Monday, December 12, 2011

More reviews for Boroughs of the Dead!

Two great new reviews for BotD just came out in the past week, from Fangoria and The Horror Zine respectively. Here are some choice words:

"Janes can write—and this package is not [just] a zombie book. Sure, it has the odd ghoul, but also a few choice ghosts and other dead things. BOROUGHS contains 10 tales of Gothic, Penny Dreadful-esque dread and classic terror, some set in contemporary times, some in the haunted past, all taking place in different neighborhoods in New York City. Like the best of the pulps, the narratives are creepy, darkly comical and elegantly composed, with lovingly detailed descriptions of place and an ample whiff of lurid decay." - Chris Alexander, Fangoria

"[These] stories end entirely differently than what the reader expects. And that is the brilliance of Andrea Janes’ work: she doesn’t play by the rules. She teases you with one idea and then twists the knife, sometimes literally, into an entirely different direction. There is nothing sub-standard in Boroughs of the Dead. Each story is unique and exciting, and her writing style is absorbing." - Jeani Rector, The Horror Zine

Friday, December 09, 2011

"It's not often you come across a fairytale cottage complete with witch's cat."

Archeologists in Lancashire, England have discovered the ruins of a 17th century witch's cottage!

From the article:

"Historians are now speculating that the well-preserved cottage could have belonged to one of the Pendle witches.

The building contained a sealed room, with the bones of a cat bricked into the wall.

It is believed the cat was buried alive to protect the cottage's inhabitants from evil spirits."

Horrid! And wonderful!

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas Past Walking Tours!

This Saturday December 17th and Sunday December 18th, yours truly (me!) will be giving guided walking tours of Manhattan's East Village, in collaboration with Ghosts of New York.
Here is a description of the tour:

New York's Ghosts of Christmas Past

December 17th, 1 pm; December 18th, 1:00pm & 3:30 pm

Join us for a festive holiday walking tour of New York's Ghosts of Christmas Past! Follow us through the East Village as we discover New York City's special connection to Christmas and its vital role in many holiday traditions, from Santa Claus to Christmas trees. We'll show you where Charles Dickens read A Christmas Carol on his 1865 American tour, invoke the ghosts of the old Dutch Colony, and tell tales from when the East Village was Kleine Deutschland. Along the way we'll treat you to shiver-inducing stories of East Village Ghosts, from Washington Irving to Gertrude Tredwell, then finish at Tompkins Square Park's Greenmarket where you can warm up with a hot apple cider, or at a local pub where you can warm up with a hot toddy.* A festive variation on our classic East Village Tour, Peter Stuyvesant and His Ghostly Friends of the East Village.

* The 1pm tour on Sunday ends at the Greemarket and are suitable for all ages; all others end at pubs and are for guests 21 and older

Please visit Ghosts of New York to book your tickets!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Christmas Ghosts Update

New post up today, this one all about Santa!

Follow the link!



Sunday, December 04, 2011

"Christmas Ghosts" is back!

For those of you with long memories, you will recall I started Christmas Ghosts some time ago, and posted many a ghost story of my own there. These stories have been subsequently yanked as they were sold and reprinted elsewhere, but the blog is back, with a slightly different slant.

My aim now is nothing less than to single-handedly revive the tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve! I'm also going to post lots of general fun, fact-y, Christmasy tidbits as well as ghost stories, so there ought to be something for everyone! And, because I am always scheming, there is an extra, added, as-yet secret bonus to top it all off. So stay tuned....

And Happy Holidays to All!



Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New York Ghosts: Mark Twain

Today marks the 176th birthday of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Twain lived in various locales throughout New York City for much of his adult life, from the West Village to Wave Hill in the Bronx. He often claimed his favorite residence was 14 West 10th Street, located between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, on one of the Village's most picturesque blocks. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that he still haunts it now.

Twain lived at this address from 1900 – 1901 and if you visit it you will see a small bronze plaque in his honor. The beautiful 1830s townhome already had a reputation for being haunted at the time he moved in. Twain, though, was an inveterate skeptic who mocked the idea of ghosts and refused to believe in the unexplained. He even expressed his disbelief in a short story appropriately called "A Ghost Story" in which a ghost haunted his own fake corpse. Even the sight of a truly unexplained phenomena couldn't shake Twain's skepticism. One night he saw a piece of kindling wood moving by itself near the fireplace; he grabbed a pistol and shot at it. The kindling fell to the floor, where Twain saw a few drops of blood. No intruders, human or animal, were ever found to explain the event, though Twain sniffed he was sure it was a rat and still refused to believe that what he had seen sprung from supernatural sources.

These days, Twain's ghost is said to appear to current residents of 14 West 10th Street on the first floor and at the lower level landing of the staircase. Some say the house is haunted by no fewer than twenty-two spirits, the ghosts of people who formerly lived and died in the house. Perhaps Twain does take his place among this cavalcade of shades, or perhaps it is merely wishful thinking on the part of those who spot the spirit – after all, who doesn't love a good celebrity ghost?

One former resident who attested to Twain's presence at the townhouse was Jan Bryant Bartell. Bartell was an actress and writer who discovered she had a touch of the second sight when she moved into the neighborhood. She began to see and experience different psychic phenomena when she moved in to the house next door (16 West 10th Street), hearing noises, seeing visions, and generally feeling oppressed by dread and foreboding. She ended up moving next door (to number 14) but still felt the presence of ghosts, including a very strong feeling that Twain was still there. One day she inquired of the superintendent if he had ever noticed anything strange in the building.

"The super before me, he had some stories to tell," the super replied.

"What kind of stories?" asked Jan.

"About that fella Clemens."

"Has he been seen here?"

"Yes ma'am, twice that I know, and by two different folks," the superintendent continued. "On the ground floor, back in the 1930s. A mother and daughter, a young widow woman, were sharing the apartment. The mother, she comes into the living room one evening before the lamps are lit, and she sees a man with white hair, wild-like. He's sitting in a chair looking out the window and she says, 'Who are you and what are you doing here?' and he says, 'My name is Clemens and I got problems here I gotta settle.'"

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Tour Guide's Speech

Some of you may know that certain double-decker tour bus companies in NYC are hoping to replace live tour guides with automated video recordings. I'm sure you can guess what I (a tour guide) think of that. I don't do the buses but I work with a lot of people who do. One of these made a right purty speech today at a city hall rally. In case you weren't out there today, here it is:

My name’s Andy Sydor, and I’ve been a New York City tour guide for over thirteen years. I used to take tourists to the top of the Twin Towers. I have taken them to all five boroughs. And throughout my career, I’ve fought the attempts of irresponsible companies to replace live guides with tapes. I remember back in 2000, I even saw test buses trying out tape systems rolling right past us on our own buses. Some said it was inevitable, that there was nothing we could do to stop it. But we are not helpless. So we alerted city officials, and their pressure and inquiries compelled the company to not use those tape systems.

Again, after 9/11, that same company tried to use that catastrophe as an excuse to eliminate their professional guides. But we are not helpless. We used protests and professionalism to keep our jobs, and we succeeded. In 2005, the threat of tapes raised its head again, and again, things looked grim. But we are not helpless. We drafted a bill to reinforce already-existing Department of Consumer Affairs regulation to ensure that visitors to New York would have the opportunity to have a live, licensed guide give their tour. To block that bill, the companies running the double-deckers swore to never replace their guides with tapes, so we were safe again.

But never doesn’t last forever, not in this town. Now, the industry is taking advantage of a new mandate by the city to ensure that the customers use headphones to allow them to replace human beings with tapes. We tried to add language to ensure that these customers could continue to have licensed, tested guides on their tours, but those efforts were blocked by the claim that the City could not do such a thing.

