Saturday, October 25, 2014

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HAUNTED?

dead tulips
It's Halloween and I've been thinking about haunting. I was going to write about the new McMansions in this neighborhood - and how starting with a blank slate of a house might be the way some people do away with haunting. Haunting comes down to memory - the memories of other people who once lived in a house,  as well as memories in the history of your furniture and in your head.

This month, I read Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House, where she suggests that architectural disproportion, angles that are slightly off, doors that aren't centered and uneven staircases might contribute to mental imbalance in the house's inhabitants. You feel haunted.  Also poor taste and somebody else's misguided creative imprints on a property can amount to a kind of haunting.

But I want to talk about a different kind of haunting now.  That of memory.  People speak of being haunted by past mistakes, heartaches and failures.  Maybe writing is a way of dispelling those ghosts.



petals

I'm going to tell you something personal - and I feel safe doing so, because you are my loyal reader and you are still here, reading. I'm going to tell you about a haunting I experienced when writing my novel I Know Where I Am When I'm Falling.   I wrote the novel with thoughts about a man I once loved - and the story is largely about him - although some of it is imagined.  For instance, at the end of the novel - I imagined how the character of Angus might have died at sea.

I was living in Rome when I wrote a lot of the novel.  And while I was writing the part where I imagined Angus dying,  I was also teaching at The American University of Rome.   This particular afternoon, I had been deep in my writing, imagining how Angus might have gone missing at sea, and the writing took a lot out of me.  I had gone very far into my imagination, to pull up certain elements of the man who inspired Angus.

I needed a break.  So I stopped writing, and turned my thoughts to a course I was teaching.  Suddenly the opening lines of Dickens' Hard Times came to mind - "Now, what I want is Facts."  It struck me as amusing, and I thought I might begin my lecture here, so I turned to the bookcase behind me, to see if I had a copy of that novel.  It turns out, I didn't.  My Dickens set was incomplete.

The Dickens collection that has followed us around the world
Bear with me --- because here comes the haunting - either that or a series of coincidences worthy of Dickens himself.  My husband Ben and I have traveled all over the world, and our books have followed us from country to country.  Some of them we had not opened in years - and this became evident in what was to follow.  Because when I saw I didn't have a copy of Hard Times, I took down another Dickens' novel, Bleak House.  I don't know why I did it.

I opened the book at random - and to my surprise, I found a card, that had been slid into the book many years before.


tucked into a copy of Bleak House
 It came from the man who inspired the character of Angus.  He had written this card to me.  I opened it and this is what I read:

his message


Astonished, I then found a second card in the book.  This one was a Christmas card - again from the same man.

I have no recollection of the original context

What did he mean, he thought I knew? I couldn't remember the original context of that message.   But eager for more apparent 'messages' from beyond the grave, I took at random a second book from the shelf - a book from the same incomplete Dickens' collection,  Child's History of England and Christmas Stories.  

Once again, I opened the volume at random - and my eyes fell on these words:

 A Message from the Sea

Several years passed.  My novel was published in April, and a few weeks ago, through a mutual friend, my former brother-in-law, the brother of the man who had inspired the character of Angus - got in touch. He asked for a signed copy of my novel. I sent him one with pleasure, and I included with the novel a letter in which I told him the story I've written here.   He  then wrote back. Earlier this morning, I went to the post office with a second letter, which I mailed to him.

I've been thinking a lot about 'Angus'. All that history is in my mind.  Haunting me? Not really - but companioning me, certainly.  Anyway,  on my way back from the post office, I decided to stop at an antique shop.  I was looking for a reading lamp.  I didn't find one. But while I was browsing, I came across some books.  They were the precise editions of the  incomplete Dickens set that contained those haunting messages.  So I purchased a copy of Hard Times~  the one I had been looking for!
a missing book to add to my collection


I then took the photographs you see in this blog post. While I was taking the photographs, I opened the Christmas Stories at random, looking  once more for the "Message from the Sea".

But it opened to a different page.


I kid you not

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