A Family Ghost Story Revisited

Because Halloween is coming and because I’ve been looking at old family albums, I decided to re-post a story I first published in July, 2010, a month after I started blogging. It concerns the “family ghost story” my great-grandmother used to tell. Except it may have been a “rural legend” once told widely in the midwest. Since the timeframe was the 1880’s, it really doesn’t matter. The story still evokes the mystery and excitement of my childhood Halloweens…Enjoy!


I heard this from the time I was little, a story told by my great-grandmother, Hannah Shook Outwater. I was ten when she died at the age of 88. Her gift of a hand puppet for my third Christmas was a huge catalyst in sparking my lifelong love of making and telling stories, but that is a tale for another time.

Hannah Outwater in her 20’s

When she was seven, Hannah, the seventh of eight children, rode with her family in a covered wagon from Ohio to Michigan. Her younger brother, Freddy, age two, didn’t survive the trip. They say he was flat on his back in the wagon with fever, but the evening he died, he sat up with a beatific smile and reached out his arm to angels no one else could see.  At least that’s the family legend. When I was young, Freddie’s child-sized fork lay in the silverware drawer.

When they reached Kalamazoo, Hannah’s father, Isiah Shook, rented a farm. Then the incidents began.

Hannah’s older sister was of the age to go courting. The family would hear the wagon drive up bringing her home, open the door and find no one there. Some nights the family heard such a commotion in the barn it sounded like the animals were about to kick it down. When they ran out to investigate, they found the cows and horses asleep and everything quiet. Then there was the reddish stain on the guest room floor they could never scrub out…

You have to imagine my great grandmother pausing to look around the room.  She knew how to build suspense.  It might be halloween – it was certainly winter, with the lights turned low.  Those were the days before the SciFi channel and Freddy Kreuger.  Before CSI and the horrendous headlines that have become all to common.

The old lady would lean forward and speak in a low voice so we would have to lean in too.  “Once we needed to move a big old chest in the cellar.  That’s when we found it.  Mind you, those were the days of dirt cellars, but in the far corner was a single patch of cement about six feet long.”

She would let that sink in, and then say, “We had been there about six months when my father heard the story.  The neighbors said a wealthy horse dealer came through town and spent the night with the people who lived there before you.  No one ever saw him again.  The couple who lived there said he left before dawn.  Funny that they moved away two months later.  We never understood where they got the money to up and go so suddenly.”

Hannah’s family moved not long after. And “No,” she said, they never quite dared to dig and see what was buried under the cement slab.


My sister and I and our friends grew up with that story, and after Hannah was gone, my mother told it. Some ten years ago, however, while spending the night in a vacation cabin, I found a stack of American Heritage magazines, and one of them had an article on legends common in rural America a century ago – and there was the family ghost story! Or so I think, because I didn’t have the sense to write down the magazine date, and later attempts to find it again in libraries or used bookstores never panned out.

Was it pure legend?  Was it born of a scandalous crime that was the talk of the midwest in the era before TV and tabloids?  Was it like certain crimes that became the stuff of ballads that are still sung hundreds of years later?

When I first found that copy of American Heritage, I thought it was very important to find out what kind of story it really was – exactly how true.  Now I don’t think it matters.  For me the story will always be true, whether it happened or not.

Hungry Ghosts

Section of Hungry Ghosts Scroll, Kyoto, late 12th c., Public Domain

Section of Hungry Ghosts Scroll, Kyoto, late 12th c., Public Domain

In traditional Buddhist cosmology, there are six major realms of existence. Only two of these, the human and animal realms, are visible. The other four, which include both heavens and hells, are not manifest to our physical senses. Unlike Christian heaven and hell, none of these are forever – the length of one’s sojourn depends on karma.

Many contemporary teachers, while not denying the metaphysical reality of these regions, focus on our inner “location” in the here and now. One who is filled with love and compassion dwells in heaven. The one seething with anger, red in the face, like a devil, at that moment experiences one of the hells.

Hungry ghosts have a region all to themselves; their dominant trait is insatiable craving. Hungry ghosts are depicted with huge bellies but tiny throats and mouths – desperate hunger and thirst that can never find relief.

