This Business of Writing

This may come as a shock to some people, but writing actually is an occupation.  It happens to be mine.  If you are sitting there with a vision of a starving artist dancing in your head, you are not incorrect in that stereotype.  If you are likewise imagining a half-crazed person sitting at a computer keyboard until the wee hours of the morning feverishly typing as if for dear life, you are equally not wrong.  These are the things people think of, when they think of writers, just as firetrucks and Dalmatian dogs are some of the images that come to mind when one thinks of a fireman, or perhaps briefcases, calculators, and suits, when one thinks of an accountant.  The difference between my job and theirs (apart from the obvious: that I do not routinely run into burning buildings nor am I very good at math) is that people understand those two occupations as occupations.  They don’t seem to do the same when it comes to my own profession at all.

I often find myself wondering if their contemporaries, family members, and friends understood what Dickens and Poe did for a living, either.  In truth, one finds that while everyone seemed to understand, appreciate, and even applaud Dickens, no one took Poe’s work terribly seriously, except as a literary reviewer and journalist.  Interesting that the former wrote about the struggles of the “common man”, while the latter focused on Gothic literature, often with a paranormal bent, precisely as I write in the present day.  One wonders if that had anything to do with the overriding acceptance of Dickens versus Poe?

I read somewhere once that if one is entering the field of writing to make money, one had might as well get a job at McDonald’s, as the latter might be slightly more productive in the wallet-filling department.  They weren’t wrong. That doesn’t change the fact that this is a profession: I have a degree in it, for crying out loud, there’s your proof!  If my degree were in Journalism instead of Creative Writing, no doubt people would beam and pat me on the back and say: “Why, you’re a journalist! A real writer!” But as things presently stand, I get much more of a “how quaint; you write” reaction.  It’s regarded as a novelty; a hobby; a lark, rather than a real job.  I am equally sorry to say that my wallet likewise reflects that reaction.

As I stated in another entry here, I chose to self-publish so that I could maintain control of my work; so that my books wouldn’t die, being torn apart by the machine of “bigtime publishing”.  I also made that decision based on an utter inability to handle rejection very well.  Not that I don’t believe my work can withstand criticism; on the contrary, I very much believe in my work.  However, I also understand the realities of how the publishing industry works.  What I didn’t foresee along this path of self-publishing and, thus, self-promotion, is that the rejection one faces doing things this way is actually on a far larger, deeper, and more hurtful scale: as a self-published author, promoting one’s own work, instead of being rejected by publishers who don’t know you and whom you don’t know either, instead you face the constant and (oft times) consistent rejection of your reader-base, the initial ranks of which consist of family and friends.  Believe me, in retrospect, this particular brand of rejection is far more hurtful to one’s psyche, and, inevitably, the damage done to one’s psyche is infinitely worse than any damage done to one’s wallet.

I know others who work in creative fields, based out of their home–my Mother is one of them–and often they find the same thing which I am presently encountering: because you aren’t “out there” in the “workaday world”, your job couldn’t possibly be a real job. Surely, this is something you’re just doing “on the side”, for a little “extra cash”. Um, no, this is my job. I don’t have another one, nor do I want it, nor could I hold one down with the present state of my health even if I did.  Just because I work out of my home doesn’t make my job any less “scheduled”; any less harrowing, or any less difficult. In fact, my job is likely more difficult than those who are “out there” in the “workaday world” because at least they are guaranteed a paycheck at the end of their labors, as well as a modicum of respect–neither of which I receive on a regular basis, let me assure you.

I have had two books on the market since July. I have sold a grand total of twelve via my main publishing platform, Smashwords. I am, admittedly, still awaiting the reports from Barnes and Noble and all of the other places, such as Kobo, to which my books have been distributed.  Twelve books.  Two of those were to my Mother who doesn’t even have an ereader–she printed them out from PDF.  Meanwhile, I am attempting to pound away at two other novels–Underhalls and Magnolia–while facing the dreaded fact that in six months, I’ve only sold twelve books total, out of two works offered.  That breaks down to one book of each title per month.  To say that I’m disheartened and quickly losing my will to work at all is to state things far too mildly.

I’m not trying to gain sympathy here; I’m just trying to plead my case; to prove that this thing I do–this writing–really is a business; really is a job.  Just as everyone else’s life depends on their job–whether a fireman or an accountant or a whatever–mine likewise depends on writing.

I get out of bed each day and try to think of new and unusual ways to market myself.  At this point, I feel that I’ve tried almost everything short of standing on a street corner somewhere in a Statue of Liberty costume, like those guys you see on the roadside at used car sales lots, with a big sign that says “Will Write For Food”.  I’ve listed with StumbleUpon. I’ve set up my Facebook Page. I’ve worked tirelessly on this blog. I’ve even set up a Twitter account. I’ve sold twelve books. I’m writing two more. This does not bode well.

My actual work day doesn’t generally begin until after 10pm, because a) I write better at night, and b) that is when the phone might finally stop ringing.  Those of you who are “out there” in the “workaday world” don’t have that added issue of if someone interrupts your train of thought, you literally lose your ability to work.  I have to face that constantly.  That’s how writing works. If someone calls your office, even with some terrible news or something, such as a death in the family, yes, you might be “broken up” or distracted for a time, but you don’t actually generally lose the ability to work. I do.

This schedule of actually beginning to write post 10pm means that some nights I am literally up until the sun rises, only to have to face the next day’s re-attempt at marketing, while wondering why at times I even do this at all.  If no one is reading what I am writing, what’s it all for?

You see, at the end of the day, it’s not about how much money goes in my wallet–although, yes, that would be nice, too.  It would be fantastic not to have to ask my husband for literally everything I need and/or want, just once in my life.  At the end of the day, this is about having people listen; having people read what I have done, and actually appreciate my work.  Apparently, at least six people are doing that as we speak. A very deeply heartfelt thank you to those six people–you know who you are.  It’s the rest of the world out there that I’m waiting for, and all of those people who don’t seem to grasp that this is, in fact, my job

Unless you are a stripper, a model, a thespian, or a musician, it’s not terribly likely that your job deeply affects your self esteem. Trust me: writing is murder on self esteem, just as surely as if I was standing in front of a camera somewhere being photographed, or up on a stage singing a song.  If you work at a desk job, say as a secretary for example, and your boss doesn’t “like” your work, then that tends to have very little bearing on the average secretary’s overall self esteem.  Generally speaking, the attitude would be “I’ll do better so I can keep my job”, not “if my boss doesn’t like me maybe I should go jump off a bridge.”  The same cannot be said of those in creative professions.  Your audience is your boss.  We creative-types–artists, writers, actors, actresses, musicians, dancers–may imagine ourselves as self-employed, but at the end of the day, the audience is the boss.  If they don’t like you, you may as well become a secretary…or a fireman…or an accountant.  The work that you do becomes synonymous with who you are, and a lack of acceptance for your work comes to equate somewhere in the mind with something being profoundly wrong, not with the work, but with yourself. Ultimately, this makes the stakes of this job even higher: believe me when I say the effects of this cycle are devastating.

Again, I am not looking for sympathy; I am merely trying to outline what the job of writing actually includes; to plead the case that it is, in fact, a profession.  More than that, it is a vocation–a calling, not unlike the priesthood.  Stevie Nicks said in a song once: “Poet, priest of nothing”, and she was not wrong.  Yet when someone dons a collar and calls themself a priest, one recognizes that as a profession, as a job, as a vocation, while on the other hand, if someone picks up a pen (or, in my case, a computer keyboard) and calls themself a writer people react with “how quaint”.  The truth is: in the end, both require a vow of poverty, and both require a commitment to a higher power (call it God; the Muse; whatever), and, ultimately, both are employed on this plane of existence by their audience.

This business of writing is harrowing and not to be entered into lightly.  It takes one down shadowed paths where sometimes even angels fear to tread. Yet, we writers don’t get hazard pay–and believe me, we should–nor do we, sometimes, even get paid at all.  In the end, it is one of the few jobs in the world where both dollars and sense matter, for both show that someone approves of the hard work which you have done: dollars, to show that people are in possession of your work, that they might read it, and, hopefully, readers with the good sense to tell you the effect your work has had upon them–for good or ill–once they have read it.  This is my job.  I am proud of it and I am determined not to stop doing it, though some days are harder to face than others. I just wish more people would understand that: My name is Michelle Iacona, and I am a writer.

If I Was Lavinia, I’d Want Revenge, Too!

Last Wednesday (September 5, 2012), SyFy Channel aired the season premiere of Ghost Hunters: Season 8: Episode 13: A Serial Killer’s Revenge.  I had eagerly anticipated this episode, as TAPS–minus Grant Wilson–was scheduled to investigate Old City Jail in Charleston, S.C., a site which I have personally visited on more than one occasion, and which holds a certain fascination for me.  In fact, it figures almost as a character-unto-itself in my upcoming Magnolia.  To say that I was deeply disappointed by the episode would be putting things far too mildly.

Before I begin to “break things down”, let me say that, until now, other than their liberal and frequent misuse of K2 meters, I had a great deal of respect for the TAPS team.  In the space of one hour, however, that respect not only dimmed, it crashed into an abyss from which I am not sure it will recover.  Let me take this step by step and fact by fact and tell you why….

A Serial Killer’s Revenge: Part One (click for video)

This episode begins with two assertions which are patently not the product of good historical research: at the :16 mark, the statement that Lavinia Fisher was, in fact, America’s first female serial killer, and at 2:09, the statement that the present jail building (i.e., the one that TAPS is about to explore) dates from 1738, having “housed some of the most notorious and violent criminals of its time; one being the first female serial killer, Lavinia Fisher”. These two assertions are problematic for a variety of reasons (which I will discuss momentarily), but particularly when one considers that one of the hallmarks of paranormal investigation is effective historical research.  After all, ghosts are, in their very essence, the products of history.

