Story Behind the Story #14:
Devil’s Race

Years ago, when living in Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia, I was a member of a back-packing club. We’d meet at a nature center early Saturday mornings, and returned Sunday afternoons, having camped for the night. One of the places we liked to hike and camp was along the Appalachian Trail, in a state forest park with the wonderful name, St. Anthony’s Wilderness.

St. Anthony's Wilderness

[Knowing that St. Anthony is the saint you pray to for lost things, makes it an even better name.] At one time the area had been home to a string of forts built by colonists during the French and Indian War. There were also any number of abandoned homes, and even small villages. Midst the trees you came upon many a lichen-covered stone ruin. At one point there had been coal-mining in the area, so the trails were black earth. In hearing distance was an army artillery fire-range, so as we hiked I sometimes heard the booming of distant cannons. An altogether strange but beautiful place.

St. Anthony’s Wilderness also contained an abandoned 18th Century cemetery, which was usually the place we camped on Saturday nights. One of the old stones had a name chiseled into it: John Proud.

Devil's RaceJohn Proud became the name of my hero in the ghostly tale, Devil’s Race, which is set in and about St. Anthony’s Wilderness. The title of the book I had chosen was St. Anthony’s Wilderness. This was vetoed by the editor who chose Devil’s Race, which has nothing to do with the story. There is no devil in the story and the word “race,” is a rarely used word which means fast-moving creek, such as the one briefly referenced in the story.

There is an old tradition in publishing, a party to celebrate the publication of a book. In all my years I have had only one such party. When my back-packing pals learned about my book, they insisted we must have such a party. So it was we all packed tiny bottles of champagne in our backpacks and hiked up to that cemetery. There, next to the stone that celebrated the once real John Proud, my friends toasted me, my hero, and my book, Devil’s Race.

Bad title. Great party.

A most unusual publication party

I just received my first copy of The Most Important Thing [Candlewick Press]. Though it is my seventy-fifth book, it’s always an exciting moment.

Devil's RacePerhaps you have heard of publishing parties, a celebration of the publication of a book. In all my years of publication, I have had only one such party. It was in 1984 and it was for my fourteenth book, Devil’s Race, published by Lippincott, a publisher that no longer exists. It may have been my only such party but it was most unusual.

Devil’s Race is a ghost story, and tells the tale of a boy who has an evil alter-ego who is pursuing him, trying to take him over. The boy’s name is John Proud. Ultimately, John must embrace his evil half to conquer him. Simple stuff. But fun.

The idea for the story came about when I was a member of a Pennsylvania back-packing club. One of the places we often camped was a state forest park called “St. Anthony’s Wilderness,” a most wonderful name, and a most fascinating place. In the 18th and 19th century it had been populated. Now, all that remains in the forest are ruins. And an abandoned cemetery.

ph_saw

In that cemetery there was a lopsided stone that caught my attention. It read, “RIP John Proud.”

Hence my idea for the story (it is set in St. Anthony’s Wilderness) and my protagonist’s name.

Some friends in that backpacking group learned that I was publishing the book and said we must have a book publishing party. So we did, each of us packing in a small bottle of champagne. Thus we hiked into St. Anthony’s Wilderness, and sat around John Proud’s stone, drank a toast to his soul, and to my new book.

My only book publishing party, but a memorable one. I hope it made John Proud, well, proud.

Halls full of memories

I have written a few ghost novels: Something Upstairs, The Book Without Words, Devil’s Race, plus a few short ghost stories. My readers often ask, “Do you believe in ghosts?” My answer is, “No, but I believe in ghost stories.” (See blog posts for November 15, 2012 and December 11, 2014). Each year I read, A Christmas Carol, a ghost story.

avi

Now I am about to publish (spring 2016) a new ghost novel, The School of the Dead. It came about because I visited a school which had been converted from a very elegant private mansion into a private school. Another school I visited is a converted mental institution which has a troubled tradition of its own ghost. In these schools much of the old architecture was preserved, which makes them fairly unique. It was these curious mixes of the new (young, modern students) and the old (the buildings themselves), which gave rise to the idea that led me to this novel.

School of the DeadThink about it: schools are full of memories, both actual and fanciful. The building itself might be very old. My public elementary school, built in the 1920’s still stands, and is still a school. (Down the block is the earlier school, now converted into an apartment building.) In many schools there are the sports trophies from years back, portraits of retired teachers and/ or principals, pictures of illustrious alumni. In one of the schools mentioned above, the library is a formal chapel—actually quite lovely, but, well, strange. Sometime the schools are named after someone from the past. In many schools you’ll see rather old class rooms and, not infrequently, very old books. Quite often you will see returning students whose happiest days were in that particular school, who have come back to capture a bit of that time. Maybe they are ghosts. As one of the characters in the books says, “Nothing is emptier than a deserted school.”

These days, schools often have elaborate Halloween events, with everyone, including faculty and staff, in costume. What could be a better setting for a ghost story? And so it is: The School of the Dead.