Book Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

I’m working on a ghost story and, by way of procrastination as much as by way of research, I settled in with two slim volumes of ghost stories: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and More Scary Stories, by Alvin Schwartz. In their pages, I was amused to find a few traditional ghost stories that I myself had heard and passed on. Two of them I heard from my uncle, Gerald Shattuck. He was a very good story teller. The first story he told was a “Cemetery at Night” story.  We were amused, but not scared much. But then, in a low, serious voice, he told the tale of his own experience with the “Ghostly Hitchhiker,”

One night, my friend and I were driving along on a dark road. Suddenly, in our headlights we saw a distraught young woman by the side of the road. She flagged us down. Of course, we stopped. We wondered if she were hurt, but she insisted that she just needed a ride home. She gave us an address and we started off. From the back seat she told us how grateful she was. We were very worried about her, and when we asked her a question and she didn’t answer, I turned to the back to check on her – she was gone! She had disappeared! We stopped at the first little store we came to and reported what we had seen. The people there had heard this story before. We discovered that a young woman had been killed by a hit-and-run driver at the very spot we first saw her. Her spirit has haunted the roadside ever since, looking for the guilty person who killed her.

Told this way, it is a compelling story: we young listeners were suitably caught between belief and disbelieve. I, myself, passed on the story when I told it to a carload of middle-schoolers I was driving to an activity night. To my great surprise, the most credulous among them fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and I spent some time back peddling and explaining the nature of ghost stories.

When they were first published, the series was very popular with children, but deemed too gross and scary by some adults. The stories are based on folktales – old and modern – and they are scary, especially the illustrations. And if you find ghosts eating the pus of their rotting stomachs gross, (which I do!) they are gross. All in all, I agree with Harper’s 1984 review of another Schwartz publication, “a nicely nasty collection.” I’ll be on the lookout for more volumes.

If I find any, I’ll be looking for more than ghost stories. In the Acknowledgments section of the two volumes, an interesting tale is hinted at – that of a marriage and of the changing public roles of women. In the first  volume, published in 1981, the author acknowledges his wife with these words, “My wife, Barbara, who did the musical notation . . .  carried out bibliographical research, and contributed in other ways.” By 1984, he identifies her in this manner, “. . . my wife and colleague, Barbara Carmer Schwartz.” How she came to be acknowledged with her full name and a more professional status is a story I’d like to hear.

Writing Prompt

Sometimes “what to write” comes easily; we walk the street or overhear a conversation, or glimpse a memory, and we have enough material to last us for hours. But sometimes we could use a prompt to tickle our imagination, get us to jump off our usual track and find rich new material. In that spirit, here’s a prompt (with a bit of backstory):

In her memoir, Just Kids, Patti Smith – poet, artist, rock star – includes this story.  She and her very sick lover have left a flophouse on the advice of other residents who recognize that these two young people are misplaced among the terminal junkies who make up most the population. The pair sneak out taking only their two portfolios, but Patti goes back later to settle her bill and retrieve their belongings. She sees that her most prized possessions now decorate the landlords’ sitting room, some of them displayed on his mantel, one of her drawings hanging on the wall. Her books and record albums are packed in boxes. Over coffee Patti and the landlord negotiate the bill. All but her notebooks and a few other items are left in payment for the rent. She ends the scene with this comment, “I said goodbye to my stuff. It suited him and Brooklyn better. There’s always new stuff, that’s for sure.”

Prompt: What have you left behind? Is there always new stuff? Do you recognize it when it arrives? What is it about ‘stuff’ anyway? What role does the ‘stuff’ we gather around us play in our lives? What ‘place’ suits you?

Book Review: Paris by the Book

Promising title, nice cover, but . . .

I’ve just returned Liam Callanan’s Paris by the Book to the library. The book has a fun cover and a promising title, but the execution fell short. While I came to really like the two daughters, Callanan used coincidence and inexplicable infusions of cash to fuel the plot. He also dipped a toe into “issues” without ever setting the groundwork for them or developing their meaning within the story. For instance, the plot touches on the treatment of black immigrants in Paris and the disagreement in the US about the wisdom of vaccinating children – and moves on with no further mention. In the afterword the author confirms there is no such thing as the magical visa that allows the Americans to stay in Paris, but there was at least one other, even more far-fetched, plot device to explain away. The good writing kept me reading, but the contrived and muddled plot had me shaking my head.

Why Write?

It’s been many months of adapting to changes, good and sad. One of the good changes is that we’ve landed in a new living space. We’re moved in and are settled enough that I can work into a new writing routine.

But all the shakeup of endings and beginnings has taken its toll – I come into moments where I find myself stranded – what, after all, is the point of all this writing? This morning, after considering this point for longer than might be healthy, I came to a heartening thought when I considered the writing vocation of my mother. She wrote novels while she raised her seven children, and she wrote poetry always. She didn’t ever try to publish her work: her family were her only readers. So, why did she do it? Why does anyone do it? Because, the answer came to me, story matters. I’ve had this declaration come to me before; it does motivate me, and I clearly need to ‘hear’ it more often. With that need for repetition in mind, I took a detour on my way to getting back to writing and made myself the gift of a reminder. Using one of my photos, I created a new background, “lock screen,” to greet me each time I open my computer. Maybe it will help inspire you, too. . .