As I have discussed previously herein, the status of Lavinia Fisher as “America’s first serial killer” is actually little more than particularly “juicy folklore”, the actual facts of history pointing towards her having been little more than a highwayman–basically, a “land-going pirate”.  Did she, in fact, kill anyone? Probably, yes.  Did she kill hundreds of people in the fashion described in the folkloric tales which are popularized throughout Charleston? Probably not.  Yet, oddly, the TAPS team–not unlike the guys from Ghost Adventures who also previously filmed an episode in the Jail–seem hellbent on focusing on Lavinia, and her status as a serial killer, even having gone so far as to entitle this episode “A Serial Killer’s Revenge”.  The only person on the team who seems un-obsessed with this folkloric “translation” of Lavinia is Britt Griffith (much to my chagrin, given his previous use of a bigotted slur which led to his temporary firing from TAPS, though he subsequently apologized, and is now back working with openly-gay trainee, Adam–please see this blog entry by Ryan Buell of the Paranormal Research Society; warning: language), who states, at the 14:13 mark:

“Legend is that she was a serial killer, and I’m a little interested in the fact is she still here because she was a serial killer and she doesn’t wanna be judged by God, or is she still here because she was not a serial killer and she’s upset that people think she is and she’s trying to set that record straight?”

Jason Hawes’ voiceover stating that the Jail dates from 1738 is also incorrect.  The present building–the one which you see “investigated” throughout the episode–actually dates from 1802 (source: Historic American Building Survey, National Park Service, Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.–.pdf file). The first mention of the lot on which the Jail is now located does not appear in public records until 1783 (perhaps Jason is slightly dyslexic with numbers?), when the State Assembly of South Carolina passed an act to incorporate the city of Charleston.  According to the Act, the City Council of Charleston would manage the area bounded by Queen, Magazine, Franklin (Back), and Logan (formerly Mazyck) streets for public use.  In 1794, the first contractors were signed on for construction of a jail on the 200′x200′ lot at the corner of Magazine and Franklin streets (where the present jail now stands).  This construction, however, was postponed due to ongoing state reforms in the criminal codes, which might raise the building costs at that time.  The first vestiges of the current Jail were not raised upon the site until November of 1802, with the building taking on its present castle-like appearance under the guidance of Robert Mills in the early 1820s. 

Prior to and during its years of use as city land beginning in 1783, the land on which the Jail now sits served a variety of purposes and housed a number of different “institutions”, inclusive of a Negro burial ground (from which I am uncertain whether the bodies were exhumed or not before the advent of the land’s other uses), a powder magazine (from whence Magazine Street gained its name), a Sugar House (for the ”forceful re-education” of slaves), a workhouse/poorhouse, a home for the mentally insane and the poor (referred to as a “pest house” in an 1857 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine), a guardhouse, and a barracks. (All of this sourced from the same .pdf, cited above) Obviously, “hardened criminals” were not the only ones to (as Jason states at the 2:46 mark) have died here, “some being executed, some being sick, others being tortured.”

As though the obvious lack of thorough historical research was not bad enough, apparently TAPS also felt no need to ask local investigators or even frequent visitors to the Jail–such as the guides from Bulldog Tours–about any other “known entities” within its walls.  At the 3:10 and 3:53 marks, we are told of alleged chokings happening–mostly to female visitors–on the first, second, and third floor landings, and of alleged bite marks and scratch marks appearing on people’s bodies–again, mostly to female visitors.  These phenomena have been documented by many investigative teams to the Jail, including L.E.M.U.R. and Ghost Hunters of Charleston.  Many of these investigations have reported a host of other entities who populate the Jail (besides it being Lavinia’s alleged haunt), including the residual figure of a black man and the smell of pipe smoke which accompanies the more dangerous figure of what appears to be a jailer, whom the locals have dubbed Cedric. Yet, TAPS incessantly focuses on Lavinia, even though most of these more negative phenomena–the biting, the scratching, the choking–have been routinely linked by most investigators to Cedric or perhaps to something even more malevolent (but I’ll get to that later….).

At the 4:52 mark, Jason tells the contest winner who brought them to Charleston to explore the Jail in the first place: “Hopefully we’ll be able to bring a lot of facts to these legends that you and everybody else have been dealing with over here.”  Well, yes, Jason, perhaps you could do that: if you would stop focusing on said legends to the complete and utter exclusion of actual historical fact!

The historical research–or, in this case, obvious complete lack thereof–is not the only issue raised within less than ten minutes of the episode’s start, however.  At the 6:00 mark, while overseeing the camera set-up for the night’s investigation, Jason directs Britt to switch the FLIR, which is aimed at the third story windows on the exterior of the Jail, from color to black and white, saying: “That’s gonna be easier to see if anything shows up in that window.”  Um, not according to the official FLIR brochure it won’t! Actually, placing the FLIR outside, as this one was positioned, adjusting from color to black and white would negate eight isotherm readings, as a black and white visual can only effectively depict two.  Even had they continued to use the color scale, the isothermal scale rendering would not have been accurate, however, unless all of the highlighted area had the same emissivity, and the ambient temperatures were the same for all objects within the area–more than a little hard to guarantee in Charleston, South Carolina at almost any time of year, given that humidity begins to soar starting around March, and doesn’t stop doing so until usually sometime well into November, among other environmental factors.  Although this camera faux pas does not rear its head again at any other time during this investigation, I found it noteworthy that, once again, a leading member of T.A.P.S. seems to have absolutely zero prior knowledge of precisely how a piece of their equipment actually works.

But, back to the ”Lavinia issue”.  At the 8:42 mark, Amy Bruni (and congrats to her on her upcoming little one!) states, while exploring the first floor with trainee Adam: “They’ve heard a woman’s disembodied voice; they’ve seen an apparition of a male.”  Yet, the focus continues to be placed on Lavinia, rather than any other reported “denizens” of the Jail, as at 8:51, she continues, saying: “And they think Lavinia Fisher could be behind the claims.”  One ponders how, precisely?  Is she by some strange circumstance the long-lost relative of Rocky the dead devil-worshipping drag queen from the Devil’s Nest episode of Paranormal State?  (I mean no disrespect to either Rocky, or his surviving relatives.)  Amy then states: “She (Lavinia) was rumored to be the first female serial killer, and a lot of the claims here are very physical, and against women in particular.”  What is the point of this statement, exactly?  Even if the folkloric rendition of Lavinia’s crimes were true, she was alleged to have killed all male victims during the “escapade” at the Six Mile House. Once again: utter historical research failure!

 Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of this entire charade for me, however, came at the 10:16 point, when Steve Gonsalves (upon whom I have an admitted and profound “fangurl” crush) says, during an EVP session with Jason: “Did you know Lavinia?”  To have him “buy into” the folklore on the same level as the rest of the team, I must admit, was a crushing blow for me, personally.

And then there is the “loud sound” in the hallway at the 10:25 mark, to which Jason responds by radioing down to Dave Tango and Britt outside in the van: “Was there just any loud talking outside?”  Keep in mind that Jason and Steve are, at this time, in one of the holding cells on the third floor of the Jail, and that the walls of the Jail are two feet thick and made of stone (again, see the above-cited .pdf file)!  I have been in this building; I have been in the room where they were conducting that very EVP session, and trust me: you cannot hear sounds from outside.  Again, research failure!  This begs the question: shouldn’t a team have at least some structural/architectural knowledge of the building which they are exploring?  Which provides the hopefully obvious answer: Yes! If I, but a lowly writer of paranormal fiction, know the details of this building’s structure and acoustics, shouldn’t a team of “professional” paranormal investigators on television have at least a working knowledge of the same thing?

 This sound was subsequently followed by the sound of heavy boots on the metal staircase, as well as a loud bang at the 11:58 mark which both those inside and outside the Jail clearly heard.  Insofar as the sound of boots, given the other manifestations in the Jail, and particularly that of the one whom the locals call Cedric, I think it is a far safer educated guess that it was a male spirit, than that it was Lavinia.  Insofar as the loud bang of the door, I must admit that I had a moment of personal astonishment at the 12:53 mark, when Dave Tango “re-slams” the door to duplicate the sound, given this photograph, which was taken of my Mother the last time we visited the Jail:

Yes, that’s the same room….I’m pretty sure it’s actually the same door!  This picture was taken on our last tour of the Jail due to my Mother’s incessant desire to have a “moment alone” inside this building with which she has become fascinated.  I recall her actually saying at the time the photo was taken: “Let’s take it in front of this door–it’s a spooky-looking door.”  I’d say that door is even spookier when it’s slamming all by itself!

At the 13:18 mark, Jason mentions hearing a male voice, yet by 14:13, we’re right back to the topic of Lavinia. It is as though the T.A.P.S. team is determined to ignore all other possible spectres inhabiting the Jail, and focus solely upon its most famous (or infamous) purported denizen, again, right down to the title of the episode itself.  Once more, with feeling: historical research failure, not to mention, at this stage in the game, complete bias towards anything else that might turn up that does not prove the “Lavinia theory”.

Which brings us to:

A Serial Killer’s Revenge: Part Two (click for video)

The first words from Britt once the window loads will be: “I wonder if Lavinia was actually in this room at some point? She was here for awhile.”  Actually, she was held in the Jail, along with her husband, John Fisher, for around six months.  Unlike most female prisoners, she was not housed in the first floor women’s area (where Britt and Dave are at this point in the episode), but probably on either the second or third floor, given that the foiled escape which she and John staged on September 13, 1819 involved a rope made of prison linens.  Thus, it is highly unlikely that she was ever held in the room in which these two are standing at this point in the show.

It is at the 1:32 mark that the activity begins to crescendo, and in a violent manner.  Hagar, part of the show’s camera crew, at this point endures the first of many scratches while standing on the first floor landing.  At 12:30Am (the 2:40 mark on the video), she endures more, this time on the third floor landing.  Five minutes later, Jason Hawes also finds himself scratched, this time on the neck, while standing in the third floor holding cell with Amy Bruni.  In response to the incident, he says: “If I had to say what it was, of course, a female would come more into mind scratching me on the neck than a male.” Oh, really?

All of the scratches–on both Hagar, and Jason–occur in groups of three.  Later, in the Evidence Review portion (part three: 6:07 mark), you will hear Amy Bruni and Britt Griffith discussing this fact, to which Britt responds: “Like it’s a claw.”  Yes, so very like one–in fact, much more like a claw than like a woman’s fingernails (way to go with the sexist remarks, there, Jay!).