But the City is not helpless. The City has the right, and the obligation, to regulate its tourism industry, and to guarantee that our visitors get to experience guaranteed quality. That’s why we guides are licensed. That’s why we guides are tested. That’s why we need to know ALL the boroughs , and ALL the neighborhoods. That’s why, even though I’ve never driven a bus, I have to know how to advise any bus driver where he can go, and what he can do on the streets of this City. These are all consequences of City legislation.

There are things that the City can’t force by law. They can’t force me to love this City as much as I do, and to show that love to our visitors. They can’t force me to obsessively study and re-study everything about this place, and to share that with the world. That’s just part of the fringe benefit of having a licensed, living guide. And that’s a benefit that can never be replaced by a machine. There is no app for that. But the City can use its powers and its laws to guarantee that visitors to the greatest City in the World can be guided by the greatest guides on the planet.

Thank you.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mini-review of The Well and Interview with Author Peter Labrow

The Well by Peter Labrow is masterfully paced -- it almost made me miss my subway stop, a sure sign of a good read if ever there was one -- and contains complex, morally ambiguous characters.

Although it contains a supernatural element, the crime-novel aspect of it was as gripping as anything by Denise Mina. Though, since I love witches, I was pleased to find them pop up in the midst of all the gritty realism. That realism, incidentally, is what really endeared the book to me. The novel's heroine, Becca, who is trapped in a well, is a swimmer (which scored points with me) with a will -- and lungs -- of iron. This stands her in good stead, but not before she has to endure countless horrors. Most of all I loved the fact that, a few hours after she falls in the well, she realizes something very important: I have to go to the bathroom. I mean, come on, isn't that always the first thing you worry about in any entrapment scenario? Finding a pee corner? So score extra points for that.

Also score extra points for ingenious uses of iPod and condoms (just read it to find that one out). Finally, one more point for the sheer horror of one little girl's fate that involves an, um, medical scenario so icky I almost fainted. The female regions are always a fertile (ahem) locus of horror, and they are used to great effect here. Actually, there's a strong sexuality/birth subtext in this book that's pretty god damn resonant. To wit: Becca is about to lose her virginity when she falls down the well. Becca's mom is off on a fuck-holiday with her new husband while this happens. There's a pedophile on the loose. Girls are violated on more than one occasion and mourn their loss of innocence. And the theme of children and birthing runs throughout. Water in many contexts symbolizes sexuality, along with dreams, visions, femininity and intuition. Like water, The Well is symbolically rich and psychologically complex.

But mostly it's the excellent plot handling and nuanced characters that got me. You'll breeze through this book in no time, alternately loving and loathing every cast member in this drama. The slightly downbeat ending will stay with you, too, I imagine. Nothing is simple when you're trapped in The Well.

So -- how do I write a book like that, you may be wondering? Read on as Peter Labrow shares insights into his process, the adventures of self-publishing, and his favorite kind of pie.

Why did you decide to self-publish? Did you initially want to go with a traditional publisher?

It wasn’t an ideological decision, it was a practical one. I could either pound the streets of London for months (or more likely years) looking for an agent or publisher, or I could publish it myself. I decided that doing the latter didn’t stop me doing the former – and it enabled me to build up an audience and prove my commercial worth. I’m glad I did it, at least now I have affirmation that people mostly like it – not only via sales, but also via direct feedback too.

Did you query agents? And if so, what were their notes?

Not with the manuscript for The Well but I had for a previous manuscript. It was helpful in most respects. It made me realise that a book has to sell itself quickly in order to be bought, for the first page to be read, the reader has to be hooked and really want to carry on reading. On the downside, it made me realise that a lot of agents aren’t looking for something new – they want something that rides the current wave. I guess that’s OK, but it’s not how I wanted to write. I also learned that they are very busy people and you’re not likely to get their attention very easily. Again, self-publishing should prove commercial worth.

The pacing of your book is indeed gripping. What was your process/method for accomplishing this?

I have several answers to this. The first was to be aware of the reader and of the need for pace – at least in this book, or a book of its kind. Careful plotting is important, so that the story is always moving forward and the characters always on their own particular journeys. Things shouldn’t stand still for long. Also, I wanted the way that life really works to influence the narrative – in real life, unexpected things happen. In Greek theatre, that would be referred to as a ‘thunderbolt from the gods’ – something out of the blue. That keeps the reader guessing and the stakes high. But also, normal things need to happen. Some genres frustrate me, in that they suspend reality a little too much. What I mean by this is that every book, TV series or film lives within its own set of rules – usually at least one step away from reality, or the ‘what if’ couldn’t happen. But they go too far. If my house was surrounded by flesh-eating zombies, I’d still want to go to the toilet at some point or have a cup of coffee. I wanted The Well to be supernatural, but really grounded too – so the stakes were genuine.

Do you have experience in another medium (I'm thinking screenwriting, based on your ability to handle pacing)?

I do a lot of copywriting for a living and have for many years. This seems unconnected, but actually a copywriter does have to think about language, pace, plot (really) and so on. Not to the same degree, of course – most of the copy I write is just a few hundred or perhaps a couple of thousand words, but it still needs a tight structure. It has to sell, to persuade. So does a novel. The structure of The Well is very intentionally that of a television drama – in three or four parts. This was mainly because applying that structure allowed me to think clearly about the changes taking place within the book at various points, more than anything else. I also think visually (I’m a designer by training) so I like to think about how each scene looks, how it’s bookended and so on.

What inspired the story of The Well? Where did the idea come from?

The truth is that I’d previously tried to write a novel and, after getting halfway, felt overwhelmed. I had too many characters doing too many things. It was plotted out, but it still felt a challenge too far. I decided to write something with one character, in one situation. I’d rather liked the way that Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game starts with a couple, her chained to a bed in a remote cottage and him in his underwear, playing sex games. He dies straight away and you wonder how the idea can be sustained through an entire book. The same was true of this, originally it was to be just Becca’s story, trapped down the well. Nothing other than her point of view. Once I’d plotted this, I realised that not only wasn’t this enough for a novel, the stakes could be far higher if we looked at how those around her were affected by the simple fact of her disappearance. From that, I decided to weave in two terrors, one supernatural and one horribly everyday. Of course, what happened was that the second book took on the same form that the first had – multiple storylines and characters woven together.

One interesting thing about your book was that the heroes and villains were not cut and dried. Abby and Helen definitely did some dubious things, and Sarah could be selfish; meanwhile Tom Randle, while evil, actually served a purpose in his own way. I liked that complexity. Who was your favorite character in The Well? Who did you find despicable? Or were you continuously on the fence due to their moral ambiguities?

I feel very strongly that all people have some ambiguity about them. Even Hitler was an accomplished watercolour artist, though perhaps that was his only positive trait. For me, Superman is dull, because he’s just too darned nice. Batman is interesting because of his ambiguity – are his actions for revenge or justice? In many ways, his actions are very close to those of the villains he pursues. Good people can do bad things when pushed into a corner, or have particular personality traits (which would have otherwise remained hidden or manageable) vastly amplified. I hope this is what makes the characters real. People can do very unpredictable things in extreme circumstances. Tom Randle is the closest to being a black and white character, but that was mainly because I felt it wouldn’t be acceptable for someone of his nature to be sympathetic. My favourite characters would actually be Abby and Helen – I adored writing them, it was wonderful to write about two people so in love, so in touch, and so connected to each other.

Patricia Highsmith once said she liked to take naps when she was experiencing story problems and when she woke up she would know what to do next. How do you work through tough story problems?

