter-ghosts, goblins, phantoms, or formless faeries?

In recited stories, ghosts were psychic crumbs remaining after a person died. They lingered wraithlike in a particular place, unable to shake their mortal coil. Or they were harbingers of doom or a guardian spirit warning of imminent danger. They were labelled wizard re-animated representations of someone who’d died tragically, forced to repeat the circumstances of their demise, or to harm anyone that entered or tried to retrieve a guarded treasure. They were, in short, otherworldly beings with an agenda and inability to move on or obtain vengeance/justice or fulfill an oath in their ghostly form.

As ghouls, demons, or poltergeist-ghost they’ve been known to feed off or siphon human energy, to cause misfortune and madness, to lure a person to their death. Ancient myths relate a ghost becomes a ghoul if it feeds off human or animal flesh or blood. The Arabian ghoul morphed into Jinn, a largely invisible race of fire spirits able to cure and curse. Pre-christian era, demons were known as daimons, guardian or guiding primordial deities that advised and protected, or misled mortals. Romans called them daemons, a term they equated with genius, a being of exceptional intellect/ability. Christians declared all daemons were evil, invented names, powers, hierarchies.

That didn’t prevent mages like Agrippa, John Dee, Barrett, and countless sensitives and seers from tapping into spirit central via scrying mirrors, trance, drugs, gazing into the sky or soap bubbles. Mages equated spirits to lightning in a bottle, orbs uncontainable, unproduceable, raw energy that drained, sparked, reached into the beyond and retrieved the impossible.

Dea’s entities told her their names, and those who encountered them admitted they didn’t harm her, however, they transformed the girl into something quite else. One could say they served as catalysts, were in many ways a rare, otherworldy gift. Church people disavowed them 1000s of years ago. They lied about them, gave them horns, claws, metallic sharp tails and wings. I’ll let you decide who was right, esteemed ghost story lover. Dea wrote it down exactly, more or less, as it happened. Her first encounter was not one commonly reported as a replaying vision of a past person or deed, or the result of indigestion from eating some of Scrooge’s sour porridge.

A Tangled Tale of a Yule of Yore or How Dea Deceived the Brigantes Chapter 5 excerpt

Eire Indigo, Nelline County, PA. “Were you ghouls sent by grandee and her Brigantes?” Initially, there was no reply, making me wonder if I saw them, but they didn’t see me. The translucent grey/red forms that materialized from the recesses behind the stone wall grew agitated, contracted and expanded, filling the air of mum’s workroom with a weird pulsing noise. When I spoke again, they engulfed me in a hazy blue grey smog that felt strangely reassuring, except to Tuatha, my three year old Irish Collie. She was a Christmas gift from my mother, the best one I’d ever received. Tuatha was smart as a whip and I’d just discovered she had a special gift—she too could see ghosts, ghouls, or whatever these entities were.

I hadn’t ever encountered anything like it. I never pretended to glimpse the alleged ghost that haunted Mr. Leland’s decrepit house next to the private school I attended. I didn’t see any Bloody Mary specter in the mirror during a sleepover last year at Maggie’s, though I was the first one to repeat the name five times. That’s not to say I haven’t had my fair share of strange experiences. Grand Sebastian, my Irish grandad, is positive I have the sight others in our family were born with. I have a knack for reading others thoughts (and bullshit). I could often find lost things and tell the provenance of an item and who had owned it if I concentrated and said a few words of gibberish mum taught me.

Perhaps I should back up and fill you in. The fall semester had ended and I was dropped off early at Eire Indigo, the grand manse bequeathed to my parents by Grandee and Grand Sebastian after they were married. The outside was decorated tastefully; boxwood topiaries sported stiff gold bows and a huge evergreen wreath with wax fruit hung on the door. A 10 foot tall balsam fir stood sentry in the foyer, bedecked with nothing but gold ornaments and white twinkle lights. Mum would have been furious; this was Grandees doing.  

In the kitchen, I snatched a few festively decorated cookies and a biscuit for Tuatha before getting caught and ousted. I left the glass of milk our butler Walter poured for me on the counter. I was a woman, no longer a girl. I had breasts, curves, and a bloody period every month. I’d been kissed by a king; okay he was a boy whose last name was Koenig, which meant king. Walking towards the living room, I heard raised voice issuing from my father’s library and glued my ear to the closed door. My grandparents were spending part of the holidays here, before leaving to spend New Year’s in Edinburgh. Was it their voices I heard?