Which brings me to the demonological portion of this blog post.  First, let me make it perfectly clear: I absolutely do not remotely imagine myself any sort of authority on this particular subject matter, nor would I ever in a million years want to be cast as a wanna-be demonologist, much less make such a claim.  However, there are certain “signs and symptoms” of a demonic infestation which are readily researchable online–among them, scratches and bite marks appearing on victims, and almost always in groups of three. Such events also seem to often reach a “breaking point” during the hour of 3:00 a.m., which you will see, at the 13:53 mark here in Part Two, and also at the very beginning of Parth Three, is precisely when things become the worst for Hagar.  In fact, Britt, Adam, and Hagar all three see what they describe as a black mass (a shadowed figure) at the :04 mark of Part 3, as well as at the 15:20 mark here in Part 2 (the portion in Part 3 is a “replay” following what would have been a television commercial break).

Am I implying that the Old City Jail has demonic activity?  For that, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait and read Magnolia when it finally receives publication later this Fall. Insofar as facts, rather than fiction, I think the phenomena within the Jail speaks far more loudly than I ever could, given the collected research data in the formerly posted links.  I will not state my opinion one way or the other, but allow you to make up your own minds based on the evidence presented herein and within the episode itself.

A Serial Killer’s Revenge: Part Three (click for video)

One thing which I will state with conviction is that I don’t believe the same thing as Hagar when she asks at the 2:36 mark: “Lavinia, are you still here? Why haven’t you left? Why are you scratching me?”  I definitely don’t think it was Lavinia performing any of the attacks sustained by the T.A.P.S. team, for reasons which I hope by now are highly obvious.  Whether it was, in fact, Cedric the jailer, or something else, I will refrain from positing. Again, make up your own minds, based on the evidence at hand.

At the 7:15 mark, we are given the one and only EVP of this entire encounter: a whistle.  The sound is obviously “human-sounding”, as though someone were following along behind the investigators, whistling a tune.  As Amy points out, you can even hear the “breathiness” of it.  As I’m sure most of you can guess by this point, I highly doubt that this was Lavinia either.  Could it have been one of the Union soldiers housed here during the Civil War?  Or perhaps one of the slaves sent here during the Vesey rebellion, or even sent here simply because they broke curfew?  Or, could it, perhaps, have been Cedric the jailer once again making his presence known?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that, historically-speaking, women aren’t particularly “known” for walking down hallways whistling tunes, at least not in the era during which the Jail was in operation (1806-1939).

The final words from Amy Bruni during The Reveal I think are not only telling as they pertain to this particular case, but to many past cases handled by T.A.P.S. as well, at least, as those cases pertain to “dark entities”.  At the 11:20 mark, she says: “They may not be mentally sound (speaking of the entities “haunting” the Jail), so treat them with respect and they will treat you accordingly.” Again I have to say it: Oh, really?  So is this an admittance, somehow, that the recurrent attacks visited upon the team throughout this investigation were an expression that the entities within the Jail found them disrespectful in some way? Or are the members of this team simply so reticent to admit that anything out there could possibly be dark or negative that they are, in fact, willing to make themselves seem the “villains” instead?  Either way, it is a remarkable statement which I feel effectively voices this team’s complete incapacity and unwillingness to look at the “total picture” when it comes to the paranormal.  This is not the first time–nor, I fear, is it likely to be the last–that this team has effectively attempted to “dance around” the topic of possible non-human entities.

Overall, I thought this was going to be a quality investigation which would address certain topics which others in the past seemed either unable (please review the Paranormal State episode filmed within the Jail) or too inept (Ghost Adventures) to cover.  I find myself deeply disappointed that this was not the case.  The absolute failure to remotely cover the history of this dark treasure of the Holy City is but the tip of an iceberg which has sunk eight entire seasons of a beloved show for me, much less the over-dramatism employed throughout the episode, from beginning to end, with the new use of split-screen effects, and the reckless endangerment of a team member, by allowing Hagar to return to the interior of the Jail given the recurrent attacks upon her person.  I will have to strongly consider, this Wednesday night, whether or not it will indeed be a case of “on to the next….”

Paranormal Ethics?

Last night, my husband and I went to see the new 3-D animated film, ParaNorman, which is absolutely delightful, and I would recommend it to people of all ages, with or without children.  Near the end of the film, I’m sure the other people in the theater (a young couple with a little boy somewhere between the ages of 8 and 11–it’s hard to pinpoint nowadays!) wondered why I started bouncing in my seat, as the film’s main character explained to the gathered populous of his severely haunted hometown, concerning the spirits and zombies (yes, Virginia, there are zombies in this movie!):

“They’re people, just like you.”

The reason for my “bounciness” is that precisely that “paranormal ethic” is one of the central and overriding themes of my new Magnolia!

But how often do we really think of “spectral human entities” (as they are often called in the paranormal community) that way?  How often do we take a moment to pause between stops along a ghost tour, or while watching things like Ghost Hunters or Paranormal State on television, and honestly consider that these were once living, breathing people, just like us?  In truth, rarely.  Much more often than not, ghosts are treated as something along the same lines as freaks in a sideshow or, worse, as things of which we should be positively terrified–even when there has never been any exhibition of “negative” activity.

We fear things that we don’t understand–and last night’s film brought that sharply into focus as well, which also made me giddy.  And how do we respond, when we feel that kind of fear?  In the physical/corporeal world, amongst our fellow human beings, this type of fear is often expressed via bullying–another pervading theme of ParaNorman, which is another reason why I recommend it to people of all ages, with and without children.  What is sad about the present state of the world of paranormal investigation is that often both amateur and professional investigators are now resorting to those same tactics: bullying spirits via what is referred to within that community as provocation.

I’m not saying that all provocation is wrong–in cases where there has been “negative activity”, such as poking, scratching, or other physical attacks, or where it has become obvious that the spirit is there purely to frighten or wreak some sort of vengeance on the living (as is the case, you’ll find, with one of the spirits in the recommended film, in fact), or where there is clear proof that the entity involved is non-human (i.e., elemental, demonic, etc.), obviously provocation has a worthy place in the field. What I am saying is that there are times when provocation is about as worthy  as a method when dealing with spirits, as it is with corporeal, living-breathing human beings, and in those cases, it is precisely the same thing as bullying.

Imagine for a moment that there is a little girl who walks the same path at school every day.  She’s a very odd little girl:  she’s interested in things which are disturbing or confusing, perhaps, to the other children, and she’s hyper-intelligent, which sometimes makes it difficult for the other children to understand what she’s talking about.  After awhile, the other children learn the route she takes every day, and, when an opportunity is provided, they accost her as she walks it, forcing her to her knees and shouting insults at her; even resorting to physical violence.  They taunt and sneer; they kick and bash.  They call her names; they urge her to do something to stop what they are doing, knowing that she is completely powerless to do so.

Now imagine that the same little girl is a spirit; a ghost.  Her very nature makes her somehow disturbing and confusing to us.  It is difficult for us, by her very nature, to understand what she might be trying to say, as most of us cannot hear her clearly, except, perhaps, for the occasional EVP (electronic voice phenomenon).  After awhile, a local team of paranormal investigators also discover the route she walks, and they set up all of their gear and wait for her to make an appearance.  When she arrives, they use provocation, calling her names like coward when she doesn’t demonstrate the signs they want (whether knocking, speaking, or psychokinetic events such as throwing small stones, for example).  They continue to shout at her, no matter how hard she might be trying, so long as they are not getting the results they require.  Finally, they urge her to do something to stop what they are doing; something to stop the name-calling and the shouting, even though she is apparently powerless to do so.

Most of us would readily recognize the corporeal example as bullying.  I can personally vouch that that was precisely what is was, because it actually happened to me in Junior High.  But how many of us would recognize the spectral example as the same thing?  Probably not many, and that is precisely why it is so disturbing.

Let me give you two more examples, one corporeal and one spectral:

A young woman sits in a wheelchair in the middle of an accessory shop in the mall.  Those who pass by her stare at her, as though she is some sort of oddity placed there purely for their entertainment.  Those who don’t stare literally climb over her, as though she is an unnecessary piece of store furniture, when she gets in their way.  Children point and whisper unheard questions to their parents; some adults do likewise.

Now imagine that young woman is a ghost, with an equally ghostly wheelchair.  The store which she inhabits has been publicized as haunted, and folks can buy tickets to visit after-hours, in the hopes of seeing her; they are paying for the chance to see a ghost.  When she manifests, people stare at her; some are entertained by the fear they feel at seeing her.  Those who don’t stare actively discuss her as though she were some sort of science project.  Children point and whisper unheard questions to their parents; most adults do likewise.

Again, in the former corporeal example, most people would agree that the actions of the people in the store are reprehensible.  I can personally vouch for the fact that these responses happen as well–try taking my best friend who has spina bifida and is in a wheelchair to the mall sometime, if you don’t believe me.  But most of us see the second spectral example as perfectly socially acceptable, and that is just wrong.

Obviously, I have taken ghost tours myself, and will continue to do so, largely because they are the only way to even access many areas after-hours.  However, I think it is important for us to take a step back and ask ourselves what our real intentions are, when we lay down our dollars to go “see a ghost”.  Are we going for the purpose of entertainment, to literally gawk at dead people manifesting in phantasmic form, or are we going in the hopes of paying our respects and remembering those who have crossed over?  If you’re going for the freakshow, consider my friend in the wheelchair: perhaps you should review your motives; perhaps you should also consider whether or not you would be one of those people staring, climbing, and pointing in the mall.

Ethically speaking, dead people are just us in a new form.  As such, some are good and some are bad, just as with corporeal, living-breathing people.  Should we, really, treat the good ones the same way as the bad ones?  Would we do that, if they still had a pulse?  These are the questions my paranormal investigator/psychic-medium in Magnolia puts forth to his team.  I would also pose these questions to you, my readers:  what are your thoughts on the ways most people treat ghosts?

From the upcoming Magnolia:

“I can’t believe we got all of this on just one trip!” Graham, the eldest of the three investigators was practically bouncing in the driver’s seat. “Did you get footage of the levitations, Mik?”

“Of course I did,” Mikhail replied; “A monkey could’ve taped that.”

Fae sat silently with Mikhail in the backseat, huddled against the door, peering out the window at the passing streetlights as they kaleidoscoped through the night, driving up Church Street towards Market Street.