I seldom find that you solve such issues sat in front of the screen. I had some revelations when waking, daydreaming or in the shower, while conversely some seemingly trivial plot points took several solid days of thinking to resolve. When in doubt, I walk away. Also, it’s not always right to solve a story problem for your own convenience, otherwise it can be too contrived. Sometimes creating a problem in the story is good for it – it forces change that can enrich the narrative. Let’s face it, that’s what happens in real life. Inconvenient things happen and have to be dealt with – from that point on, everything’s changed. I also have a good friend, Emma, with whom I discuss such things – she’s a massive help, and, although I don’t always agree with her, I always benefit from her input.

Which authors/books most inspire you to write?

Stephen King. Oh, I know, it’s a trite answer. But he has a gift for writing words that evaporate as you read them, so reading the book is like watching a film. That’s a gift. I adore the language of writers such as John Irving, but I get distracted by the beauty of the language itself. I don’t aspire to be a worthy writer, with intellectuals dissecting my books on late-night television or radio. I just want to entertain. Yes, I want what I write to have themes, but they’re an optional pleasure.

Do you have any future books in the works?

Yes, I’m at work on my next book. It’s second in a currently planned series of six, all set in the same general location but definitely not a single story. They will each be very different, though interrelated tales where some characters reappear. But it’s not like Harry Potter – with a single clear hero, pursuing a single clear villain. Like many writers at the start of the curve, I still have to juggle my day job, which this year has been so demanding that I’ve not had much time to write, sadly.

What is your favorite kind of pie?

Almost any. Pie is excellent. Although I’m not a fan of rhubarb and I dislike crumble.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Spitalfields Life

My new favorite blog is Spitalfields Life.

Written by The Gentle Author, the blog is devoted to the minutiae of one London neighborhood, from historical tidbits to contemporary personalities.

The Gentle Author has certainly set him (or her) self a formidable task:

"Over the coming days, weeks, months and years, I am going to write every single day and tell you about life here in Spitalfields at the heart of London. How can I ever describe the exuberant richness and multiplicity of culture in this place to you? This is both my task and my delight.

Let me disclose to you the hare-brained ambition I am pursuing, which is to write at least ten thousand stories about Spitalfields life. At the rate of one a day, this will take approximately twenty-seven years and four months. Who knows what kind of life we shall be living in 2037 when I write my ten thousandth post?"

Who knows indeeed? Will we be zipping around in Zeppelins? Will movies be in 4-D? It boggles the mind!

Until then, be sure to check back periodically for such delightful posts as Jack Sheppard, Thief, Highwayman & Escapologist and The Stepney Witch Bottle, and the gape-worthy, jealousy-inducing Transformation on Princelet St.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Outstanding link of the day

A wonderful post over at Grim Reviews details two excellent books of spectral theory: Warnings to the Curious: A Sheaf of Criticism on M.R. James by master anthologizer S.T. Joshi and The Ghost Story 1840-1920: A Cultural History by Andrew Smith. Both sound like absolute musts for anyone interested in the mechanics of good ghost story writing.

And for those who prefer their theory in bite-sized morsels, here's an old post of mine in which I share many of M.R. James' personal theories and demonstrate the Usefulness and Importance of Dots.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Book Review: Grave's End

As a semi-professional Halloweenie, I have to say I'm glad October is over. Sometimes I just get so saturated with all this ghost business. Endlessly researching ghost stories, forever looking at horror and paranormal websites to promote my book and tours, constantly dwelling on the paranormal -- it all becomes too much sometimes. As soon as October petered out and November swept in, I felt a decidedly fresh breath of air. So I can only imagine how tiresome it would be to have every damn day be Halloween in your house.

Poor Elaine Mercado, then. Grave's End is her story about a "true" haunting that occurred in her house from 1982 to 1995. Mercado felt a sensation of being watched as soon as she moved into the place. Her daughters also reported strange "suffocating" dreams and unexplained phenomena (water being thrown on them, hair clips being hurled at them, etc.) and saw eerie mists and flickering balls of glowing light bouncing around the ceiling. Mercado's then-husband remained tight-lipped about the whole thing, but after he moved out admitted to having had a few of those dreams himself.

Mercado comes across as a kind and reasonable if not-very-bright person. I don't mean to imply she lacks intelligence. She's a nurse, so she is capable and not stupid. But she comes across, in the book, as astonishingly slow-witted or perhaps obstinate, I can't quite decide. Either she really cannot make the connections between these strange happenings and a capital-h Haunting, or she is incredibly stubborn. For years the house shows clear and definite signs of being Very Haunted Indeed and she refuses not only to believe but even to understand what's happening to her. She takes a course on parapsychology at Kingsborough Community College and, because she cannot find anything in her textbook that exactly matches what is happening in her home, comes to the bizarre conclusion that she is not experiencing anything truly paranormal:

"I was glad to have read about other people in similar circumstances but in each story I found so much that was not related to what we were experiencing. We had such a "mix" of things in the house, such a jumble of seemingly disconnected phenomena. My studies in the paranormal left me with the feeling that there might be no way to resolve the problem plaguing my house."

Her strange incapacity for any kind of lateral thinking at all makes for a decidedly frustrating reading experience. It's really shocking it took her thirteen years to figure this shit out. It's also really shocking the way they discover things, like crawl spaces and "dirt rooms" in the cellar that they didn't even know existed. I'm like, "How did you not check out these things before you bought the house?!" They hadn't even looked in the basement when they bought the place! They hadn't even seen the furnace! Granted, there was an old couple living in the basement when they went to look at the place who were quite hostile and essentially blocked them from looking at these things, but still! They hadn't seen the furnace!

The other issue I have with the book is that she's no storyteller. I don't mind her straightforward, plain-spoken prose (even if I suspect she doesn't know the difference between tortuous and torturous). She's a layperson, not a professional writer. And indeed, her plain-speaking and, yes, skepticism, do add to the overall sense of horror in the book. But her pacing is completely off; the book is front-loaded with extraneous detail and then quite rushed at the end. Thirteen years of build-up is summarily undercut by a single chapter that takes place over the course of a single nine-hour period in which Hans Holzer and a fellow medium "cleanse" the house. After all that, the ghosts are banished in an afternoon.

I suppose this would be my major beef with the book. Well, that, and the fact that she fails to really get into any of the history of the neighborhood. I was looking forward to some investigative facts that would lend new insight into Gravesend. She does talk about some 19th century Dutch "settlers" who were trapped in a mine but fails to expand on any factual/historical details (also I'm not sure you'd use the term "settlers" for people living in Brooklyn in the 19th century). Also, I wish she hadn't dropped certain storylines, such as the embittered elderly couple who had to leave the house when she and her husband bought it. I was sure they'd come back.

Since it's generally a pretty breezy read, though, I have to forgive it many of its faults. Also, it's a great little slice of NYC history, in its own way. Most importantly, the book does deliver the chills. One scene in particular stays with me. Elaine and her daughters give a house party (for Halloween, no less) and one of her co-workers who is sensitive to all things psychic is basically stopped in her proverbial tracks as soon as she enters the house. "There's a tiny woman in a wedding dress under your stairs," she says. "She's crying." The week before, Elaine had found an old, yellowed size-four wedding dress in the crawl space beneath the stairs. For some reason, that image really got me.

And hell, something -- a plastic bag, I think -- rustled in my closet just now and I fucking froze in my seat. So that's hubris for ya: just when you think you're so clever, it happens to you. And then everything's different, isn't it? Suddenly you're no so smart anymore. I think that's the real lesson I'm going to take away from Grave's End. Be humble, and check your crawl space.

