- I was living in Los Angeles, one of the USA’s newest cities. I moved to Providence, Rhode Island, one of the USA’s oldest cities. The city is like a museum of early American architecture. It was a rather like traveling back in time.
- I began to read about Providence history.
- I was visiting a school somewhere. A teacher took me aside and said, “I have a student who says it’s urgent that he talk to you alone. I don’t know what it’s about. But he’s very insistent. Could you spare a few moments?” My curiosity piqued I said “Sure.” I was led into a small office and there was a boy sitting there fiddling with a key chain. I sat down, introduced myself, and said, “I understand you want to talk to me.” He said. “I just wanted to say hello.” That was it. He had no more to say. But the moment becomes a key part of my book. It’s very believable because, in part, it is true.
- The Providence house (15 Sheldon Street) I moved into was a charming old one, built in 1835. If you go to Google Maps, and enter the address you can see it.
- The top floor was an attic that had been converted into an apartment. It had old wooden floors, and in the back was a small room. It had a stain on the floor.
- I began to read about Providence history.
- I began to wonder who had lived in my house a long time ago.
- I put all of this together and wrote a ghost story set in the house. See point 3.
- I had written the book, but had no title. On another school visit, I read the beginning of the book to a class. They liked it. Then I said, “But I have no title for it. Anybody have a suggestion?” A girl raised her hand. She said, “Why don’t you call it Something Upstairs?”
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.
Perhaps 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.
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.
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.
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.
Think 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.
I have just sent in a new collection of short stories to my editor. As yet untitled, it contains a ghost story. In 2016, a ghost story novel will be published. I have published other ghost stories, Something Upstairs, Seer of Shadows, and there is a ghost short story in the collection Strange Happenings. No surprise then, then from time to time, I am asked, “Do you believe in ghosts?” My standard answer is, “No, but I believe in ghost stories.”
I was about nineteen, visiting Maine with my parents. It was summer. We were heading home to NYC. I must have looked at a map because I realized that as we passed through the western outskirts of Boston, I was directly east of where my favorite aunt and uncle lived, just across the Massachusetts border. “Let me out,” I announced, “I’m going to hitchhike and visit Aunt Flossie and Uncle Jerry. But don’t tell them. I want to surprise them.”
Off I went, hitchhiking across Massachusetts, taking most of the day. When I reached the nearest town (in New York state) where they lived, I set out to walk the last few miles. It was about four in the afternoon.
I had walked about three miles along a single lane road through rural country, pretty and hilly. Quite suddenly, the sky grew dark. A thundercloud had gathered. As the rain started, I stood under a tree to keep dry. It was no more than a summer cloudburst, soon over.
As I stepped out from beneath the dripping tree, I realized that I was at the bottom of a hill, at the summit of which stood a church, one of those classic white, New England steepled structures. On the hill below was a cemetery, replete with old slate stones—old, I knew, because of the way the stones were shaped and titled. I even thought what an odd place for a cemetery.
Even as I looked at the cemetery, I saw a rectangular gray-colored mist rise up from one the stones. It stopped me cold. My heart pounded. I stared. The mist held its human shape for quite a few moments. Then the sun broke through the clouds and the mist faded away.
Quite shaken, I climbed that cemetery hill and examined the stone. It was old, covered with lichens. No question, the rain caused the phosphorescent elements in the stone to glow.
At least, that is what I told myself more than fifty years ago. Except I have never forgotten, and the image I saw (and felt) does appear in my ghost stories. So no, I do not believe in ghosts, except …
A magician who doesn’t believe in magic? That’s the premise of Murder at Midnight and Midnight Magic, two books about Fabrizio and Mangus the Magician which are also mysteries. Two more good books for holiday reading.
Here’s what I have to say about Midnight Magic on my website: “I know where the setting for this book entered my imagination—Naples, Italy, which I once visited. But the book came about because I wanted to write a scary book that wasn’t really scary, a ghost story, that may or may not have ghosts, and a tale of magic, that might, or might not have magic. But what really makes the book fun is the relationship between Mangus the magician, who does not believe in magic, and his servant boy, Fabrizio, who does believes in magic a great deal. The prequel to this book, which tells how the two came together, is called Murder at Midnight.”
I’m deep into my next book, a ghost story. “Do you believe in ghosts?” I can hear someone asking. No, I don’t, but I believe in ghost stories. I have written a few, such as Something Upstairs, Book without Words, and Seer of Shadows. There are a couple of short ghost stories, too.
I find ghost stories interesting, and a challenge to write, making what I don’t believe believable. Along the way I’ve learned that a lot of young readers like to be scared. I often ask them why and. although I don’t get exact answers, I get the impression that young people enjoy the intense emotions such stories generate, emotions, moreover, wrapped in the safe blanket of a book. Ghost stories are a reminder that not knowing everything means that there is much in the world and beyond that has yet to be discovered. For young people who have not taught themselves (or who have been taught) to be completely rational, ghosts hover on the fuzzy edge of reality, a place of endless possibilities.