“You haven’t said much about the experience,” Graham peered out of the corners of his eyes at Colin who rode shotgun beside him.

“That’s because you won’t like what I have to say,” Colin returned. His eyes, like Fae’s, were pointed with determination out his own window, watching the lights as they faded from amber to white to colored down the passing street.

Graham rolled his eyes. “Not the ethics discussion again? I swear, Wilson, you watch too much TV.”

“My ethical perspectives have nothing to do with television, and everything to do with what’s actually right and wrong,” Colin replied, eyes still out the window.

“You alright back there, Fae?” Graham asked, his eyes attempting to meet hers in the rearview.

Fae neither moved nor responded.

“Harper, I asked you a question,” Graham said again into the mirror.

“Does it make you feel more important to refer to everyone by their surnames?” Colin’s eyes finally left the lights and pavement, turning on Graham Williams with an icy breed of annoyance.

Graham’s eyes left the mirror, returning first to the road, then meeting Colin’s gaze. “Get over yourself, Wilson,” he warned.

“We interrupted something back there,” Colin told him, “and you don’t even care about that. You’re so busy trying to make yourself look good by gaining proof of their existence that you’re forgetting the most important thing: proof of their identity.”

“Is this the part where I get the sermon on ghost-culture again, Wilson? Because if it is, you can save your breath,” Williams pulled to a stop at the corner of Church and South Market. “Ghosts don’t have a culture,” he said; “They don’t have anything anymore. They’re dead.”

“It’s not his fault,” Mikhail quipped from the back seat; “He’s an anthropology major. Everything is culture to him.”

“Has anybody stopped to think–even for a moment–that maybe Colin is right about everything?” Fae’s eyes finally came away from her window. They met Graham’s in the rearview mirror. “Maybe that’s why they got so pissed off.”

Graham smirked; pulled forward from the stop sign, crossing the intersection. “Pissed ghosts make the best subjects–they give us more activity that way.”

“How can you even say that after what just happened to me?” Fae asked, leaning forward so that her hand rested on the headrest of Colin’s seat. “After what just happened to you? We could’ve died back there. If it had dropped us–”

“If she had dropped you,” Colin corrected.

“Whoever,” Fae shot back; “We could’ve died, Graham. Then we’d be them. Would you really want to deal with you, if you were on the other side? The way you handle things?”

“I handle things the same way as any other professional,” Graham replied.

“And maybe that’s what’s wrong with things, as they are,” Fae sat back, slumping in her seat. Her eyes returned to the pavement and the lights.

“Sweet Christ, there’s two of you,” he breathed, taking a left onto Pinckney. “We aren’t studying natives in the Amazonian rain forest,” his voice seethed with sarcasm; “If we were, then the ethical treatment of our subjects might enter the picture. With this, it doesn’t.”

“But it should,” Colin staunchly stood his moral ground.

“If you want off the team, just say so.” They were pulling into the Simons Center Parking Lot.

“Don’t you want to know what the flowers were for?” Colin asked, as Graham put the van in park. “Can you imagine the amount of energy she must have had to expend to even get them through those doors? It had to have been pretty import–”

“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

 

The Science of the Paranormal

Did you ever have career day at school when you were a kid, where you got to dress up as what you wanted to be “when you grow up”?  I did, and in the seventh grade, when Mama asked what I wanted to dress as, my choices were as follows: a parapsychologist or an archaeologist.  Since it was a bit hard to pull off a full-on Ghostbusters costume, I wound up dressing as Indiana Jones instead.  Obviously, I grew up to realize I could be all of the above and more: writers get to “be” a little of every job they’ve ever dreamed up as they write.

Let’s face it, though: long before paranormal investigation took television by storm with shows like Paranormal State, Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters International, and Ghost Adventures, our first introduction in the media to the concept of the paranormal investigator were the guys in Ghostbusters, and the parapsychologists in Poltergeist

The investigative style with which we are so familiar today, courtesy of the popularity of most of those shows, however, usually has very little in common with the original science of parapsychology at all.  In fact, it can be argued that most of those shows (although still fun to watch) employ little scientific method whatsoever.

One big difference is that the two fields seek two different types of evidence:  parapsychology seeks quantitative evidence, while the typical paranormal investigator seeks qualitative evidence.  What’s the difference?  Quantitative research focuses largely on measuring some phenomena under controlled circumstances; it answers questions such as what, where, and when.  Qualitative research, on the other hand, answers the questions of how and why.  One might say that the former is fact-driven, while the latter is slightly more subjective, focusing primarily on specific case studies, rather than generalized data across a broad spectrum.

Right about now, you may be seeking some qualitative evidence of your own by asking why in the heck I’m boring you with all of this! 

And the answer is this: while working on Magnolia, I had a need to develop very real human characters to walk alongside my ghosts–people who could not only communicate with them, as psychics/mediums, but who also might present certain issues for them to overcome.  I had to make a decision: which would be more effective in getting across the themes I wish to convey, a group of parapsychologists, like the ones in Poltergeist, or a group of paranormal investigators, like the ones in the shows we’ve all come to know and love.

Ultimately, I decided on the latter because they ask the questions which will best explore my overall theme; the questions which deal most heavily with faith, belief, and the things we hold dearest.  Those questions aren’t what, where, when–the answers to those questions are what form a basic plotline!  The questions I needed and need are why and how.

So I began researching the methodology of paranormal investigation as an actual science–what do K2 meters really measure and do? How much scientific method (and we’re talking very basic scientific method, on the level of a junior high science project, folks!) do the teams we watch every week even employ? How much of the methodology of the much older quantitative science of parapsychology do most modern paranormal investigators actually use?

What I found was pretty disappointing, given my fondness for these shows (I won’t go into a discourse here on my weekly heckling of Ghost Adventures, which became a tradition long before I did this research!).  I came away with one team, and one team only, out of all of those which I religiously watch that actually uses equipment properly, applies scientific method, and draws routinely from the elder field of parapsychology: Paranormal State, which follows the members of the Paranormal Research Society out of Pennsylvania State (and I would provide linkage to their main site, but apparently it is down, following their recent move to Raleigh, NC from Pennsylvania).  The thing I find most interesting about this is that this group, led by Ryan Buell (a double major in Journalism and Anthropology and a South Carolina native), is also the most maligned group out there; constantly criticized by other paranormal investigators and weekend ghost-hunters.  I guess when you’re doing everything wrong, it’s a lot easier to point a finger in the faces of the folks who are doing it right and tell them that they’re wrong, than it is to admit you’re not doing it right….

Which leads me to the use (and frequent misuse) of K2 meters.  A K2 meter is used to measure EMFs (electromagnetic fields).  Based on a prevailing theory in the field of paranormal research, apparently ghosts are supposed to produce magnetic fields, which they can manipulate at will.  Because of this prevailing theory, the K2 has become the most familiar instrument to armchair ghost-hunters everywhere.  Which is nifty–until you consider how one of these things actually works!

K2′s don’t only measure “ghostly EMF”–they measure all EMF in the area.  An electromagnetic field consists, basically, of two parts (please do keep in mind while reading this that I’m an English major!):  the static, electric field (which is constant and based on the total amount of electrical charge present), and the fluctuating magnetic field (which is based on the actual flow of electricity).  Most K2′s only measure the latter–the fluctuating magnetic field.  This means that their primary data is presented as “spikes” in the surrounding magnetic field: they only “go off”, “beep”, or whatever when there is a flow of electricity through a given area.  At this point, you may be thinking “well, then, when I see one beep on my favorite ghost-hunting show, that must definitely mean there’s a ghost present, cool!”  If you’re thinking that, you’re wrong.

Fluctuating magnetic fields are not only produced by ghosts.  They’re also produced by the refrigerator in the kitchen “powering up”, the furnace “cutting on”, cellphones, headsets, some camera equipment, walkie-talkies, electrical storms, and CB radios going down the road within fifty feet of the device.  So those nifty “beeps” could be produced by some very non-ghostly culprits, including the investigator’s own camera equipment, walkie-talkie, or headset!  If your favorite TV ghost-hunter is wearing any of the above, and the K2 is beeping, they’re probably actually reading themselves or their fellow investigators, rather than whatever locale they’re exploring’s resident ghosts.

To be fair, some of these folks do make a big deal out of getting “base line readings” of the area they’re exploring.  This means that they carry the K2 through the entire location, measuring extant magnetic fields from things like the building’s fuse box and inherent electrical system.  But unless they’re also turning off their communication devices and their cameras (which, let’s face it, if they did that, there wouldn’t be a show), and recording the precise times of “power ups” and “power ons” of things like furnaces and fridges, and monitoring the traffic outside,and making sure they’re not about to have a thunderstorm (and, yes, heat lightning counts!), those “base line readings” serve absolutely no scientific purpose in the grand scheme of things.

None of this means that K2′s are useless in the field, though.  In fact, quite the contrary.  There are a few uses of the K2 which are, in fact, both quantitative and qualitative:

It has been shown that frequent, persistent human exposure to high EMF may cause many symptoms which are often also associated with paranormal phenomena, including:  redness, tingling, and burning sensations (as with clients presenting scratches or other marks on their bodies from a post-human or non-human entity); fatigue, headache, difficulties in concentrating, nausea, heart palpitations, and even paranoia (full scientific write-up on the subject may be found here, for those interested).  In that vein, a “base line reading” of the purportedly haunted area would be crucial in determining whether the clients in question actually have ghostly or demonic visitors, or are just falling prey to the resident EMF of their own home. In short: “debunk first; scream after”.  As you can see, such a practice would be both quantitative and qualitative in nature, and would draw as much on base parapsychological studies–since it actually applies to the workings of the human brain–as on a participant-observer approach.

Another worthy use of the K2 would be in the study of things like apports–colloquially known as “gifts from the dead” (sound familiar?).  Because of very real science, such as string theory and plasma physics, measuring the EMF generated by such objects could tell us a lot about the dimension from which ghosts might actually come to us, as well as the how of their arrival (and the objects they bring with them).  According to plasma theory, items may go from a gaseous form to a semi-solid form based upon the ionization of their particles, and as some of you may already know, where there’s ionization, there’s also electricity.