Monday, October 31, 2011

May You Have A Thrilling Halloween

Happy Halloween everyone!

May you eat lots of candy, drink lots of beer, watch lots of Treehouse of Horror reruns, and, if the mood strikes you, whip up some Skittlebrau.

Also, if you have a Kindle, might I suggest buying Boroughs of the Dead to celebrate this spookiest of holidays? It's only $2.99 and the stories in it are terrific (in the old, medieval sense of the word), as this review will attest. What? You know I don't go in for false modesty. Spinster Aunts tell it like it is.



Friday, October 28, 2011

Thirteen Days of Halloween (pt. 7) -- Our favorite spooky tales

Read writers' (including me!) picks of their favorite horror stories at The Second Pass.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Thirteen Days of Halloween (pt. 6)

Alfred Hitchcock's Ghost Stories for Young People makes my day a whole lot more awesome.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Thirteen Days of Halloween (pt. 5) -- Fun with cemeteries!

Go West Young Man. Horace Greeley's monument in the setting sun....

I always enjoy seeing my name in print.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Thirteen Days of Halloween (pt. 4)

Another smorgasbord of trailers, links and general All Hallow's fun:

Trailers from Hell covers that wonderful witchy romp Bell, Book and Candle.

Slant covers the 25 Best Horror Films of the Aughts.

And Cracked gives us more Creepy Urban Legends.

And my book giveaway is still going strong! So enter now!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Thirteen Days of Halloween (pt. 3) -- Book giveaway!

First of all, I am happy to announce that Boroughs of the Dead is now available at St. Mark's Bookshop and Babbo's Books in Manhattan and Brooklyn respectively. If you live in or near NYC please do try to buy your copy at one of these bookstores. Popping into St. Mark's yesterday was so fun. Browsing was amazing. The kindly old man behind the counter was adorable. Walking through the neighborhood, by Grace Church's elegant spires, on a crisp, refreshing autumn day was everything you imagine it would be from the way I phrased that sentence. There's nothing quite like going to a real bookstore.

Now! Speaking of books.... I am going to give away one free copy of Boroughs of the Dead between now and Halloween. Contest rules are simple: tell me what you think is the scariest thing about New York City and why. It can be anything at all, from the jokey/mundane (Broadway musicals) to the I-really-do-find-it-very-frightening (Willowbrook). The best answer will be selected on Halloween. You can submit answers here in the comments section, or to @SpinsterAunt on Twitter.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Thirteen Days of Halloween (pt. 2)

So many curios to put into the wonder cabinet today!

There are, to begin with, the trailers for Hugo and Woman in Black (Woman in Black trailer via Daily Dead).

My new favorite podcast, devoted to M.R. James: A Podcast to the Curious.

Tor makes suggestions for Halloween reading with their All Hallows Read.

And I, why today I shall spend my time putting together my Gallus Mag costume and working on a soon to be announced top-secret project!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Thirteen Days of Halloween

So I feel like I've been buried alive, and my tomb was my own ambition. Hustle, hustle, hustle, to get that little book all ready and shipped out in time for Halloween. Send out lots of little emails begging for reviews. And now... wait. Frankly, I'm glad! I'm getting a little tired of being so businessy. We all know that's what I'm worst at.

Now to get back to what I'm best at! Strolling through autumn leaves and letting my mind wander! For the rest of the month I think I'll just savor the lead-up to Halloween, reading and watching as many spooky things as I can, traipsing through Green-Wood, giving ghost tours, and generally enjoying life instead of clickety-click-clicking relentlessly on my sales figures. And you will benefit, dear reader, by not being bored to death hearing me drone on and on about my bloody book!

I'm off to the movies now! Can't wait to share things with you soon.



Monday, October 10, 2011

Boroughs of the Dead now available on

Hello friends and readers!

I am pleased to announce that my collection of short stories is now available in trade paperback on

I am working on getting it listed on as well (for you Canucks out there) and in e-reader editions. It is already available for Kindle, with a slightly different cover.

Thanks for all your support!


Monday, October 03, 2011

A.J. Sweeney strikes again

That fang-toothed hussy has been busy lately. As usual, she's been shamelessly flogging my writing to any number of magazines and brazenly claiming credit for it. She's sidled up to the following publications, batting her lashes and whispering in their ears until she gets what she wants...

The Horror Zine
Bards & Sages Quarterly
SNM Horror Magazine

Her story in The Horror Zine made Editor's Pick this month -- whose editor Jeani Rector called it "original and awesome" -- and placed third in SNM's October Opiates issue. Third! Ha! She'll never be number one. She'll have to kill me first.

Monday, September 26, 2011

BotD Funded and Ready to Go!

Another update: I just now finished uploading my cover art and manuscript to CreateSpace and am awaiting approval. It looks like I'm on track to have this thing done in early October, as was my goal. Speaking of goals, my Kickstarter campaign has been fully funded, which is awesome. Thanks to my incredible family and friends it was funded in less than four hours! This entire process has been so rewarding... I can't believe that some software and a major corporation are making me this happy, but, well, here we are. I'm hot and sweaty and my eyes are blurry but I can't say I've felt such a sense of a job well done since I finished my last screenplay. The only difference is, this time round, it won't just be sitting around in my hard drive with no one to read it.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Boroughs of the Dead Update

The people have spoken: the skeleton-attacking-the-Statue-of-Liberty cover has won! Thanks to all who emailed and posted their votes.

In other news, my Kickstarter campaign has launched! Please visit: for more info or to make a donation.

Thank you!

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Vote for my book cover image!

First off, I am pleased -- no, thrilled -- to announce that I have finally finished my book of short stories. They're all horror stories, all set in New York City. I'm set to publish it in October. Currently I'm in the throes of editing and formatting the text, as well as working out the cover design. I've narrowed it down to two possible covers, but, as some of you may know, I have terrible trouble making decisions. For those who don't: I have terrible trouble making decisions. In that spirit, I cordially invite you to vote for your favorite book cover image:

1. The Pulpy Cover:

2. The Scary-Picture-with-Clouds Cover

Please do vote for your favorites. Also, "You suck at Photoshop, get a real designer" is a valid vote. (Oh, and please note I am still tweaking the skeleton/Statue of Liberty Image.)

Get your votes in by September 19th!

Thanks everybody!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dark Water(s), Withholding, and Point of View

For whatever reason, I decided this past week that I really needed to see both versions of Dark Water. (Maybe because it's been so rainy lately?) I picked up both Hideo Nakata's 2002 original and the 2005 American remake.

Watching these two different approaches to the same story turned out to be really helpful for me in terms of thinking about how character point-of-view can add to or detract from horror in storytelling.

The Hideo Nakata version of Dark Water allows the main/mother character (Yoshimi, played by Hitomi Kuroki) to see the ghost and interact with it far earlier than Walter Salles' version allows Jennifer Connelly's Dahlia to. Yoshimi sees the ghost about fifteen minutes into the film, whereas Dahlia doesn't see anything supernatural until almost the very end. Instead, Salles has her little girl, Ceci, see and interact with the ghost for most of the film, which has several unfortunate side-effects. First, allowing the child a privileged POV vis-a-vis the ghost is something we see all too often in horror films, and therefore feels hackneyed and trite. Second, it doesn't necessarily pay off in the specific context of the film. This is supposed to be Dahlia/Yoshimi's story, so to rob her of agency by not allowing her to see the ghost lessens its impact overall.