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Car Show Fever

Years ago my car broke down when I was far from home, and I bought an old 55 Chevy to get me back. What a car – all I have left of it is the hood ornament, but I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the 55 Chevy ever since. I cruised around the local annual car show today till I found one -with that great airplane riding the hood.

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Of course, there were many, many pretty cars to see today. The way they are lined up, sometimes the best photo ops at car shows are the rear end shots . . .

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And sometimes the line up makes for quirky, fun match ups. I like to think of these two at a stop light together, revving engines . . .

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I’ve had a couple of great cars myself – a Dodge Dart (pre-1976: that engine would still be going if the body hadn’t rusted off), a 55 Chevy (with that airplane!) and a car whose make I can’t remember, but it was sporty and fast and lasted more years than anyone guessed it would. When it went, it left me high and dry and I bought an old Lincoln Town Car in a pinch. But that’s more stories than I counted on for a quick post, I’ll end there.

What about you? What cars are you fond of?

What does Spring look like?

When I signed up in January to take two online writing classes back-to-back, 10 weeks straight of weekly reading and writing deadlines, I thought, “This will take me right through Winter and into Spring!” The last due date was yesterday, and here’s this morning’s view of the path through the backfield. Blog_March 26 2018 Snowy walk

That black dog in the first photo is Gudgeon. He doesn’t much like the very cold temperatures, but this version of snow is a favorite. It has softened during the sunny days, then firmed up over night: he can walk on top of it and flop for a good back rub.

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Then he’s ready for a walk . . .

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What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve sometimes been guilty of explaining why I’m not currently reading a book by joining the club that claims, “too busy,” or “too tired at the end of the day.” I like my life better when I’m explaining, instead, why I read so much. When I was  kid, I was a ‘bookworm’ and nothing more needed to be said about why I chose the company of books over people, why I carried a book with me when I climbed the tree in the back yard, or why I stayed up late reading a book by flashlight after bedtime.

When I taught 8th graders, I had an excuse for gobbling down several MG and YA books a week – I needed to read widely so I had many books to choose from when a student needed a recommendation. I always told my students who said they didn’t like to read that they just hadn’t met the right book yet, and then I’d stack a bunch up – pulling them from my extensive classroom collection of paperbacks – and give them the advice to read the first page or so, and when they wanted to keep going, they’d found their book.

But my teaching focus now is writing, and even though I believe reading and writing can’t be divorced from each other, they have drifted apart in my professional life and, by no coincidence, I suppose, in my personal life. So, to bring reading back into focus for me, I’ll share here thoughts on the books I’m reading now.

Open House by Patricia J. Williams

Unfailingly sharp witted and generous, Williams combines her close observations of life, injustice, joy, and expensive take-out with her ability to pull back, always, to the big picture and to ways of making meaning that we can move forward with. Her story-telling carries, for me, faint undertones of the potential for a lecture, but the best kind of lecture – one in which you are given new information by being given new ways to think about things, with never once being crowded into a box of the author’s own making. Never preachy, always on point, this slim volume, subtitled, “Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own” is a treat.

The Meadow

DSC_1031The quarry man bought the old house and its acreage, scraped the topsoil off the meadow, and sold off the house with two acres of the meadow and its partial border of trees and shrub. In the house, a bathroom went in, and in a child’s room, a fat rainbow – floor to ceiling to floor – was sketched out and painted.

For thirty years, owners kept the meadow mowed. Between mowings, grasses grew, and golden rod, oyster plants, milkweed, and asters. Each late fall the meadow’s summer growth lay itself down, and in that flattened landscape the old disc harrow, stranded in its long-gone farmer’s field, reappeared.

Twenty years ago the clothes line, built with sturdy wooden posts and cross beams, stood on the far side of the cedar tree. Now its northern post is engulfed in branches. The outhouse, still visible in its pile of moldered lumber when I arrived, has long since joined the remains of the wildflowers that grew up between the boards, fell over, and decomposed. It is almost twelve years since the meadow was cut, and it is only in the last two that wild cherry bushes have spread from individuals to patches of isolated mini-woodlands that shelter bird and spider nurseries.

Each winter I cover the rain barrels and shovel the long driveway; each spring I listen for the voice of the wood frog and try to avoid the black flies’ bite. Every other summer or so I get to the task of clearing the meadow, cutting all the box elders’ sprouts to the ground. In the fall I greet the disc harrow and Orion on their return to my view, and wonder which Turkey Vulture sighting will be my last of the year.

Eventually, I will leave this place. The meadow will give way to box elder trees, or not. As I sleep beneath the child’s rainbow, my window open to the night, what is sure for me is the Little Dipper, pinned at its tail by the North Star, circling overhead. What is almost as sure is the topsoil, building. Slowly, slowly.

 

Goldenrod Feast

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My backfield takes on a yellow hue when the Goldenrod comes into bloom, and having learned to blame the correct pollen  – ragweed – for my hay fever, I am unreserved in my welcome of it. Many others are unreserved as well. The yellow that catches my eye catches the attention of many species, and while I do the Goldenrod the good of simply leaving it alone, others do it the good of flying in for a meal and flying out with pollen they’ll spread to other Goldenrod plants.

On a sunny September day, Painted Lady Butterflies, bees, and wasps showed up to feast on the golden plumes.