The third and final worthy use of the K2 would be the measurement of moving fields–if it moves, it’s probably a ghost.  This would be done by setting up a trio of meters in a specific location (preferably the “needled” variety, rather than digital, as these are easier to observe), and studying any magnetic fields which actually move between them.  Generally speaking, such magnetic fields do not move–they remain in one area, generated by whatever current is present in that zone.

Using the K2 as a rudimentary communications device with the undead, however, isn’t good science, pure and simple, for all the reasons I’ve already explained.

Again, why am I boring you to tears with all of this? Because all of this is the product of over twelve hours of research, and I want to give it in detail somewhere, rather than only briefly mentioning it in the novel!

You may or may not remember from junior high school (I personally have done everything in my power to mentally block that era of my life, except for the music, the clothes, and the movies of the 1980s!), but basic scientific method dictates that for a study to be deemed scientific, it must be based on empirical (information acquired through experimentation and observation) and measurable (length, time, temperature, etc.) evidence which tests and either proves or disproves an initial hypothesis.  In this case, the hypothesis would be “this house is haunted” or “you have a ghost” (or something else!). You would then need to either prove or disprove that hypothesis via experimentation and/or observation with measurable results.  The local psychic coming in, ala Tangina in Poltergeist and saying “you have a ghost, honey” is neither empirical nor measurable, no matter how much we may wish it were. No, other proveable data must be gathered, and sitting a K2 on the table and asking it questions while the investigator is wearing a headset or walkie-talkie, loaded down with camera equipment, while in front of yet other cameras is not gathering proveable data, either!  

Which brings us back to parapsychology–which is grouped among the social and behavioral sciences, alongside such things as anthropology, archaeology, criminology, history, communication studies (yes, that includes journalism), law, sociology, and yes, regular, “vanilla” psychology.  Unlike other sciences like chemistry, for example, which study things in test tubes that can be easily observed and measured, however, the social sciences study people.  In case you haven’t noticed: people are highly unpredictable!  Therefore, scientific method when applied in the social sciences is necessarily more qualitative than quantitative by its very nature, although when it comes to paranormal research, there are ways (as with the proper use of a K2 meter listed above, or through the study of EVP–electronic voice phenomena–and digital photography) in which it may be both.

 Qualitative empirical data in the social sciences comes via things like field studies–as when an anthropologist goes to live with a tribe in the Amazon rain forest, for example–and is conducted through not only observation, but also interaction with a subject (or subjects).  Interviews are conducted across a range of subjects; historical research is done; bias is left at the front door.

Without being both qualitative and quantitative, a paranormal investigation is, simply put, bad science.  In fact, it’s not really science it all, it’s just an evening’s entertainment.  It neither proves nor disproves anything!

In writing Magnolia, I was placed in a position where I had to decide whether the paranormal investigators I invented were going to be “good scientists” or “bad scientists”.  Ultimately, I decided to make them a mixture, with the lead investigator having a background as a psychology professor–a background which he never actually uses in the field while studying Charleston’s paranormal activity.  The character that is my “ethical voice”–the “conscience” of the team–has a background in anthropology, which he actually uses, in conjunction with his gifts as a medium/sensitive/psychic.  This “scientific mish-mash” has created a very bumpy road for the team, which is making for some really interesting and engaging storytelling!

Ultimately, I decided to go with paranormal investigators, minus any academic background in parapsychology, largely because parapsychology takes place much more often in a lab-based setting than in the field, with most of its studies revolving around the minds and experiences of specific subjects, rather than locations.  Of course, my “team” does have some knowledge of this “predecessor field”, particularly as it relates to dimensional theories (an explanation which would require its own personal blog-post, but provides a very real, scientific basis for many of the things mentioned in my “little” tale).  While I don’t plan on breaking out the ping-pong balls and having my little troupe conduct their own version of the Ganzfeld Experiment, I do intend to apply as many of the real theories of parapsychology to what I am writing as possible.  I want this to be real to the reader, no matter how skeptical they might be going in!  (I also don’t want to bore the reader to death–hence, blog entries like this one, rather than inserting all of this in the actual book!)

I hope I haven’t bored you all to tears at this point, but I really wanted to give you some idea of exactly what goes into writing a novel.  More often than not, it isn’t just a simple matter of sitting down at a keyboard and having stories pour out of your head, land in your fingertips, and course through the keys onto the screen, and eventually onto a page (or, in this case, an ebook).  The books you love–the books that are real to you; that engage you–are not only the products of good storytelling, but of hours upon hours of painstaking research, much of which might not actually wind up in the finished product, but definitely provides a knowledge base for the finished novel.  It’s the research, as much as the storytelling, which ultimately makes a story real to the reader.

Personally, I found all of the things I learned while researching this very interesting (and very valuable for critiquing the shows I watch as an armchair ghost-hunter!).  Hopefully, after sticking with me to this point, you did, too!

My First Trip to Charleston: Ever Had Any Paranormal Experiences?

I promised a couple of blog entries ago to go into more detail about my first trip to Charleston, back in 1984, when I was twelve.  Before I tell you about me, though, I want to ask a few questions about you (and I’ll be asking these again at the end of the post, so you can answer them–I hope–at Facebook).  Have you ever been totally, completely, and irrationally afraid of something?  Have you ever felt something click over inside your belly that said “whoa, I don’t want to be here”, when there was absolutely zero reason to feel like that–the sun is shining, it’s a nice, pretty, blue-skyed day, and you’re not on the way to the doctor’s office or prison or a funeral or the dentist’s or anything unpleasant like that, and yet you have this completely irrational “oh crap!” feeling in the pit of your stomach?  Have you ever “just known” something–who was going to be on the other end of a phone call (personalized ringtones don’t count!), long before you answered it; that someone or something was present, before you ever turned the corner or opened a door, or otherwise saw them physically (if you ever, in fact, did)?  If you have ever experienced any of these things, then you know a little already of what I felt on my first trip to Charleston in 1984.

When I was twelve, my Mother and I were invited to go to Charleston with one of her best friends at the time, and her best friend’s daughter, M.  (Obviously, her name wasn’t just M, but since the initial nature of the trip dealt with private things in their life, I don’t feel comfortable providing real names here.)  Mom’s friend said that after she finished the errand we were going down there to do, we could then go to the mall and go shopping.  It was 1984, I was twelve, I was a girl, and I was very game to go shopping!  I was also relatively good friends with M, who was a little younger than me, but very smart, and a very cool little girl, so, all around, it sounded like a very fun trip.  We got in the car, and we drove forever with me and M. in the back seat talking about model horses and Duran Duran.

Then we crossed what was then the Cooper River Bridge.  It was as though something clicked over inside me–this sense of dread, like the one you get when you’re sitting in the waiting room at the dentist, or the doctor’s office.  I don’t recall actually seeing anything on the bridge–although it is definitely haunted (there are even stories of “Lavinia sightings” there, as she was hanged nearby)–I just remember feeling something in the pit of my stomach that said “you don’t want to be here, and you don’t want to look out the window, because there’s no knowing what you might see”.  I didn’t say anything to anyone else in the car, for obvious reasons. I was twelve–the last thing you want to be is the crazy twelve-year-old in the backseat–and I didn’t want to frighten M.  So I hunkered down in my seat, and watched the sky instead.

I remember driving through the historic district of Charleston, on our way to the “errand” Mama’s friend was running–the one that had brought us to Charleston in the first place–mostly because I recall seeing the houses of Rainbow Row pass by.  I saw their third stories and their roofs, and that was all I saw, even as Mama’s friend instructed us to look out the window because this was one of the things for which Charleston was famous. That’s all I saw, because I was too afraid to completely look out the window.

Eventually we made it to the mall, where I purchased an awesome pink silky jacket that looked just like one owned by Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran–which thrilled me endlessly (wish I still had the darn thing!), and all was well.  But I dreaded the drive home, because I was afraid we would drive over that bridge again, and I knew feeling what I had felt on the first trip across would be a whole lot scarier at night.

Now, keep this in mind: I knew absolutely nothing about the history of Charleston at that time; I knew absolutely nothing about its history of ghosts and hauntings (this was long before there were paranormal television shows, apart from Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of).  The only thing I knew about Charleston was that Rhett Butler was supposed to have been from there, and I’m pretty sure Belle Whatling, too (characters in Gone with the Wind for the uninitiated).  But I did know what that feeling of dread in my stomach meant, because I had felt it before.

Years later, in 2008 (I know in the previous Lavinia Fisher post I posited 2007; I have since found the original photographs–see the two previous posts with “ghost photography–which were in a dated folder), when Mama got the bright idea of going back to Charleston and actually doing ghost tours, I wasn’t so sure about going.  Yes, part of me was genuinely curious–I wanted to, in some way, substantiate those feelings I had experienced when I was twelve (as though knowing there are a million-and-one ghost tours in Charleston in the first place wasn’t substantiation enough!)–but another part of me was still worried I would feel that dread and fear again.  Whenever I had been frightened of anything as a child–no matter what it was or how irrational it might have seemed to anyone at the time–my Mama was always the one who made things better, the way Mamas are supposed to do.  That’s something I had not forgotten then, and I will never forget, so in the end, I agreed to go.

And I fell in love with the Holy City, and I fell in love with her ghosts. 

Many of the things you will read in the upcoming Magnolia  are based on the “feelings” and “impressions” I have gotten while walking the streets of Charleston, as well as on very real historical research to which I might never have even been led to dig were it not for those initial impressions: for example, I likely would have simply accepted the folkloric tale of Lavinia Fisher, were it not for the “impressions” I have gotten while in the presence of her gift-giving spirit and the locations she haunts.  Whether you choose to accept these interpretations as that–based on “feelings” and “impressions”–or just as very adept storytelling based upon an incredible ability at characterization is your choice.  I hope that you enjoy it, either way.  That’s the most important thing.  That, and that perhaps it might change your minds a bit about the true nature of spirits and ghosts–that they aren’t just a “freakshow” for us to pay and attempt to ogle, but are very real people, just like us, simply on a different plane of existence.

But I would ask you a tantalizing question, whether you are hovering on the edge of belief or disbelief:  have you ever experienced something you couldn’t explain?  Have you ever seen something you knew, logically, you shouldn’t be seeing?  Have you ever “just known” something there was no other way you could have known?  Please, if you have, don’t be shy: comment with your stories at Facebook.  Nobody’s going to call you out as crazy…not on my watch!

