Saturday, December 28, 2013

Ga t he r i n gG h o s ts

n open fireplace serves little purpose than to coat a thin layer of charity across whatever appears in its light. Don’t count on it to warm your room, much less your heart. Turn from the fire on a winter’s night, and the shadows wrap you up cold.

But it does burn.

The night of which I write had me facing the fire in my study, while behind me, beyond my candle-lit desk, where paper and pen waited for inspiration, snow assaulted the windows. The power was out, so I welcomed the flames more than they usually deserved. The north corner of the house shivers at times like this.

I stood contemplating the temperature at which paper burns and how, thanks to Mr. Bradbury, we all know what that means. We who are readers, that is. We readers know individuals who have spilled out of pages and into our minds, heroes and heroines who, like us, have simple needs, simple goals. We know what happens when you toss water on a witch. What a child can achieve by saving a runt pig. How to find Wonderland, where the Wild Things are.

It was Marley’s ghost who menaced me that night.

I had pulled books from the shelves, books with ghosts in them, to surround myself in their wealth, to revisit the tales that had gone before, to nudge my urge to write a ghost story. On the footstool lay Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place, a bittersweet novel inhabited by lovers Michael and Laura, who manage to hold to their memories; near it, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, that timeless tale haunted by the headless horseman; the classic Wuthering Heights; the grief-stricken Hamlet; and Sebold’s contemporary The Lovely Bones, where Susie Salmon wanders her personal purgatory and the neighborhood she once thought harmless. A Christmas Carol spread open at my feet, the fire lighting half an illustration of Marley, poor soul, anchored to his money and remorse.

As I poked the fire in thought, searching for something new, his chains clinked suddenly nearby, and there stood Marley himself, in the flesh—or rather, spirit.

Leaving the poker ember-bound, I straightened up, and in an effort to not be unnerved, said loudly, “How’s Ebenezer?”

Marley loosened the rag that held up his jaw. “I’ve been watching you,” he said. “And my advice is—do not.”

In another attempt, I laughed, but it came out unsteady. “What business is it of yours?”

He leaned toward me, a tug on his weighted chains. “There are enough of us already!”
I looked him in the eye then (just one, for the other was lost to the dark), and said, “I have every right to my own ghost story.”

He flopped a hand toward me. “I entreat you—”

“I am not your beloved Scrooge!”

“—there are enough of us who suffer, fated, doomed!”

“Why do you trouble me? Had I known you’d object, I’d have left you on the shelf.”

After a long silence, in which a pine knot spat among the flames, Marley said, “I shall call out the others.” 

I thought then of his plight, and that of those who began to whisper from the books.

One whisper became a girl’s voice, and she said, “You don’t know what it’s like.”

I turned to see Catherine, standing by the snow-spattered window. “What’s it like?” I asked.

Flashing her eyes at me, she said, “Sorrow and regret all your days.”

“Most foul,” moaned a voice from the dark of the door. It was the ghost of Hamlet’s father, too much of a shadow to be distinct, and the light was too feeble to reach him. “Sulph’rous and tormenting flames.”

Feeling a chill, I stabbed at the fire, and here was the headless horseman, sitting on the floor, holding in his lap a large pumpkin, which grinned brutally into the blaze. I knew the blotches on the man’s shoulders had once glistened red.

Marley spoke again. “I’m here to haunt you until you see sense.”

I pivoted. “Is that a threat?”

“The power of death,” said Hamlet’s father, sounding like the poisoned king he was, “is in the tongue.”

“Which, in your case,” said Marley to me, “is in the pen.”

“Sorry I’m late.” It was Michael, from the Yorkchester Cemetery, with Laura right behind.

“We’re late,” she corrected.

Michael smiled carelessly. “We’ve got all the time in the world.”

“I wish,” murmured Laura.

“I’m here, too,” said a young voice from above. It was Susie, sitting on the blades of the ceiling fan, pale as a clouded moon. “Though I’m not sure why.”

“I know why,” I said. “Marley thinks—”

“Would you add torment to torment?” Marley asked.

The king cried from the door. “I stumble through my sins!”

I held myself to reason. “Marley thinks there are enough ghost stories in the world. He does fine to advise a miser. But he’s no author’s friend.”

Dragging a ledger across the floor, Marley turned to Michael. “Do you want to see another soul lost?”

Michael shrugged. “Naturally, living where I do, I’ve seen plenty of ghosts. Most of them don’t last a day.”

“Those of us who do,” explained Marley.

Michael coughed. “I suppose there are enough of us to fill a lifetime. Yes, several lifetimes.” He smiled at his own response.

"See?” said Marley. “Agreed.”

"I’m not so sure he does.” I looked at each one questioningly. “Anyway, I certainly don’t.” I moved toward the desk. “I will write what I will.”

Marley blocked my way, though it took effort to heave forth his chains. “Shall I enumerate your sins?”

I hesitated. Catherine, who had been gazing at the snow, glanced sharply back at me. King Hamlet moaned. Laura hiccuped. Realizing it was a bluff, I said, “I’m not Scrooge, Jacob. I’m a writer, that’s all. Let me write.”

“Obviously,” said Michael, a smile in his voice, “that carries no weight with him.” His humor froze in the cold, though the pumpkin’s grin seemed to widen.

“How can you say that?” I said. “What do you know?”

Laura immediately took his defense. “More than you. You think we dead haven’t learned a thing from this dreadful life?” Her words were followed by a quick laugh. “See? I’m desperate to still call it life!”

“You know?” said Michael. “I’m with Marley. Why create another character to suffer as we do? Yeah, I’m with Marley.”