By contrast, confining the ghost to Yoshimi's POV in the J-horror version calls her mental stability into question in a much more effective way than Salles/Connelly's dull, repetitive neurotic shriekings at, say, an unfinished load of laundry. The audience has far more empathy for poor Yoshimi, who is seeing horrifying visions, than it does for Dahlia, who merely comes off as alternately whiny and strident for most of the film because essentially the only thing that's really bothering her is a drip in her ceiling. Oh, yes, and her flashbacks to her childhood.

Which brings me to another point: these flashbacks, as well as some other really obvious scenes in the Salles film, hammer home their points a little too hard. In the Hideo Nakata film, we are told obliquely that Yoshimi had a neglectful mother; in Salles' version, we are told this explicitly, and repeatedly, as though he doesn't trust his audience to make any connections for themselves.

Finally, one last little gripe I have with the writing in this film is that it is riddled with missed opportunities. The writers let things be far too easy for Dahlia. For example, when she is late to pick up Ceci from school because of a job interview, there are absolutely no consequences. She shows up late and kindergarten teacher Camryn Manheim cheerfully says, "Oh no worries, we put her in the after-school program." Little Ceci is happily reading a story with her fellow future latchkey kids. Phew! Good thing that scene ended comfortably! I'd hate for there to be any conflict in this story. In Nakata's version, the child's father ends up taking her home from school, and a bitter parental fight subsequently ensues.

Everything just comes so easily to Dahila. In her job interview she is hired on the spot. Yoshimi runs out of the interview to pick up her child and doesn't find out until later that she actually got it anyway. Oh, and a little reality-based nit-pick? Dahila is a former copy-editor who gets a job as a lab assistant at a radiology clinic. With absolutely no medial training. "I've always been interested in medicine." "You're hired!" Sure, why not? I mean, maybe in the heady pre-recession days of 2005 you could just waltz into a doctor's office and demand a job, I don't know. Seems to sound a bit of a false note to me. Anyway. Minor gripe. But it does relate to the writers' total inability to allow Dahlia to feel anything really serious at all for basically the first hour of the film.

Which brings me back to the concept of POV, and withholding information.

Why do Salles et al not allow Dahlia to get into anything honestly frightening for such a very long time?

I think perhaps they were trying too hard to create atmosphere and maintain suspense, all at the expense of storytelling.

As a writer, I find I am very often afraid to give too much away lest I undercut the Mystery of It All. The writers of Salles' Dark Water seemed to suffer from this same insecurity. Certainly withholding some information is necessary for suspenseful storytelling, to an extent, but so then is revelation. Let them see the bomb under the table for goodness sake. By withholding so very much in the first hour of the film, the American version just ended up boring the pants off me.

Extended scenes of Dahlia and Ceci on the Roosevelt Island tram, at the lawyer's office, at school, in the apartment, etc. began to wear me down. The scene where they view their potential new apartment seemed to be filmed in real time. Without an ounce of exaggeration, I've seen actual New York City apartments in less time than it took John C. Reilly to show us the one in Dark Water (his best lines in this scene: "There's the stove. There's the dishwasher."). As a result, the pacing in this film suffered terribly. Which is a shame, because the last 45 minutes of the movie actually weren't bad. It's amazing how easily I can see this in someone else's story and yet I commit this same error constantly while writing my own. Scene after scene of exposition and atmosphere-establishing clog the beginnings of my stories despite the fact that I must have been told to start in medias res about a thousand times.

Suddenly it became clear to me how POV and info withholding (and by extension, pacing) are intimately entwined. If you deny your main character access to the world of the story by overly restricting his/her point of view, you'll end up excessively withholding information, and a delayed story-start will be the inevitable consequence. Yes, you can certainly give secondary characters information and integrate them into the storyline but you've got to remember who your main character is and not lose sight of that.

Again, I think the temptation with writing horror is to withhold excessively out of fear of losing suspense or coming off as unsophisticated. But the alternative -- a boring 60 minutes of watching Jennifer Connelly on the phone with her landlord -- is much, much worse.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

When You Reach Me

I just finished reading Rebecca Stead's thrilling YA novel, When You Reach Me. It's a bit of a genre-bender, starting out as a mystery and becoming more science fiction-y by the end of it, with plenty of the best kind of YA coming-of-age tenderness and poignancy all mashed up in there. I have kind of a pet peeve with really maudlin coming-of-age stories (I'm looking at you, Bridge to Terabithia) so I doubly appreciate a book that makes me cry while never stooping to manipulation. When You Reach Me walks that fine line ably, with such spare, unsentimental prose that the emotional effects of it cut that much more deeply. I kept having to stop whilst reading it on the subway and pretend to look up at something verrrry interesting and invisible on the ceiling.

With finely woven mystery elements, exquisite attention to detail, and some superb characterization, even in the minor characters (like Alice Evans, the shy-bladder girl at school), When You Reach Me doesn't drop a single stitch. Stead's obvious geek-girl fandom of Madeleine L'Engle is endearing, too, since it puts the reader in the place of sharing some collective memory -- what girl aged ten-to-twelve was not enraptured by L'Engle trilogy? -- and creates a kind of instant intimacy with Miranda, the protagonist. A vintage NYC setting only helped matters in my mind, as did the wonderful character of Miranda's mother, a frustrated, artsy type forced to toil humiliatingly in a law office. Next time I go to work I may wear purple and black striped stockings.

P.S. I found the image here.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Sprucing up the old homestead

I hope you like Spinster's re-design. I'm rather fond of it. It works in tandem with my new site, A.J. Sweeney, which I am now using as a semi-official "author site" to showcase my pretty little tales of death and murder, most of which were written under that pen name, and has had an awesome new face-lift, courtesy of the kickass web-designer Oleg Jelezniakov at OJ Works. Spinster Aunt will remain, as ever, a place for me to get cranky online. I feel positively modern.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dale Carnegie and me

I've always kind of ignored Dale Carnegie. I never really wanted to win friends, or, you know, influence people, so I kind of figured I didn't need him. Then I stumbled across a book at a relative's house called "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living" and the title amused me so I picked it up -- I admit it -- ironically. Me, the big city big shot, flipping through ole Dale Carnegie's moth-riddled homilies and laughing at chapter titles like, "When life gives you lemons, make a lemonade"! Oh, those old-timey 1940s people, they were soooo funneeee! And then, as poetic justice would have it, I got my comeuppance. I couldn't stop reading the goddamn thing. I even took it on the subway. People saw me reading it. Yeah, they saw it. They saw the title and everything. And I didn't care!

See, the thing is, Dale Carnegie is completely and utterly badass! They ought to call this book, "Shut the fuck up and stop whining, you pussy!" It would sell a lot more copies. Seriously. There are case studies where people are like, "When I was stranded on a raft in the South Pacific for 22 days, I realized something..." and "On the beaches of Normandy I finally managed to cure my insomnia" or "After an operation that restored my sight, I wept when I saw the tiny rainbows in a soap bubble as I was doing the dishes, and I never complained about boredom again." These are just paraphrases of course. The real quotes are much more devastating and awesome (lots of wars and excellent Great Depression stuff). You see, essentially, the book tells you to stop worrying because, probably, you have nothing to worry about. I mean, if you're an American (or North American, or Westerner in general) and you're not impoverished (like, food stamps and foreclosures poor, not I-can't-afford-a-daily-latte poor) and have all your limbs and your sight, and you don't have cancer, then you have absolutely nothing in the world to complain about. It's all trivia. And de minimis non curat lex, dude. The law does not concern itself with trifles.