Old City Jail: Some Paranormal Photographs

I apologize for “shotgunning” blog entries to you guys this morning, but I felt that after my last entry, I should “rush deliver” those photographs I mentioned.

These were taken in 2008, using a Kodak Easyshare C533/C530 (circa 2005), wide angle (not telephoto), with a flash distance of 2-11.5 feet, using flash only in interior locations where there was complete darkness (i.e., flash was NOT used in any of the following photos; all light was naturally present).  Any subsequent photo-editing has been duly noted in precise detail.

Orb photographs: Old City Jail, Charleston, SC

These were by no means the only photographs of orbs captured on this foray into the Jail.  However, I believe they are the most pristine, and the least easily discounted as “interference”.  Orbs are widely believed within the field of paranormal research to be evidence of spirit energy (i.e., “ghosts” or spirits).  However, they may also be dust, condensation, weather-related (rain, mist, etc.), and/or insects.  They may even be evidence that the photographer really needed to clean their camera!  In fact, orbs are usually the most easily debunked (i.e., proven to be from something natural, rather than supernatural) of all pieces of paranormal evidence.

These two photographs were taken within seconds of each other within the Jail, as we entered the “lower workroom” (for lack of a better name for it) on the ground floor which leads to the “tour exit” (i.e., the exit used by the tour guides from Bulldog).  (For those who watched the episode of Paranormal State in my previous blog entry this morning, this appeared to be the room manned by Sergey during the Paranormal Research Society’s investigation of the Jail, although I am obviously not completely positive that that was the case.) To give you some geographical concept of the location of this door in relation to that “lower workroom” area, when one faces this closed door, the workroom is on one’s left.  There was a small light in the ceiling which gave minimal illumination to the area.  No one else in the tour group was taking photographs of this door at the same time that I was, hence, the orbs seen are definitely not the reflections of a combined flash, nor are they a lense flare.  As one can see in the first photograph, no orbs are present, yet, in the second photograph, they are.  All attention at the time the shots were taken was on the tour guide, who was leading the group into the room on the left.  There was no evidence of dust and/or condensation in the area–the floors in this area are solid, and we were not the first group through that evening. Obviously, the camera was well-maintained, otherwise the dirt on the lens would have been apparent in both images.  I chose to take a photograph of this particular door based on a “sensation” or “feeling” of a presence in that doorway.

First Photo taken of the door in the Jail presents without orbs
Photo has been resized only. First photo presents without orbs.
Second Photo presents with orbs.
Photo has been resized only. As you can see, the second photo presents with orbs.

In order to make the orbs even easier to spot, I have taken the liberty of “highlighting” them for you with small purple arrows in PSP7:

 
Orb Door with Orbs Highlighted
Resized; Orbs are highlighted with purple using PSP7.

Our “brush with the paranormal” at Charleston City Jail did not begin inside, however, but outside.  Of course, we did not realize this until we got back home and uploaded the photographs to the computer, where we could see them in their larger form.  An “innocent” photograph of my Mother standing outside the Jail, upon closer inspection, reveals an additional “guest” in the photograph!

 
This photo was taken at the entrance to the Jail using the aforementioned camera, sans flash, employing the illumination of the present streetlamp (seen in the lovely GoogleEarth street view provided) and the present light from the one small lamp across the street (approximately three car-widths–not lengths–away).  There was no passing traffic on either Magazine (the street which the Jail faces) nor Franklin (the street to the right of the photo onto which Magazine connects) at the time the photograph was taken.  As we were waiting for the guide and the other tourists to gather at the time this shot was taken, no one else was using flash at the time, either.  Everyone was basically just standing around talking.
 
Jail Apparition, Full Photograph
Photograph has been resized, and adjusted for lighting using PSP7′s Automatic Contrast Enhancement set at Neutral/Normal/Natural as one normally would use for photographs which are mildly dark.

If you are sitting there thinking “well, that’s a very nice photograph of Michelle’s Mother, but where is the ghost?”, let me shed a little “highlight” on the subject:

 
Jail Apparition: Full Photo, Highlighted
All technical information is the same for this photo, save the outlining of the apparition, circled in purple, also using PSP7.

Let’s zoom in on that, shall we?

 
In order to gain a closeup of the image with minimal distortion due to pixellation, I resized the original image of 720 x 960 to 3000 x 4000, readjusted the lighting using the same settings as before, and then applied JPEG artifact removal with a setting of Strength: High, Crispness:100.  I then cropped the target of our inspection, making it the focus of the overall photograph.  Before we unveil the apparition, let’s first take a look at Mama at that magnification, so that you have an object of reference for clarity and pixellation:
 
Mama Magnified
My Mother at the same magnification as the apparition detail, employing the same technical details mentioned above.
And now, the apparition at the same magnification, using all of the aforementioned technical details:
Jail Apparition: Detail
In case you are still having difficulty discerning the shape, allow me to provide a bit of assistance.  First, highlighted with a purple circle via PSP7 (the image is otherwise the same, insofar as technical details):
Jail Apparition: Detail: Circled
And, for further clarity, outlined (also in PSP7 with otherwise the same technical details:
Jail Apparition: Detail: Outlined
As you can hopefully see from my makeshift outlining of the image, the figure would appear to be holding something in its hand, almost in the fashion that a man would hold his hat over his chest casually “back in the day”, as we say here in the South.  You may notice that if it is, indeed, a hat, the shape would be most suggestive of a tri-corner style.  This becomes particularly interesting when one considers that the present building one tours was not built until 1802.  Tricorn hats, as they are more properly called, fell out of fashion by 1800.  This would likely date the figure in the window to a period sometime in the mid-17th century, when this style of hat was favored by the common people, as well as the elite.  In the mid-17th century, (1680, to be precise) the parcel of land on which the Jail now sits would have either been a poor house or a hospital, meaning that this figure, as is the case with many of the Jail’s current residents, was hardly a hardened criminal at all, but more likely a debtor, or even a victim of disease or disability.
Whether you believe or not, whether you are a debunker or not, what is important about these latter photos is not as much whether or not they can be proven or disproven, but the fact that the researching of them points towards a very important detail never mentioned by the tour guides at the prison: not everyone who died upon the land on which the Jail now sits were hardened criminals “deserving of everything they got” inside its walls.  If you are going to peer into history, whether you seek spirits there or not, unveil all of that history, or label what you are doing for what it is, rather than veiling it as even remotely historical in nature.  Call folklore out for what it is: legend, myth, and idle gossip, not historical fact.

The Truths Behind Charleston City Jail (with a special word about Paranormal Investigator Ryan Buell)

Last year, on the Arts and Entertainment Network, the following episode of Paranormal State was aired.  My Mother and I eagerly anticipated viewing it, and were fortunate to be able to watch it together.  I invite you to do likewise now. (Runtime is 21:40)

Full Episode: Paranormal State: Season Five, Episode 3: “Spirits of the Slave Dungeon”

As someone who has toured this site twice, with my Mother, I can personally vouch for the sad and oppressing feeling experienced particularly by Michelle Belanger, the psychic who routinely works with the Paranormal Research Society seen in the episode (they have been based for the past 11 years out of Penn State; they will soon be moving their base of operations here, to Raleigh, NC).  My Mother, who is a self-confessed “psychic brick”, can also vouch for those sensations.  They are very real, and they are overriding in this location–unless one is completely insensitive to what has gone on here in the past (i.e., a “psychic tourist”, viewing the location more as a “haunted funhouse” than a historical location in which very real people, and subsequently, their very real spirits, were and are still housed).

Yesterday’s post on the truth behind Lavinia Fisher (who received mention in the episode as well) is, obviously, merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the “whitewashing” as Belanger refers to it that has gone on concerning the history of this place.  Rather than fostering true historical accounts based on official records and forensic evidence, guides tend to favor folklore above fact.  But, in the end, it is not so much the furthering of the Lavinia Legend which disturbs me, just as it was not this for the members of PRS: it is the names that you never hear mentioned on these tours that I find the most disturbing of all:

What about Denmark Vesey?  What about the members of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, whose heroics were depicted in the 1989 film Glory, featuring Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick; surviving members of whom were housed in that very same Jail?  Why do we hear nothing of them?

There are definitely spirits in that Jail.  There are far too many EVPs, as well as other evidence, floating around the internet for the case to be otherwise, as well as first-hand accounts of encounters with myriad spirits, including that of Lavinia, and, in particular, and most menacing of all, a Warden, who would appear to hail from the later period of the Jail’s history (circa 1930′s; it closed in 1939 when the Prison Reforms came into action), given his dress and the gun he appears to carry.  I know there are spirits there–I have experienced them myself (and will unveil that photographic evidence in my next posting, as a matter of fact, including a full-form apparition).  The question is not whether or not the Jail is haunted; the question is, what keeps the spirits there in the first place? What has trapped them in the place from which they should most want to escape?

When the episode aired, the Charleston tour guide community erupted–and not in a good way.  As I was doing my research for this post, I found this scathing review, written by a former tour guide from Bulldog Tours (the only company with interior access to the Jail):

Mark Jones’ Review

While there is quite a lot in his review with which I humbly disagree (and I will address the parts of that which I can actually back up momentarily), I find it interesting that even he notes that company owner John Laverne promotes a “poor business model” which even he maintains is unethical.

I will let the reader make up their own minds about most of Mr. Jones’ assertions concerning the members of PRS and their television show.  However, there are things which Mr. Jones maintains as truth herein which I would like to provide argument for, among them his attempts to correct a College Professor, who teaches History! I’m sorry, but when I am given the historical assertions of a former tour guide, placed against the informed historical assertions of a professor of history at the College of Charleston, I think I’ll go with what the latter has to say, rather than the former, and I believe so would most other educated people (or, even, most people with more than one or two brain cells).  For those interested, Dr. Bernard Powers who appears in the episode is not only a Professor of History, but also the Associate Chair, and has published numerous works on African-American social and cultural evolution.  I do believe he would be in a much better position to know the difference between a “Sugar House” and a “Workhouse” than Mr. Jones, as well as the probable locations of both within the confines of Charleston, within the appropriate time period.