Never enough, there is never, ever enough,” is the mindset of hungry ghosts, both in the imagined subtle realm and in this world. Addictions and insatiable cravings of all sorts make us hungry ghosts. The pre-repentant Ebenezer Scrooge, the archetypal miser, is the best known western hungry ghost. Now, the Panama Papers reveal how widespread is this disease, and how it drives the leaders and elites in nations throughout the world. Nor do we, at least in “the free world,” get to sit back and righteously condemn “those bad people.” Not in Buddhist thought, at least, where everything is interconnected.

The people of Iceland forced their Prime Minister out of office within 48 hours of the time the story broke. They did the same with the bankers in 2008. We, who have elected officials of both parties who tolerate bailouts and corporate shell games, are are not separate from the hungry ghosts who are fucking this world.

In his public discourse, Buddha never commented one way or another on metaphysical truths. There’s plenty to worry about here and now, he said. If greed locks us into the hell of the hungry ghosts, generosity, the mindset of Scrooge on Christmas morning, opens the gates of heaven.

Ratnasambhava, the primordial Buddha of "the wisdom of equality," manifests the virtue of generosity.

Ratnasambhava, the primordial Buddha of “the wisdom of equality,” manifests the virtue of generosity.

Perhaps there are no big or small acts of generosity. Our world, the people in it, and we ourselves, need nothing more urgently at this time.

Samhain ~ The Beginner’s Guide To The Wheel Of The Year

Here is another of Lily Wight’s fine articles on the Celtic Wheel of the Year. This one discusses Samhain, a time of ending and beginning, when the veil between the worlds was especially thin. This is key information for those who love Celtic mythology as well as providing fun background for those who love Halloween.

Lily Wight

     Updated 23/10/2014

     Samhain – pronounced “sow – inn” and known presently as Halloween – is celebrated from sunset to sunset on 31st October to 1st November.  It is the most important Fire Festival or Sabbat on the ancient Wheel of The Year calendar.

     “Samhain” has been variously translated as “first frost” or “Summer’s end”:  opposing suggestions with the same meaning.  It is the name for November in ancient and modern Gaelic.

     Samhain lies between The Autumn Equinox and The Winter Solstice.  It marks the death of the year and the end of the annual agricultural cycle.  Many ancient cultures throughout The Western Hemisphere regarded Samhain as their New Year’s Eve.

     Samhain is the third and final harvest on The Wheel of The Year calendar.  After Lughnasadh (grain and cereals) and Modron (fruit and vegetables) herding…

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The churchyard horror

Tis the season for chills up the spine, and this is great tale for a windy October night – another wonderful story from Freaky Folktales.

freaky folk tales


I have studied all manner of ghost and demon in my quest to better understand this realm betwixt Heaven and Hell but there is little in this study that has proved more intriguing — and downright flesh-creeping — than that of the Croglin vampire. On a dark autumnal day such as this, having struggled against sheets of rain and the swirl of stray leaves in the lonely path across the cemetery, my mind creeps towards that of a real churchyard horror, set upon the Lancashire moorlands.

It happened in the last century. Croglin Low Hall was a low, one-storeyed house on a slope looking down its gardens and cross a small park to the churchyard two hundred yards away. Along the front of the house ran a wooden verandah, like an African stoep. Two brothers and a sister took the house for the summer. I will not give their names…

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The Prophet by Michael Koryta: a book review

Half the storefronts are empty in Chambers, Ohio.  Abandoned steel mills stand as silent monuments to a past that will never return.  Two brothers, Kent and Adam Austin, work in two of the biggest industries that remain in the town – high school football and bail bonds.  Their careers, like most everything else in their lives, were defined the night someone kidnapped and murdered their sister when the three of them were in high school.

The brothers have hardly spoken during the 22 years since their sister was taken.  Kent is a local hero, a winning football coach and a man of faith, who talks of God and family to murderers in his prison ministry.  Adam drinks too much, aches for revenge, and lives so close to the Chambers criminal element that differences often blur.

A man who calls himself “the prophet” slips into town.  His passion is murder and something more:  “Bring him the hopeful and he will leave them hopeless.  Bring him the strong and he will leave them broken.  Bring him the full and he will leave them empty.”  When a 17 year old girl is murdered, one whose faith Kent had tried to nurture, both brothers understand that that the killing is personal.  Someone has come to town to rip the old wound open and threaten them with new ones.