What, you may be asking yourself, oh gentle reader, is the point of this post? Generally the Spinster does not dispense advice. (Though now that I am venturing into this territory, if only for one single outing, I'm glad it could be of the decidedly old-fashioned and non namby-pamby variety.) I guess I just wanted to do something nice for once. This book, despite some of it's more bizarre advice (e.g. you don't need sleep; you must believe in god or you're screwed, etc.) is kind of amazing. So if you've gotten to the point where you're tired of the sound of your own voice complaining about shit, go get a copy of this book. It's verrry soothing.

Oh, and for all the writers out there -- everything in HTSWASL goes double for you.

All right, that's enough of my soft side. Let us never speak of this again.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Writing Bits

Since I've been remiss in getting my links up on my website, here are a few to tide over my raging torrent of fans.


Nethermead A woman walking in Prospect Park meets someone unexpected.
A Fitting Tribute A young girl designs her own tomb! Featuring haunted wigs!*
The Attraction A story about a time machine, and the one person who must never use it.
Morbus A tale of greed... and cholera! (Note: you actually have to pay for this story! PDFs cost $2, print editions cost $5)*

* Highly recommended for young adult readers.


Film Reviews

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Ward

This weekend I watched The Ward -- John Carpenter's first film in a decade -- on a thoroughly gloomy drizzling day and I really wanted to love it, but there were just too many cumulative weaknesses, mainly in the script (well, and some of the perfs, too) for me to honestly say he drove this one home. Still, there's a subtle magic to The Ward, mostly in its B-movie cheapie goodness; it comes off as grindingly low-budget, something that could have come out of Val Lewton's RKO production unit in the 1940s, a feature I value highly in a horror film. That Carpenter manages to squeeze scares out of three sets and five actors is admirable indeed. The main problem I had with The Ward was its shoddy script.

This whole "review" is really just going to be one great big spoiler, because I can't really discuss what I see as the main story pitfalls without it. So if you haven't seen the film, take note that I really, really liked the opening credits, and come back in 88 minutes.

Ah, there you are. Nice to see you again. OK, we can continue.

Didn't you like the opening credits? Come on, medieval woodcuts, Horgarth etchings, circa-1950s stock photos of shock treatment? In chronological order? How could you not? As an archival photo researcher, I was especially thrilled by that credit sequence. (Yes, I work as an archival photo researcher for documentaries when not writing. And yes, I am available for hire.)

Unfortunately, things start to sputter as soon as the narrative kicks in. The film progresses in fits and starts, with occasional moments of suspense strung among much atmosphere-y mood-setting. The action picks up when the ghost of murdered mental patient Alice Hudson starts aggressively pursuing the heroine in addition to all the other girls in the ward, and we are treated to some truly fun running-around-being-scared sequences. That all the characters are stock cutouts bothered me until the final twist was revealed -- then it somewhat made sense.

But -- and here come the spoilers --I was slightly disappointed by the multiple personality disorder explanation. I'm not sure why, since I particularly like any narrative of dissociative amnesia or dissociative fugue. Fractured identities are always awesome (story-wise). Perhaps it was because so little was done with diagnosis of MPD once we got to that exposition-heavy portion of the script. The whole third act felt verrrry hastily slapped together, and I'm not sure but that the final twist couldn't have been handled better. Putting aside all my other problems with act three, I'd even be happy with just a revised version of that final twist.

If I had a world of my own, this is how I would have ended it: the scene plays out just as it is now, with Alice looking into the mirror. But instead of Kristen's demon-ghost arm grabbing at her, she'd just be staring back at her placidly from her reflection. And then Alice could say something like, "I'd never let them kill you, Kristen," and smile at her. You know, indicating she's still crazy. Or maybe not say anything at all. Lately I've been of a mind that being crazy is scarier than actual supernatural beings. Maybe it's just a phase I'm going through and in six weeks the pendulum will swing and I'll be bored by psychological horror again. But right now I find myself unmoved by Kristen's demon-ghost arm.

Which leads me to another thing: is Alice Hudson a ghost, a demon, or what? I mean, obviously it ends up with her just being a hallucination, but for most of the movie -- when we think she's a supernatural creature -- we're not sure what she is. She seems to be a ghost, but then Kristen is able to injure her with the axe. I kind of like that, though, that she doesn't fit into a clearly identifiable taxonomy of baddie.

I also have to say I like the way each personality was killed off. The death of each girl was actually a sign Alice was getting cured. What we non-crazies would see as an unequivocally positive event was represented as a horrible trauma on screen (it clearly hurt Alice to give up her safety personalities). This is indeed a twisted way to look at becoming healthy, as well as a fresh approach to the possible meanings of murder.

Although The Ward is not unflawed, it certainly takes its place alongside Shutter Island and Bedlam (1946) as an interesting foray into the dark side of the cure.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Time-Travel Ride debuts at New Coney!

Have you ever longed to travel back to a simpler, more innocent time? Then step right up and ride THE ATTRACTION, the world's first time-travel device with automatic chrono-wipe (TM)! Lets you experience all your nostalgia with none of the fuss of accidentally eliminating your own existence! Try it now! Warning: epileptics must not ride THE ATTRACTION.

Promotion paid for by the New Coney marketing department.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Haunted Venice Part III: Parte the laste

And so our imaginary journey through the streets of Venice comes to an end. The last two itineraries have blurred into one another, so I'll go just ahead and heartily recommend to one and all to buy the book, whether you're going to Venice or just plan to sit in your own backyard and imagine you're somewhere lofty and far away. I'll leave you with one last story, this one about beauty, for beauty has been on my mind of late (did you know your skin stops regenerating new cells or some shit after you turn 30? According to L'Oreal it does).

So, voila: The Fairy who Bestowed the Gift of Beauty

A young girl, just freshly turned sixteen, was walking home from Vespers one evening when she spied a beautiful woman all dressed in white. The beautiful woman watched her silently as she passed. This happened every day for three days and the young girl became curious. Who was this strange creature? On the fourth day the woman said, "Girl, wouldn't you love to become as lovely as I am?" And of course the girl replied, "Yes."

The woman told her to go home and cover all the mirrors in the house with white cloth and wait until midnight, when she would be visited by three beautiful ladies who would bestow their beauty upon her. "Do not be afraid, do not call upon the Virgin Mary," the woman said.

The young girl went home and did exactly as she was told, but in her excitement, she forgot to cover one mirror. The three women showed up at the stroke of midnight, dazzlingly radiant. But in the one small mirror she forgot to cover, the young girl saw the reflection of their backs: hideous, hairy and malformed, like "those of an animal."

The girl screamed and ran out of the house. On the street, she smacked right into the beautiful temptress who had conned her into this in the first place.

"Fool!" cried the woman, for she knew exactly what the girl had done.

She advanced toward the girl, who backed away. As she cowered she saw that the beautiful woman had the hairy cloven hooves of a goat peeking out from beneath her robe.

"Mother Mary, save me!" screamed the girl.

A bright white flashed from the sky, and when it had vanished, the evil fairy was gone.

The moral of this one? Don't trust a beautiful woman with ugly feet.


I'd love to do an imaginary ghostly travelogue again some time. If you're reading this, you must have a ghost story or two from your home town. Why don't you share it with me? Or, maybe you can suggest another town I can do a series on. Haunted Cincinnati? Haunted Krakow? Haunted Panama City? Do tell, won't you?

Monday, May 23, 2011


Hi readers,

Today is a bit of a somber day. I went to the memorial service for Don Krim, long-time president of Kino International and my former boss. If you are a movie fan at all, you'll want to have at least one Kino DVD in your house: "Movies without Kino would be like parks without trees, museums without paintings." Do me a favor and check their catalogue out here. If you live in one of those fancy high-priced cities with tiny movie-houses, you might even be able to find some of their theatrical offerings. Kino is definitely holding the torch for a lot of the best foreign, silent and classic films, and in an age when so many distribs are going -- or have gone -- out of business, it's important to show them we care, and that we appreciate Don's service to cinema. If you're short on cash, you can get a lot of their stuff on Netflix, and of course you can like them on FB or follow them on Twitter.

