Monday, 31 October 2011

A Brief History With Ghosts

One of the first things I did when I started Crow Toes Quarterly Magazine was come up with a list of fifty inspirations. This list contained authors, artists, books, famous literary characters and all things spooky. It was my way, in those early days, to give contributors an idea of what I wanted CTQ to be. One of the very first things on that list of inspirations was GHOSTS.

Ghosts have been a part of my life since I was a young child. When I went to summer camp as a kid, it was the night camping in the woods I looked forward to the most, because I knew we'd spend our nights around the fire telling terrifying ghost stories. I have spent a good part of my life since then trying to write a ghost story as terrifying as the ones I told as a kid.

Until I was a young adult, ghosts were only characters in the stories I read and wrote, and in the movies I watched. And then I moved into a wonderful old(er) apartment complex in Richmond, British Columbia called Apple Green. The complex was built in the early seventies and was designed to be an adults-only complex. In the late nineties they changed this designation and young families and first-time home owners started moving in. Many of the original owners stayed until they passed away. And of course, many of the original owners passed away inside their homes.

We never asked about the past of the apartment we had moved into, but it was clear from the first day that we weren't alone. It began with very strange behaviour by our cat. He would stand at the end of our bed and his fuzzy head would follow something moving around our room. In the middle of the night he would shoot up and arch his back and start growling for no apparent reason. Through the day he would run circles around the apartment yowling. Then one day when I was sitting in my living room watching television, I heard something that still gives me shivers today. I heard someone get up out of the chair in my office. It was that squeaking sound of the loss of pressure as a body lifts up off an old swivel chair. Just get up off of your chair and you'll know the sound I'm talking about. My cat, who was comfortably asleep on my lap, shot up and dug his claws into my legs. He growled, jumped off me, then ran to the office. A few seconds later I heard him tearing down the hallway away from the office and under the bed where he hid the rest of the day. I was so scared I couldn't move. And I didn't until my wife came home.

After that day, I started hearing footsteps in our hallway and glass tinging in our kitchen. Eventually, the sounds in our home became common sounds and we just learned to live with them. Eventually, we learned that whoever was there with us wasn't malicious or out to scare us. They were just there. Being. Until the day my sister-in-law and her boyfriend saw something they couldn't quite explain. They were visiting the grandparents, who lived three doors down from us (and were original owners in the complex). As they were saying their goodbyes at the front door, the two of them caught sight of a young girl walking through our closed door into our apartment. I wasn't told about this for several weeks, but the night they saw this girl I was woken up by someone pushing on my shoulder and whispering in my ear, "Wake up." I shot up, just as my cat had so many times before. My haunches were up and my heart was pounding, because I could still feel the pressure of the hand that had pushed my shoulder. I could still feel the tickle of the whisper in my ear. I looked around and my cat was sound asleep at the end of the bed. My wife was sound asleep beside me. Was it a dream? Was it real? Whatever the case was, after that night I never heard another ghostly sound in our apartment. It had become clear that whoever had been there with us had accepted our presence and moved on.

Another, more terrifying experience I had with ghosts took place in Lillooet, British Columbia. In 2001 my father, who lives in Abbotsford, took on a contract in Lillooet and spent a good deal of each week working up there. While in Lillooet he lived in a basement suite that overlooked the canyon. The view from his front window was stunning and the history that had happened just outside his front door was shocking. In the 1800s a man named Matthew Baillee Begbie, also known as "The Hanging Judge" was said to have sentenced several men to die by hanging from a tree that just so happened to be a few hundred steps down from my father's basement suite. We knew this, having learned about Begbie in many high-school history classes. And when my wife and I decided to do a weekend trip to Lillooet, a walk to "The Hanging Tree" was definitely on our agenda. When we finally saw it, the tree was a ghost of its former self (having been beaten up by the weather and burned by a firebug through the decades), but the history that went along with it still gave us chills.

That first night in Lillooet, while lying in bed talking about our day, we both heard a familiar sound...familiar only because we had heard it in so many movies about the old west. It was a sound I can still hear when I think back to that night. It was the sound of a tree creaking as a rope that had weight connected to it swung back and forth. Creak...Creak...Creak. I remember looking at my wife and saying, "You don't hear that, do you?" The paleness in her face gave me the answer I didn't want to know. I remember her pushing me and saying, "I'm sure it's just the house settling or something, but go see what it is just to make sure." At this point my heart was beating so fast and I was shaking so much that all I could say in response is, "Are you crazy?"

But the creaking sound did not stop and eventually I made the bold and stupid decision to leave the bedroom and check things out. I stepped through the bedroom door and looked over the living room, which was lit in a green glow from an alarm clock set up on the television. The creaking sound was all around me. I mentally prepared myself and flipped the light switch. When the light came on the sound stopped instantly, but something else, even more terrifying happened. I suddenly felt immense rushes of freezing air blow through me. Once. Twice. Half a dozen times. And every time a rush went through me I shivered so violently I almost fell to the ground. I had seen and felt all I needed to see and feel. After the seventh rush of cold air I ran back to the bedroom and slammed the door. I repeated to my wife and to myself, "There is nothing out there. There is nothing out there." My wife did not look convinced. We huddled in the bed until fatigue finally took us over and put us to sleep. The next morning I phoned my father and asked him why he didn't tell us his suite was haunted. He laughed and said, "What are you talking about? I've never heard, felt or seen a thing."

And that's the funny thing about ghosts. My father has always said he didn't believe in them. Because he doesn't believe, he can rationalize every little thing that might be a ghost. His explanation was the house had been settling, just as we had tried telling ourselves. Whereas he believed that explanation, we did not. And so, the ghosts opened themselves up to us. I never returned to my father's basement suite in Lillooet, but I still talk about that night, especially when I'm out camping and we're all sitting around a fire telling ghost stories.

It's the closest I've come to creating that childlike feeling of terror through a story.

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