Michael Koryta (pronounced koo-ree-ta) decided he wanted to be a crime novelist at the age of 16.  While still in high school he interned with a private detective.  His first  novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye (2004) won the St. Martin’s Press/PWA Best First Novel prize before he was 21.  He had four more crime novels under his belt when he took a stunning turn by injecting supernatural elements into his thriller, So Cold the River (2010), which I reviewed here http://wp.me/pYql4-8W.  He followed this up with two more books in the same vein, The Cypress House http://wp.me/pYql4-xF and The Ridge in 2011.

The Prophet has no overt ghosts, though people are haunted, and Adam regularly talks with his dead sister. The prophet is flesh and blood, but his menace lurks in every shadow.  The “un-natural” and the “super-natural” are so “natural” in Michael Koryta’s novels that his evil terrifies more than it does in most horror stories.  We never know much about the killer, but we do see, in his memory, his methodical method of stalking and killing a bird when he was 11.  That’s enough to make him more chilling than Count Dracula.

In crossing genre boundaries at will, Koryta’s new book delves deeper into the 21st century human condition than mystery and horror novels usually do.  A chill wind blows through this rust belt town, under gray and threatening skies, as well meaning men and women find redemption and renewal elusive – and yet, heroism, loyalty, faith, and family all matter.  As the high school football players learn, you get back on your feet and back into the line because there is nothing else you can do.

There are very, very few authors whose books I will buy they day they come out.  There are few books these days that I find I cannot put down.  Once again, Michael Koryta did not disappoint.  I downloaded The Prophet the morning it came on line and put everything else on hold until I had finished.  You may well find yourself doing the same.

Here is a recent interview in which the author discusses The Prophet:

The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer: A Book Review, Part Two

If you haven’t already read it, please begin with Part 1 of this review:  http://wp.me/pYql4-1vt

We left the young king in a most unusual and disconcerting situation – carrying the corpse of a hanged man across a charnel ground.  The corpse was possessed by a spirit who asked the king a riddle and said that if he knew the answer but didn’t speak, his head would explode.

"The King and the Corpse," from a presentation at the Red Arrow Gallery, Joshua Tree, CA, Sept. 2011

The king answered the question and immediately, the body flew back to the tree and the king had to return and cut it down again.  Another walk, another story, another answer and the corpse again disappeared. The king, whose name meant, “Rich in Patience,” needed all he could muster, for the gruesome routine went on and on and on. If the ruler had been thoughtless as a youth, the corpse now gave him riddles worthy of Solomon.  He solved all of them except the 24th, which went like this:

“A chief and his son were hunting in the hills.  The king was a widower and the son unmarried, so they were intrigued to find the footsteps of two women, one older, one younger.  The feet were shapely and the gait suggested refinement.  “A queen and her daughter, I think,” said the father.  They set out in pursuit and agreed that if the women were willing, the father would marry the one with the larger feet – presumably the mother, and the son would marry the other.  The women were indeed a queen and her daughter, fleeing danger, but, the daughter’s feet were larger.  Holding to their vows, the king married the daughter, and the son married her mother.  When both women gave birth to sons, how were the babies related?”

When the king kept silent, the corpse said how pleased he was with the monarch’s courage and wisdom.  He warned him that the sorcerer was a necromancer who planned to use the corpse and the king’s blood – after killing him – in a black magic rite that would give him power over the spirits of the dead.  He told the king how to slay the sorcerer, and when he did, the ghost in the corpse revealed himself as the great god, Shiva, who honored the king, and asked him to name his reward.

The king asked that the 24 riddles should always be remembered and should be told all over the earth.  Shiva assented, and indeed, the story has travelled the world since 50 BC, the time of the Hindu king, Vikramaditya (“The Sun of Valor”), the hero of this and many other legends.  The great god promised that ghosts and demons would never have power wherever the tales were told, and “whoever recites, with sincere devotion, even one of the stories shall be free from sin.”  Shiva also promised the the king dominion during his life and gave him an invincible sword.  Far more important, he opened the monarch’s eyes of spiritual illumination, and so his earthly reign was a model of “virtue and glory.”