On a personal note, Don was a great boss -- he was always fair and equitable to those who worked for him and with him, and was incredibly generous and kind to me for the nearly four years I worked there. I remember being amazed to learn he actually paid his interns. In a business where this is almost unheard-of, I think it goes to show what kind of person he was. He believed in paying people for their work: an old-fashioned concept from a true gentleman.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"A Fitting Tribute" finds a home

My short story "A Fitting Tribute," has found a home over at Lightning Flash e-zine. The story was inspired by Charlotte Canda and Carmilla, and by my ex-roommate's girlfriend's weave, which would float on the floor in ghostly tumbleweeds....

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Haunted Venice, Part Two

Our second appointment with death begins in the sestiere of Castello, near the salizada de Pignater, where there is featured the sotoportego dei Preti. I think salizada means street and sotoportego means arch. No translation of these words is provided in the book, so hey, you'll learn by immersion! Over the arch you'll find a brick heart, which you can touch for a good luck charm if you're looking for that special humanoid to mate with. Here's the romantic story that goes with it:

Once upon a time, when "magic and reality peacefully shared the same dimension," a fisherman named Orio (yum) caught a mermaid in his net. Naturalment, they fell in love, and she agreed to give up the life aquatic to marry him. There was only one problem: because of a witch's curse, every Saturday she would turn into a snake. She warned him not to try to see her on Saturdays but of course he disobeyed. No biggie, though, because once they were married the curse would be lifted anyway (maybe it was contingent on her not having legs or something). Are you still following? Good. So now the mermaid has legs and she's a regular human wife and she keeps house and squeezes out some kids and everything is going fine until one day she grew ill and died, poor thing. The fisherman misses her but, hey, life goes on. Plus, an interesting thing is happening: no matter how sloppy the fisherman and his kids are, the house always stays clean. It's like some kind of ghost-maid is taking care of them or something. But Orio doesn't put two and two together and one day when he returns home from fishing unexpectedly early only to find a snake -- a snake! -- in the kitchen, he chops it in half! Orio, nooooo! Sure enough, the house thereafter grows messy and cold, as his dead mermaid snake-wife was to visit nevermore.

I think the moral of this story is fairly clear: don't do housework.

Moving right along, we get to another deliciously irreverent tale, that of "The Magician who Joked with the Devil." I quite like this one: in the late 15th century there lived a man who practiced black magic. He was cruel and mean and despised by all, and he was comfortable with that. One night he was out walking when the moon went behind a cloud and it was too dark for him to find his way home. So he summoned his old pal Lucifer and asked for a torch, which was summarily provided. After he got home, he snuffed it out and put it in the woodbox to use again later. In the morning the maid opened the woodbox and screamed -- inside was not a torch at all but a charred arm! Now, this is my favorite part of the story: the magician's reaction. Apparently, he just laughed. Oh Old Scratch, you are a funny guy! You sure got me!

Zing! I love that he isn't disturbed in the slightest that he just used a flaming human arm as a torch.

As long as we're on the subject of wizards, here's another story I liked in this itinerary: "The Wizard with the Heart of Stone." It takes place near the Arsenal, in front of which stands a frightening-looking stone lion.

In November 1719, the mangled bodies of two sailors appear floating in the city's canals. The corpses look as though they've been torn apart by wild beasts. Six days later, another body surfaces, that of Jacopo Zanchi, a Venetian who apparently "lived hand to mouth" with his wife Giovanna. Now, Giovanna had a bad rep and occasionally turned tricks for money, so nobody was surprised when she stood outside the house of a merchant named Fosco and started screaming, "Murderer! Bastard -- you'll pay for what you've done!" I mean, bitches be crazy, right? Now, Fosco leans out the window and hisses, "We'll see, woman, where your boldness will take you, on the next stormy night!" Slightly suspicious, no? Ten days later, said storm blows up but nothing happens, not for hours and hours. Giovanna walks the wet streets; business is slow. Then, at one o'clock in the morning, an "arch of fire" sizzles out of Fosco's house and "literally materializes the old man" in front of the statue of the stone lion. He walked around the lion, running his fingertip along its body, until a huge bolt of lightning appeared and struck it with a blinding flash of brilliance. Slowly the stone crumbled and a huge flesh and blood lion emerged, roaring, from its casing. The lion bounded down the alley and pounced on the helpless Giovanna. The wizard then began to cast a spell on a second lion, but a guard witnessing the scene rushed toward the wizard and plunged his sword into his chest. Now, according to the book, "with a tremendous roar and a blinding flash of lightning, everything suddenly fell silent under the driving rain: the mangled body of the woman on the paving stones, the guard's blackened sword on the ground. There was no trace of Fosco, except for a heart of stone near the razor-sharp sword: it was the stone heart in his chest that could change stone into flesh." Then the guard picked up his sword and cut off the lion's head. Instead of falling to the ground, "the head rose several meters up into the air, and with a final roar exploded into a black substance which covered everything below."


The guard then cut off the head of the second lion, whose body still stands before the Arsenal today. If you look closely, you can see the line around its new where a new stone head replaced it.

(Now this is a slightly amended version of the tale. In the book, there are three lions, and two women, Giovanna and her friend, also a hooker. But this abridged tale retains the essential awesomeness of the original.)

There are a number of bad-weather stories in this itinerary, as it turns out. (I suppose humans need something to do while waiting out the rain and snow.) The next one takes place on a cold, snowy night in November 1917, and is called "The Death Shawl." It's a classic tale of a waifish little girl who flags down a passing gondola with a call of, "Doctor, doctor, come help my mother, she's sick!" and the doctor therein agreeing to help the poor little thing (although he is somewhat puzzled -- "How did she know I was a doctor?") and he helps the sick woman just in the nick of time because she totally would have died of pneumonia if he'd gotten there even a minute later and when he says, "Good thing your daughter flagged me down," the mother replies, "But doctor, she's been dead for a month...."

I just like the classic simplicity of this tale. It's the kind of ghostly tale you could really believe might have happened in the dreary aftermath of the War when death was present everywhere and half of Europe consorted with the ghosts...

But what a downer to leave you with. Our final tale shall also deal with stormy weather, but in a lighter way:

Saint Peter was a stand up kind of guy but, unfortunately for him, his mother was a total scrod. She was such a mean, jealous, selfish woman that she inevitably ended up in hell when she died, despite St. Peter's pleas with god to extricate her from the underworld. Finally, though, god relented and allowed Peter's mother to visit him on earth once a year for fifteen days, seven days before and seven days after the feast of the apostle. Peter was delighted, but the old hag was "so full of envy and spite that every year she brings with her storm, winds and hurricanes, so that no one feels sorry for her anymore, and can't wait for her to go back where she came from."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Haunted Venice, Part One

I've been working my way through the four itineraries described in Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories; here are the highlights from the first walking tour:

The tour begins at the gothic church Santi Giovanni e Paolo and wends its way over to the campo de Gheto Novo. At the Gothic church, author Alberto Toso Fei entertains us with the story of the Bell Ringer's Skeleton. In this 19th century tale, a curiously tall bellringer is approached by a medical doctor who, marveling over his strange proportions and giant hands, convinces him to sell his body to science. The bellringer accepts, as the doctor pays up front. Now I bet you think you know where this is going, right? But no, no body-snatchers here. The bellringer merely assumes he'll outlive the aged doctor, and happily takes the money to the tavern every night thereafter, where he drinks and drinks to his heart's content. Unfortunately, the bellringer, who's never had so much money all at once before, goes a tad overboard and ends up drinking himself to death. Whoops! Guess who's body's on display at the Museum of Natural History right now? Sucker! Watch the booze kids: that's the moral of this story. Ghost quotient: medium. The spectral skeleton apparently climbs up the tower to ring the bell at midnight, then stumbles down to the street to beg the passersby for enough money to buy himself back. Might've been scarier if the premise wasn't so wryly amusing. [Disclaimer: "ghost quotient" is an entirely meaningless criterion I just invented now to make this sound more fancy.]