Mr. Jones also calls out Dr. O (whose real name is Ade Offuniyin) as a charlatan, saying that “Dr. O hangs around the jail often”.  Well, yes, I would imagine so, considering that prior to November 2011 he was accepted to a position as provost to the American College of the Building Arts (which is housed within the Old City Jail!) due to his previous studies as a blacksmith under the apprenticeship of his grandfather, Philip Simmons (incidentally: almost every inch of ironwork seen throughout Charleston is the product either of Simmons’ own hand, or of his tutelage of other blacksmiths!).  Dr. Offuniyin also carries a PhD in Cultural Anthropology, and served his professorship in the field in Gainesville, Florida.  Hardly a charlatan, by any means, nor a “kook”.

Which brings me to Ryan Buell.  I have been watching Paranormal State religiously since it first came on the air, primarily due to Buell’s ethical stance when it comes to the supernatural/paranormal.  He sees and treats spirits as what they usually/primarily are: human beings, only in a different form.  When the haunting is something other than a ghost (i.e., demonic), he deals with those things honestly and openly, and does not mince words, nor split religious hairs or straws.  (If a heavy dose of God and Jesus are necessary, then I have never seen Ryan bat an eye in delivering the proper dosage!)  In short, he is someone whom I admire. And I very much admire his handling of the Charleston case.  Would I have liked to see him handle the issue of the Lavinia Legend? Oh, yes, most certainly.  Would I have also been elated if he had drawn attention to the 54th Regiment and Denmark Vesey? Yes, my heart would have danced.  But in the end, he gave voices to those otherwise voiceless, and effectively used the words I think are absolutely the most important when dealing with anything in the Jail: those spirits are trapped.  In addition to that, he also provided a new way for tourists to view visiting the Jail: go to show respect, rather than to participate in a sideshow.

I have just learned that Ryan has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  He is only thirty years old.  I hope you will join me in prayers for his recovery. If ever there was a spiritual warrior who will be welcomed in Heaven, I personally feel it is certainly him, but I hope and pray God will not enlist him anytime soon…..

Magnolia: Lavinia Fisher

From my upcoming novel:

“Many a tired traveller stopped at the Six Mile House on the outskirts of Charleston to find themselves welcomed in by its innkeeper’s charming wife. She offered them sweet tea to knock the dust out of their throats, and it was sweet indeed–flavored with the flowers of the local oleander. And she let those flowers do their work, as she rambled question after question at them: where do you work? What’s your business in Charleston?” The tour guide stood amidst the group, cast in semi-darkness in their short-shorts and t-shirts, cameras glowing and whirring and popping frame by frame by frame. “They drifted off to sleep, these weary travellers, and eventually trundled on upstairs to bed. That’s when she’d tell her husband there was another one ready for him. And in the middle of the night, if they woke, there they would find him, peering over their bedside, his face lit by the gleam of his axe.”

Behind the group, in the darkness, the guide, who had snuck along the wall to a position behind them, slammed shut the iron door of the cell, and the tourists shrieked, clinging to each other for dear life. “Lavinia Fisher was held here in this very cell, until they hanged her on February 18, 1820. Some say she haunts here still.”

Lavinia reached over with a snicker, and yanked Fineas up by the hand. “Here we go,” she whispered, and she led him, scuttling, through the iron bars of the cell and out the other side. “Watch this.”

Cameras popped and flashed, and Lavinia scurried into their strobing lights. To his amazement, Fineas watched as her white gown became red-splattered, as though with blood, and she tilted her head back, spinning and spinning, like a little girl playing in the rain.

Purported painting of Lavinia Fisher by an Unknown Artist, believed to be in the public domain.
Lavinia Fisher, allegedly the first female serial killer in America, was more than likely no such thing. It is far more likely that both she and her husband were highwaymen–basically the equivalent of “land-going pirates”.

 Of all the stories, tales, and haunts of Charleston, Lavinia Fisher is most likely the most famous and, indeed, infamous of them all.  She is also the most often seen, having been spotted on a regular basis by those touring and investigating the Old City Jail, as well as (allegedly) in other locations throughout Charleston, including the Unitarian Cemetery, the Circular Congregational Church Cemetery, and the County Court House (and, some say, the garden near it).  Lavinia has become, in many ways, Charleston’s “most treasured ghost”.

 
She certainly became that in many ways for myself and my Mother on our first trip back to Charleston in (I think it must have been) 2007.  While I plan to provide more details on my very first trip to Charleston (hence, our first trip back to Charleston; my first trip was in 1984, when I was twelve) in a later post, here I’ll share our first introduction to Lavinia….
 
(I have literally spent the past three hours searching the internet for the story our guide told us about the Gullah tradition of gifts from the dead, and can find nothing, so pardon me while I “fake it well”….)
 
Our first-ever ghost tour of Charleston was led by the delightful Susan B. of Bulldog Tours, and left their headquarters around 7:00pm–while it was still daylight.  While the highlight of the tour was supposed to be exclusive access to the Provost Dungeon, she also led us on a rather lengthy walking tour of other areas of historic Charleston, including the exterior of the South End Brewery and the street outside the County Court House–one of the many sites in Charleston which is allegedly haunted by Lavinia.  We stopped to catch our breath in the garden nearby (Court House Square) as Susan B. related the story of Lavinia.
The garden near the Court House on Broad Street in Charleston.
 
Later, as the tour was winding down (following our adventures in the Provost), she shared with us a Gullah story which I desperately wish I could remember.  The scant bits I recall relate the story of a beloved Gullah pastor who passed away.  His calling card in life was a black umbrella, which he used as a walking stick.  Upon his death, years later, that black umbrella showed back up–as a gift from the dead.  Thus she concluded the tour with a lovely reminder that we should always keep our eyes and hearts open to gifts from the dead, instead of fearing them.
 

My Mother was absolutely fascinated with the story of Lavinia.  When we returned to our hotel room, we quickly discovered Lavinia was equally fascinated with her….

Hot and tired, we returned to the hotel to rest a few moments and freshen up before seeking out a place for dinner and going on our second tour (which was scheduled to leave around 9:30).  We didn’t have long, so we rushed in, and were tossing our bags on the beds when we realized the lamp in our room, which sat between the two beds, had been turned on.  Mama, who is always the reasonable one, pointed out that the maid was a much more likely culprit than a ghost, and walked over to turn the thing off.  We then went about our business at the mirror and in the restroom, only to find a few moments later that the lamp was on once more! 

But the lamp was hardly the most interesting thing to happen that night, though little did we know it at the time!

We returned to the offices of Bulldog Tours, and set out on the Charleston Ghost and Graveyard Walking Tour.  By now, it was quite dark outside, as we meandered through the streets of Charleston, and beheld Church Street’s purple skies (more on those in a future post).  We stood outside the gates of St. Philip’s Church Graveyard and heard the story of Sue Howard–probably the most famous ghost to ever be captured in a photograph–and we also toured the cemetery of Circular Congregational Church, which is the oldest graveyard in the Holy City, and another reported haunt of Lavinia.

We returned to the hotel once more, exhausted, and my Mother began making her preparations for bed, beginning with brushing out her long and lovely hair.  Mama has gorgeous, long, dark hair, for anyone unfamiliar.  As she brushed it, she noticed something foreign falling onto the white countertop surrounding the sink–they looked like dried flower petals, and dried flower centers (these are called anthers and filaments, for those who know a bit about gardening, or would like to google the proper term to understand what I am referring to), and they were a deep pink.  In fact, they mirrored precisely the shape and color of dried pink oleander: 

Pink Oleander

 

Just like the dried oleander Lavinia was famous for using in her tea….

Oleander is poisonous, even when dried.  My Mother promptly collected the “littered gifts” that had been throughout her hair in a small ziploc baggy, so that we could carry them home–very carefully.  We were so thoroughly mystified by the entire incident that I was too stupid to think of taking photographs.

We retraced our every step throughout the nighttime tour.  At no time had we ever stood beneath the overhanging branches of oleander bushes/trees, though these may indeed be found throughout the city.  There would have been no opportunity for her to simply brush against a tree/shrub, or anything of that nature, catching the flowers in her hair.  Not to mention that getting that much hair caught on an oleander bush–or any bush, for that matter!–would have been something we both would definitely have remembered (after all, I would have needed to disentangle my Mother from a tree!).  In addition, these flowers and “stamens” were dried, not wilted–they did not appear, as wilted flowers do, to be somehow “drained of moisture” (doubtless you know the effect to which I am referring), but instead somehow prepared, as in the making of tea.

Upon returning home, and dragging out all of our memorabilia to scrapbook (Mama is a highly avid and extremely talented scrapbook-artisan), she discovered that the flowers were simply gone–as well as the bag that contained them!

But she and I know, and will ever believe, that she had been gifted by the dead, exactly as in the Gullah story our guide had related at the end of our first tour.  And these gifts had not been bestowed by just any spirit, but likely by Lavinia Fisher herself, for they mirrored precisely her most legendary calling card: the makings of oleander tea.

If Lavinia were indeed the serial killer that the legends would have us believe, I find it very hard to swallow the idea that the gift imparted would have been flowers, even if they were poisonous ones!  Those who perpetrate that level of crime generally carry an aura of evil with them, even in the afterlife (as can be demonstrated by other notorious killers, such as Jack the Ripper), not flowers gently placed in the hair of a woman who heard her story and found something within it that intrigued her.  Lavinia figures prominently as a character in the upcoming Magnolia, and I am taking this experience, combined with new forensic and court evidence assembled by author Bruce Orr, and using the combined information, through the humanizing of this character, to somewhat “clear” Lavinia’s name.

For when the dead give us gifts, it’s because they wish to be remembered, not for what folks say  they’ve done, but for who they truly were….

The Uphill Climb

This has not been a good week for me, over all, but it just got better!

