Loren Eaton at I Saw Lightning Fall kindly invited me to participate in this year’s Advent Ghosts, a shared storytelling event he hosts. Advent Ghosts revives the old British tradition of telling eerie stories at the year’s end. Loren’s particular twist, beyond broadening the subject matter, is that each story be exactly 100 words long.
Throughout much of human history, the end of the year would have been an appropriate time for the mind to turn to matters of death. Food was harvested and stored in preparation for months of hardship ahead. The winds grew cold. Fruits and vegetables stopped growing. Leaves fell from trees, animals went to ground, and the world was blanketed in a thick, white shroud of ice. Many cultures still choose November 1st or 2nd to honor the dead, a pre-Roman tradition still alive, though in much disguised–and, arguably, commercially stretched and abused–form in the North American tradition of Halloween. Even many of the symbols typically associated with Christmas have their roots in this death-consciousness. The Christmas tree is an evergreen, as is mistletoe. And the custom of kissing beneath the evergreen, a reminder of, and prompt toward, fecundity. In the northern hemisphere, at least, we seem to have an innate drive to assure ourselves of the continuance of life at what was historically a time of hardship, privation, and death.
So it makes a certain sense that the British–Charles Dickens famously among them–would be drawn to ghost stories at this time.
Loren’s Advent Ghosts does not actually require that the story be a ghost story, just that it be spooky to some degree.
I aimed for spooky. The idea, and its tradition, appealed to me. So I tried writing a little ghost story.
But I’m not sure the story quite comes off. 100 words is not a lot to tell a story with. I did find it to be easier than I imagined it would be–a bit like writing poetry, as Loren promised, and I love writing poetry. But to tell a a good story with a budget of only 100 words, that’s tough.
I’m going to include that story here (because I’ve likely aroused your curiosity), so you can read it if you want, and judge for yourself.
He pulled the bullet from the revolver, set it upright on the windowsill. This time it was taller than the amber rotgut remaining in the bottle. He rubbed at gooseflesh.
Was it one of the children? The mothers? The old men? Thinking about it brought back screaming, gunfire, and blood. He stood to pace the lonely room. A chill draft passed through him, though the air was still, hot; an accusing face invaded his mind.
He grabbed for the bottle. The bullet no longer stood on the windowsill. It was back in the gun.
Merry Christmas to you, too, Saigon.
When you write something like this, it’s hard to tell if what you had in your mind is what will come across to the first time reader. This particular story, I imagined that what the first time reader would feel at the end was probably confusion. I thought they would have to read it a second time (at least) in order to piece it together. Maybe you weren’t confused by it, but that could be because I cheated: I told you there was a ghost before you read the story. (Or maybe the story would be fine as it stands, without the tip off in the intro. It’s hard for me to tell at the moment.) The title, Fresh Ghosts, was actually chosen in an attempt to mitigate this potential confusion, if the story were divorced from its present context. I was cheating a bit there, too. Well, let’s be generous and say, “Putting a little English on it.” I was using the title to try to get ghosts into your mind at the beginning, hoping it would help make the sense a bit more apparent.
There are really only a couple of things that bother me about it, and in rather unspecific ways, a bit like a vague discomfort with one or two of the lines, though for reasons I can’t readily discern right now. It’s the sort of thing where I might read it some months from now and find that I think it works perfectly well, or that it’s really only one or two lines that need need to be changed and the changes might readily occur to me at that time. Or that it just doesn’t work at all. That’s why I generally like to let anything I write sit for at least six weeks, so I can get some perspective on it. But I didn’t have that luxury of time here. Nor was I really able to run it past beta readers and get their feedback. So I’ve got a few blind spots with it.
Maybe you enjoyed it. If so, I’m really glad. If not, I hope you enjoy the second one.
Because I did write a second story. And this one, I won’t cheat with, because I think it speaks for itself.
The Night Before
The walls bleed red. He has ceased pulling neighbors in and pointing. He doesn’t like how they look at him. And sometimes, in the corners of his vision, it’s not there.
And there’s the dissonant, tinkling melody, like an out-of-tune piano, though it comes and goes. And the faraway conversations when he lays his head down, voices chatting in non sequiturs that become names and instructions when he strains to hear.
He’s crying. He needs to sleep. The store opens early tomorrow.
He sleeps in the suit they gave him.
Because it’s cold out.
And because it matches the walls.
This story, I like a lot better, personally. It started with the first line, and came pretty much line by line. I didn’t really know what I was going to have at the end until I finished it. Is it spooky? Well, I think it’s creepy. At least, I hope so. Are there ghosts? I think I will let you decide that one. If this is the work of ghosts, demons, spirits, imps, or what have you, then it is spooky. If it’s all the work of his own tortured mind, then it’s creepy. Either way, I hope the story has moved you in some way. That’s what we come to fiction for in the first place, I think.
Thanks to you for reading. Thanks to Loren for the invitation; I enjoyed the challenge.
Happy Holidays to you all. Keep those you love close.
UPDATE 2/27/14: Having now reread these stories at some distance from their creation, I’m very pleased to find I quite like them both.