“I’m with no one,” said Catherine. “Just release me from this place.”

I blew out my breath. “You don’t suffer, Michael—you’re in love.”

Michael’s smile fell, and his look sank into my heart. I knew I had spoken wrong. “Have you ever been in love,” he whispered, “and couldn’t do a thing about it?”

The candles flinched. The snow drifted high outside. The fireplace dimmed. Susie now sat on the floor, gazing at the space where the horseman’s head had been.

She said, “It’s not so bad. Once you get used to it.”

Laura blurted, “Spoken like a victim! You have no idea—”

“I do,” said Susie, softly. “It’s you who have no idea.”

I smiled to myself. This wasn’t working for Marley. Then he spoke, hauling his chains in close. “I’m haunting you till you give this up.” He looked around. “Other than Michael, anyone else?” One by one they nodded, even the pumpkin. All but King Hamlet, who was weeping in the dark.

“Why?” I argued. “What’s in it for you?”

Marley said mournfully, “I have forever. I can wait.”

“Some inspiration you’ve been,” I said, and strode to my desk. I sat down hard, my story now filling my mind, and began to write. But nothing came out, only scratches on the page. Shaking the pen thermometer-quick, I got the ink to squirm, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. Catherine was at the window, fidgeting with the latch. I continued to write. Michael coughed now and then, or pretended to. I continued to write. Marley was trembling—with rage or the cold—it was nothing to me. I pressed the last period in place and held the page up. “There!” I said. “My ghost story!”

Marley moaned. No one else made a sound.

“With no new ghosts.”

Marley stared. Everyone else, even Pumpkinhead, looked puzzled.

“Satisfied?” I said. “You’re now in another setting.”

They gaped at me.

“All of you. Consider it your home away from home.”

“You’ve ...” Marley gasped. “Where have you put us?”

“Here. In this very room.”


“I hope you’re better at being sociable than you’ve been so far tonight.”

The ceiling light flickered a single-frame moment, freezing the ghosts in an instant sketch, then died again. Snow was shifting.

Marley regained his composure. “I don’t believe you. This cannot be.”

“See for yourself,” I said, offering him my story. He peeked at it uncertainly. “I’ll read you a line.” I scanned the page. “How’s this? ‘He flopped a hand toward me. “I entreat you—”’

After blinking twice, Marley protested, “That’s no proof! That’s merely an observation, from memory.”

I searched for something specific. “This, then,” I said, and read, “‘A Christmas Carol spread open at my feet, the fire lighting half an illustration of Marley, poor soul, anchored to his—’”

“No!” cried Marley, stopping his ears.

I went back to the fire and jabbed it to life. And with one delicate toe, Susie—out of compassion, I think—nudged the open book, with Marley’s tortured image, away from the heat. Marley himself stepped back, his expression lost to shadow.

But Michael resumed the case. “Wait a minute! What if we don’t care to be here? This isn’t right!”

“Yet here you are,” I said quietly, gripping the story in hand.

The ghosts gathered near. King Hamlet became more defined, and his presence contorted the flames. He addressed me directly. “Thy threat holds nothing more than I ever condemn’d bear. To my prison house I must yield.”

“You have a second prison now,” I said. “Besides, you cannot escape your sins.”

He shuddered, and retreated to the door.

“I’m weary,” sighed Laura, her words not far from my ear, and she yawned in validation. “Let me go.”

“You’re free to go,” I said. I was weary, too—of this wretched company.

“No,” said Marley, reviving himself. “No! Not till you disown what you’ve done.” 

Catherine murmured agreement. “The living world’s behind us, true, and we cannot escape our fates. But don’t damn us all the more.”

“Call it what you like,” I replied.

“I’ll ever haunt you,” said Marley, and he loosened his rag so that his face gashed in half.

Repulsed, I turned from him and dangled the page toward the fire. “Leave me now, or into the pit you’re cast.”

Marley mumbled, “You wouldn’t!”

I kept my back to him. “One toss,” I insisted, “and you burn.” I considered just then that when the make-believe realm, in which exist all manner of beings, spills into that of our own, which we commonly and perhaps lazily call reality, equilibrium goes kilter. There’s no logical ground on which to stand, and anything can occur. I felt the ghosts considered this, too.

The page glowed perilously bright.

“Leave me, Marley, and my story remains. Haunt me, and into the fire you go. All of you.”

Before he disappeared, Marley tied up his bandage again, and said with gritted teeth,
“You’re harder to crack than old Scrooge!”

I turned to look at the rest. King Hamlet was no longer there. Beyond my desk, a window stood open, the snow swirling heedlessly in, and the candles had blown out. Susie fingered her charm bracelet, while the horseman shuffled his feet. He stood, pivoting his pumpkin to study her momentarily, then vanished. Susie vanished too, her charms tinkling in the dark.

Michael and Laura lingered before the flames, hands out, yearning for warmth, I guessed.

Michael sighed. “You’re right,” he said. “A writer is always right.” And taking Laura’s hand, though they both had no sense of touch, he declared, “It’s stifling in here.” Laura only laughed, a small, contradictory laugh, and they were gone.

I went to the window and latched it, opened the desk drawer, and dropped my story in. I gathered up the books and returned them to the shelves.

It was then I heard Susie’s voice, like an echo, saying, “Good thing you didn’t burn it—you’re in this story, too.”

I sat down speechless, right where the horseman had sat, and stayed the cold night through, watching the flames die out. 


text & illustration © 2013 by Troy Howell / illustration is graphite, ink, and acrylic on paper


  1. It is lovely to see your ghost story in its entirely here on your blog.