Yes, Grandee was arguing with Grand Sebastian about some sort of ceremony she and the Brigantes would be conducting at solstice near the springs that fed our lilypond. My name was mentioned, so were the words virgin and essential.  I nearly shouted aloud when she said they couldn’t wait another year; they must do it now. They must initiate me. They needed to tap and channel my adenos…. The rest I couldn’t make out when they moved to the other side of the room. In a despairing rage, I stomped off to the only place in the house that gave me comfort, my mother’s workroom in the largely abandoned cellar. Tuatha followed at my heels.

I ran, unmindful of the servants or the watchful eyes of Mrs. Leigh, Grandee’s #1 spy and our housekeeper. A part of mum remained here, in work left unfinished, in the dust and lingering odors of jasmine and musky sandalwood—exotic aromas from the incense she burned. There’s a faint trace of kerosene wafting from the heater she used to take the chill off the room and heat water for tea and her rum grogs. Though she’s been dead for nearly 3 ½ years, there’s a trace of her clove studded orange & lemon slices, crystalized ginger, and nutmeg and brown sugared apple wedges. Sometimes I’d suck on the fruit; the sweet, tipsy fruit could make me giddy.

This was the least elegant part of the old house. A combo drawing board/layout table took up a third of the space in table mode. The two stone walls that were part of the NW corner of the house still held her drawings and sketches. The other walls were festooned with fabric swatches and a few of my now curling grade school drawings. A kerosene heater stood near the door and away from most of the flammable items. She was an interior designer, well known for her flair to texturize rooms and elegantly combine classic and modern styles, using unexpected color combinations.

There was a ¾ size day bed against the far wall, which served as dog lounger and a place for her to nap if she was overly tired or drank too many grogs. Under the bed were boxes of my old toys and books, including several collections of ghost stories. A heavy cupboard, its layers of paint peeling, sat next to the bed. It held drawing supplies, more fabric swatches, her needlepoint essentials, yarns, a copper tea kettle, and odds and ends. I shook a few of the tins. It sounded like they still contained food. I knew this room well as I’d searched every inch of it the past few years, thinking she’d left me a letter, some sort of message.

My younger brother Martin never came down here; it was cold and damp. He preferred the bookish atmosphere of my father’s library and office. He was allowed to play under the long library table next to the fireplace as long as he remained quiet and returned his toy cars and dinosaurs to their wicker boxes before leaving the room.

I picked up one of mother’s needlepoint tools, a rusting needle punch lying on the drafting table. Her vivid, intricate tapestries hung in museums and private collections in the US and abroad. In anger or anguish, I began stabbing the stone wall. Mortar fell to the floor. A small stone became dislodged and fell through the other side, making a dull thud. “Mum,” I think I cried aloud, “damn you, why’d you leave me? Who’s going to save me from Grandee and her crones?”

She’d been so tired the last few weeks before she died. Sometimes I’d return from school and she’d be fast asleep on the couch. Her empathic gift, which had helped so many, was killing her. She’d stopped talking about future dream houses we’d design and trips we’d take. She stopped telling me her magnificent stories about Celtic ancestors and their heroic deeds. She started talking about death. She said there shouldn’t be lies or half-truths about how we die. They teach sex education; they should also teach death education in school. She said some colleges were beginning to offer a 3-credit course called Thanatology.

Electricity had never been installed in this section of the basement, which once contained a root cellar. A bit of light filtered into the room through casement windows. For her up close tapestry work she threaded a workman’s extension cord from the other side of the basement to here and used it to power two lamps. The extension cord was removed years ago. There didn’t seem to be any kerosene in the heater but I found several stubby candles and a pack of matches.

The small hole I’d punched in the wall revealed a cobwebbed hideaway. It must be the old root cellar. Abusing mum’s tool, I managed to loosen several more stones, and could now make out a space about 5×8 feet in size. Thick curls of dust made my nose itch. I vaguely recalled mum telling me workers cemented the outside entrance to the root cellar in the late 50’s during renovations.

The tiny room appeared to be empty except for a small, dark object on the floor, cobwebs, and lots of dust. I attempted to reach through the hole and grab it. Pain shot up my arm as pieces of jagged stone cut into my flesh. Blood dripped on the dirt floor from a three-inch gash on my arm. A drop might have splashed on the object I’d tried to snag. The candle fell from its holder and sputtered next to the object I could now see was red ochre in color and marked with symbols.

The room plunged into darkness again while I blindly fumbled for another candle and matches. That’s when dimly outlined, sort of translucent blobs of air came hurtling out of the hidden space. Like I said earlier, I accused whatever they were of being sent by Grandee and her goons. The next thing I knew, the candle in my hand seemed to ignite on its own, and the object I’d been trying to grab also flew out of the old root cellar space and hovered in the air. I grabbed it. That’s when I must have fainted.

…rest of this ghost story arriving early December 2022. Cheers and seasonal salutations!