Most of my weekend was spent stressing out over Facebook, and my lack of traffic there–to the point that I was actually in tears.  Today, thanks to Anne Rice’s Page, I discovered that I’m not the only one with an Official Page at Facebook that is having these issues (seemingly sudden lack of traffic, lack of interaction, etc.), because so is she.  Thankfully, she posted up a very nice link to help out everybody having this problem, which I am using every word of, which also included a link to help all of you fix any issues you might be experiencing with your feeds (because apparently Facebook has officially jammed this flow at both ends).  So, now that’s better.  I have new hope, and hopefully it will help all of you not only with finding and interacting with me, but with other feeds you might be missing as well.  Hopefully these techniques will also serve to help Anne Rice increase her traffic as well.  (Lord knows, she deserves it!)

The next part of better:  literally moments ago, I discovered that Raven has gone Premium at Smashwords!  With Carnavale, I had to re-format in order to have it added to the Premium catalog for distribution.  Apparently, I have officially “gotten the hang” of how their “meatgrinder” works, and at this time, Raven has gone immediately Premium in one week without any further formatting! I’m so happy I’m literally bouncing in my chair.

What does Premium status mean?  It means distribution!  Once an ebook makes the Premium Catalog, it is shipped to a variety of booksellers, including Barnes and Noble, Apple, Baker and Tayler, Sony, and Diesel, which means that even people who have never ever heard of me can find my books, buy them, and, hopefully, become a dedicated reader who will look forward to more of my work in the future!

Which brings me to the third part of better:

As most of you know by now, I have been working feverishly on the first book in the Underhalls Series.  I am presently 150 pages in, handwritten, and have not even remotely approached the denouement (the wind-down; the place where all the pieces of the plot come together, and there is a resolution and an end in sight)!  I’m very excited.  I love this particular piece with a passion, and I think (I hope) that all of you will as well.  I am hand-writing this one (I have typed barely any of it), so cannot currently provide an accurate word-count for you guys (ebooks are generally judged based on word-count, rather than page numbers), but I can definitely promise that this is going to be a long and entertaining ride for your reading pleasure!

Why do I hand-write some pieces and not others?  Please keep in mind that my “writing career” began around the age of five, when I first learned how to write full sentences, how to put those sentences on paper, and make them into stories.  That was long before I even owned a typewriter, much less knew how to use one! So writing things by hand, in essence, is a “return to my roots”.  Therefore, things flow differently when I write things by hand.  It feels more “organic”; like I’m planting something, and it’s blooming as the ink flows across the page.  Most writers have their little “quirks”–specific things they do to more or less get themselves in “writing mode”.  For example, Steven King favors a particular type of pencil and still uses the typewriter he grew up writing on (I can’t even imagine writing a novel in pencil!).  For me, my quirk is purple pen on college-ruled notebook paper.

My other new piece, Magnolia, and now-in-distribution Raven, on the other hand, are and were both typed.  So, what’s the difference? Why must one piece need to be “organic”, while others don’t?  Does typing a piece mean that I somehow love it less or that I’m less passionate about it? Absolutely not!  The best way that I know how to explain it is that some stories require “coaxing”, while others demand flying off my fingers at light speed.  Obviously, I can type faster than I can write.  Magnolia and Raven demand light speed.  Underhalls needs to be babied and caressed; molded and shaped.

You may be asking now (I hope you’re asking now!): What is Magnolia?

Those of you who have read Raven (and there aren’t very many of you yet!) may recall a couple of paragraphs in Chapters Seven and Eight about Hagan Crawford’s Magnolia Series, which is described in that novel as a series of books centering on an astral romance set against the backdrop of Charleston, South Carolina, complete with ghosts and vampires, and including the characters Maggie, Colin, and John.  Hagan considers these books her greatest mistakes, in the midst of an interior debate over whether or not she should have “stuck her toes in the water” of the paranormal fantasy romance genre.  Though they brought her the success as a writer which she so desperately wanted, they were never what she had set out to write for the rest of her life.

The paranormal fantasy romance genre has become, in many ways, the red-headed stepchild of today’s writing world.  Thanks to things like the Twilight series (and its many copy-cats), it is a genre with which there is little grey area anymore: people either give it utmost respect, or consider any novel in the genre automatically a laughing-stock, unworthy of their attention.

I don’t intend to follow in my character Hagan Crawford’s footsteps in the future by considering Magnolia the greatest of mistakes.  On the contrary, I hope for it to be a break-out piece which shatters the normal stereotypes of the paranormal fantasy romance genre, because, while my novel–which I am working feverishly to bring to all of you as soon as possible–does include vampires and ghosts and, yes, romance, it doesn’t treat any of these things in ways which you have likely seen before.

That’s because the only characters which do not have some basis in fact are Colin, Fineas (yes, he’s new!), and John.  All of the other characters, including Maggie, are based on actual ghosts which inhabit Charleston right now!  You can go there, walk those streets, and be among these characters.  Yes, of course, as a novelist, I have taken many liberties because that’s how you attain things like plot–otherwise, this would be a “documentary”, not a novel!–but I am working very hard to as much as humanly possible keep the things they say, their actions, and reactions tied firmly to the very real history of who these spirits are.  My ultimate achievement with Magnolia–and I am working desperately hard to make this happen–would be to make it clear to my readers that ghosts aren’t “freakish things” for us to pay to go and ogle, but they are people, just like us, but in a different form.

I am currently approximately 15,000 words into Magnolia, and again, nowhere near the denouement.  While I was admittedly reticent at first even to begin this (given the red-headed stepchild status of the genre), I am finding that every single day is like a little mini-vacation to Charleston, and that is worth every letter and every word.  These spirits deserve to have their stories told in a way that will not only entertain, but enlighten, and if my imagination and my additional characters (Colin, Fineas, and John) can achieve that, then I will have done something greater than write a fun story; I will have given voices and identities to a voiceless group of people, hanging in the shadows, who need their stories told in new ways, beyond the tour guides and the “ghost books”.

I’ll be giving more updates on Magnolia in the coming days.  I hope that you will all enjoy the insights into Charleston as much as I have.  I love that city–I would live there, if I could–and I love its spirits.  I hope that all of you will get as excited as I am right now, and that all of you will come to love Charleston and her spirits, too.

Who is Thom?

I dedicated Raven to Thom.  It just says “For Thom…”, so I’m sure some of you are wondering who he is, and why I dedicated this book specifically to him.

Thom was the soulmate I never knew I had, til it was too late. 

That’s the easy answer.  That answer speaks not at all of the regret I’ve felt constantly, since he passed.  It tells you nothing of what he meant to me, nor what he came to mean, nor even what he means to me right now.  It doesn’t unload on you, the reader, the reminder that you should take every moment as though another one may never come; that you should pick up the phone every time it rings, if you really love someone, and you should definitely dole out for those long distance calls.  That answer doesn’t preach those things–things we all desperately need to be reminded of, before we are made to remember them when it is far too late.

Writers don’t like easy answers.  Neither should their readers.

I grew up with the “idea” of Thom, long before I ever actually was old enough to converse with him; actually get to know him.  He was one of my mother’s very best friends growing up, and a cousin.  They played Barbies when they were growing up. Yes, Barbies.  (Go ahead, those of you who are predisposed to do so: raise those eyebrows and pass your judgments.  I don’t care, and neither will Thom.  I imagine he was used to it; I’m getting there.  Neither of us should have to be, but it is what it is.)

All those years with Barbie, as it turns out, were training wheels for a rather successful career as a costume designer/seamstress/”Drag Mom”.  Thom made queens into Queens.  That may seem inconsequential or even bad to some of you, but the bottom line is, what he did gave self-esteem to folks who might never have had it otherwise; might have had all self-worth beaten right out of them by the world and its attitudes towards the different and those they deem as “strange”.  And that’s a gift, people, whether anybody wants to recognize that or not.  Somebody who can take their talent and give self-worth to people–to anyone–is a gift from God. Thom was such a gift.

Thom struggled his whole life towards shattering stereotypes, and he definitely succeeded at doing that with a lot of people–myself and my mother included.  Which is part of why I chose to dedicateRaven, with its primary themes of never assuming anything about anyone and not judging books by their covers to him.  But it’s not all of the why; there’s a whole lot more.

In case any of you have been living under rocks, it’s not easy living as a gay Christian in the American South.  And Thom was all three of those things: gay, Christian, and distinctly and unabashedly Southern.  He collected memorabilia from Gone with the Wind, as does my mother.  (No matter how many years those two spent apart, they were still always linked, in thought, in mind, and in heart–often without even speaking to each other for years at the time.)  While writing  Raven, I was reminded frequently of Thom–he also loved horror movies, in fact, he loved film in general, and he had a great appreciation for gore, as well as practiced sensuality that was well done.  But those weren’t the only reminders: considering Troy’s life, there in the tiny town of Tallulah Falls, I often compared him back to what Thom’s life must’ve been like, living in our own tiny town growing up, and anywhere in the South for that matter, and I have developed a whole new appreciation for what it must mean to live constantly inside a box.

I’m talking about the boxes society builds for us; the labels it squeezes us into, and the judgments it makes.  Some of you, reading this–if you’ve even gotten this far–might be building boxes this very minute; making those judgments and tossing those labels around in your minds.  Those boxes trap people.  They lead to things like chronic depression and suicidal thoughts.  Thom experienced those things, too, but he rose above them; he rose above them, and he blossomed, which means so can I, and so can you, those of you who are also living in boxes.  That was Thom’s gift:  he was a breaker of boxes.  That’s why it is important for me to dedicate Raven to him.

I should have spent more time with him, on late night phone calls, and with visits, and in whatever way I could, but I didn’t.  There was always the promise of tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or Christmas, or summer–tomorrows and weeks and months and Christmases and summers that have never come.  And that is another reason for my dedication of Raven to Thom:

I mean it as a reminder to people not to squander the time that you’ve been given with the life-changing people who may be in your life right now; the people who can mold you and change you, and give you hope when things seem hopeless; the people who remind you, without question, every time you speak with them who you really are, and that you should be proud of that.  Because we are not guaranteed tomorrow or next week or next month, or Christmas, or summer.  We aren’t guaranteed the next breath.  Don’t risk regret: love the people who love you, and tell them that, constantly; appreciate them while you can still know, for certain, that they can know you do.

Don’t build boxes.  Don’t hide behind the walls you’ve built.  Accept the same gift Thom gave me, and countless others: be proud of who you are; celebrate it; and celebrate the people who celebrate you.

Thom and me, Christmas 2010

My first–and last–Christmas with Thom, 2010