When the story opens, the king is young, handsome, rich, and rather heedless since he accepts the beggar’s fruits as if they are his due, without thinking very much about them.  According to the wisdom of the east, he is like a sleeping man whose house is on fire, since nothing – not fruit, nor youth, nor jewels, nor life itself will last.  Also, naiveté doesn’t work too well in this world,  It draws betrayal the way a magnet draws iron.  The “holy man” has been weaving the king’s undoing for ten long years.  Where is the king going to come up with that kind of cunning, and in a hurry?

He finds it as all the heroes and heroines of folklore do, in an unlikely place, from the voice of a being the “wise” would despise.  Stories tell us that is where our guiding spirits often hide at first, as if to test our ability to see beyond appearances.  In fairytales from around the world, it’s the ugly crone, the dwarf, the wild animal, or in this case, in the body of an executed criminal who serve as our spiritual guides  Stories remind us that when we are truly stuck, doing what we have always done will not help.

When life and happiness depend on spinning straw into gold, on finding the water of life, on “going I know not whither and bringing back I know not what,” we need the guidance of our better angels, our guardian spirits, our daemons, as the Greeks called them.  Or in the case of our king, in our tutelary deity, who hides in a corpse to test his student’s faith, courage, and willingness to trust his own experience.

The saving spirit is one of the key themes that Heinrich Zimmer ponders in the stories of  The King and the Corpse, for as Zimmer tells us, “the hidden magician who projects both the ego and its mirror world can do more than any exterior force to unravel by night the web that has been spun by day.”

I consider this an essential book in the library of anyone who wants to hear the voices of wisdom that hide in the old tales that people cannot stop telling.

More on, “So Cold the River”

(Warning: spoilers ahead)

It is rare and delightful to find a book I hate to see end.  It is rarer to find a creepy book I hate to see end, and this is the first time ever I have hated to see a story end when the most compelling character is the villain.

Campbell Bradford, the villain of Michael Koryta’s,  So Cold the River, is no ordinary bad guy; he not just a bad man, he is evil. This important distinction is made by eighty-something, Edgar Hastings.  “He [Bradford] put a chill in your heart. My parents saw it; hell, everybody saw it. The man was evil.” The only fictional villain I can think of in his class – as evil and fascinating – is Hannibal Leckter in Silence of the Lambs

The evil Campbell Bradford is not the ninety-five year old Campbell Bradford who freaks out when hero, Eric Shaw, shows him a bottle of haunted “Pluto Water.”  This faux Bradford whispers, “So Cold the River,” and dies a short time later, sending Eric, a failed Hollywood filmmaker, to West Baden, Indiana, to learn the story of Bradford, Pluto water, and the newly restored West Baden hotel, (which actually exists), a once famous spa that was the domain of presidents, prize fighters, royalty, and gangsters.

The West Baden Hotel

The evil Campbell Bradford is a ghost, a very malevolent ghost, who possesses his great-great-grandson, Josiah, and later tries to possess Eric.  Bradford’s era is the roaring twenties, but his voice and tone suggest an earlier time.  Perhaps it is his fictional distance, the sepia toned feel of the old west that surrounds this villain, that works like the glass that allows us to watch a cobra in a zoo with an equal degree of fascination.  Imagine the Clint Eastwood of the sphagetti westerns as an angry psychopath, ready to sacrifice anything and anyone for his ambitions.  The ambitions of Campbell Bradford’s ghost drive the story.

“Look for the artifacts of their ambitions.”  That is Eric Shaw’s philosophy of documentary filmmaking, announced at the opening of the book.  The artifacts of Bradford’s ambitions are dead people. In the end, the mysterious Pluto Water, which carried Bradford’s spirit back to West Baden, allows Eric to survive his onslaught to tell the tale.

But Eric stops short of trying to unravel the whole story.  He will not seek the honey-flavored spring where Bradford lost his life.  Is the spirit really gone? Apparently. And yet, as Anne McKinney, who has devoted her life to watching the weather and waiting for the big storm cautions, “You can’t be sure what hides behind the wind.”

Sequeul anyone? I will definately read it if it comes.