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.