Along we walk, and, strangely the author skirts the tour past the Island of the Dead, possibly because he disdains the obvious... although he does tell the perfect story to imagine whilst staring out over the water: The Cosmographer who stole Lucifer's Dreams. Fra Mauro, a monk living on San Michele in the mid-1400s, was an amazing cartographer who left a treasure trove of maps when he died. The only strange thing about him: he never once left Venice to visit any of the places he drew. This is how he did it: he saw the images in dream -- not his own, mind you, but the dreams of the devil, which he (get this) projected onto the cloudy skies above Venice. Art! Hubris! Proto-cinema! I love it. But, as all things the devil wrought, these dreams sometimes slipped out of his grasp and moved through the skies freely, terrifying townspeople and directing witches on their way to the sabbath. Some say they can still be seen up there on cloudy nights, when a storm rages... Weird quotient: high. This story is pure awesome.

We keep toddling along on our imagination tour just until the fondamenta dei Mori, where we stop at number 3399. There, we learn the story of Tintoretto -- yes, the painter -- and how his daughter was nearly tricked by a witch. Apparently a beautiful, mysterious woman told the little girl that she could become a nun if she hid her communion wafers instead of eating them in church, and instead took them home and hid them. Once she had ten, she'd become a nun. The girl obeyed the woman but halfway through the plan, freaked out and spilled it to her pops. Tintoretto was wise in the ways of the witch and knew the old crone would recruit the girl to the craft once she got the ten wafers. He told his daughter wait five more days, then invite the woman into the house to get the wafers. Of course, once the witch crossed the threshold, the artist "rushed her with a knobby stick" until she screeched, changed herself into a cat and flew out the window. Witch factor: medium to high. I like the idea of the witch recruiting a youngster through deceit, like a drug pusher.

Finally, at the Gheto Novo, we learn of the Plague of the Children, a twist on the Pied Piper tale, where the sins of parents are thrust upon their sons and daughters. In the summer of 1576 there was a Plague in Venice and many people died. But in the Jewish Ghetto, a strange thing happened: only children died. One after the other all the children perished, but not a single parent died. They begged the rabbi to find a solution and he pored over esoteric books like Buffy the Vampire Slayer for days and days to no avail. Finally one night he had a dream: in his dream he saw little children playing and dancing in the graveyard. He tore the shroud off one of the children, whose ghost returned the next night to beg for it back. "I cannot return without my shroud," the ghost child said. The rabbi refused unless the child could tell him the cause of the Plague of the Children, and the child told him it happened because a woman had killed her newborn. Well, they brought that crazy bitch to justice and, sure enough, no child died in the Ghetto again... for the rest of the summer. Little lamb* quotient: High. I love the idea of a ghost child wailing, "Give me my shrouuuuud!"

There are far, far many more stories than these; I've merely selected my favorites. No doubt any ghost aficionado will find their own favorites if the buy the book, and no doubt the tour will be even more impressive if walked while glimpsing the macabre floating island of death and such things. But for now, I am content with my virtual tour, and happy to let myself imagine what the ghosts themselves might look like something even someone present at the scene might be forced to do (ghosts have a strange habit of being uncooperative with tour groups and often failing to appear on demand).

One last little bit of business: nowhere in the book does the author mention how long it would take to walk this route, though I doubt it very much matters since time has no meaning in the land of the dead....

Join me next week for part two, where for wizards and mermaids and sainted mothers.

* Little lambs mark the graves of dead children in Green-Wood Cemetery.

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Man In The Picture and other Venice Ghosts

Just got through finishing Susan Hill's The Man in the Picture, a capably executed novella of the M.R. James school. I generally agree with the criticism out there -- it's classic, restrained, elegant, a wee tad disappointing at the end -- but am intrigued enough by her style to go out and get a copy of The Woman in Black. It's not easy being a writer of classical ghost stories these days, and I'm happy to have found someone with a similarly old-fashioned sensibility. Look for a review of that soon.

There's not much more to discuss about The Man in the Picture, other than I very much liked its use of an inanimate haunted object (I love me a good inanimate haunted object!) but the book is a handy springboard for introducing my newest adventure, the first in what will hopefully be a recurring series: virtual tours through haunted cities. The first, of course, will be Venice (I've already alluded to it here) and draws heavily upon this book, since I've never actually visited the place. (The book is the magic lantern show to my 19th century country rube.)

Before we actually wander the haunted streets of our imaginations, a little background on Venice, specifically on Venice as a trope in the horror canon. According to, cities with canals instead of streets are a perennially popular setting for works of fantasy, though they're not sure why -- perhaps it's an aesthetic thing, or perhaps it's simply because watery bi-ways are so unusual. My theory hews somewhat closely to the latter; the unreal, shape-shifting quality of water opposes all that is solid -- earth, asphalt -- and thus lends itself to fevered imaginings, to the dreaming of dreams. And in dreams, of course, we all know the symbolic qualities of water include birth, death, sex, the deepest parts of the psyche: the perfect setting for our darkest tales.

Perhaps the most famous suspense story set in Venice is Daphne du Maurier's "Don't Look Now," though a significant portion of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is set in Venice as well. (The is also a ghost story called "The Haunted Hotel" by Wilkie Collins, which I shall clearly have to read.) "The Man in the Picture" joins this illustrious crowd as its narrative moves between the Most Serene Republic and sedate Cambridge. Hill's descriptions of the city are marred with dread: "It seemed to me to be a city of corruption and excess, an artificial place, full of darkness and foul odors... [of] dark and sinister water." In the course of the book, two young couples visit Venice on their honeymoon; the first couple visits quite innocently, the second seem drawn to it even though they know it brought death and tragedy in the past. In Hill's world, the city and the eponymous painting depicting it exert a dark power over anyone who beholds them.

Though I'm sure it's a perfectly delightful city, thanks to speculative fiction I can now only think of Venice in terms of gloom and darkness. Why not profit from my fear and misery, gentle reader? Come with me on a journey that starts dark and will only get darker. Headless monks, drowning witches, the sighing ghosts of dead children... all these things await you as you shiver through the summer months in various dank and moldy catacombs, taking the Deathly Grand Tour with your beloved Spinster Aunt...

Venetian Cemetery Photo courtesy of Lisa Manetti

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Ghost books, follow me home

I'm currently reading two books about ghosts and Venice: Susan Hill's The Man in the Picture, and Alberto Toso Fei's Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories, which jumped off my friend's bookshelf and thrust itself into my hands back in February, and so I obligingly took it home. The chapter titles alone fire the imagination: The Flight of the Witch, The Sigh of the Severed Head, The Sad Song of the Mermaid. Perhaps, as I move through the book next week and through the rest of the month, I shall post updates, imaginary travelogues, that take you and I through the very hauntedest haunts of the city watery graves! And, of course, a review of The Man in the Picture is forthcoming as well!