A Family Ghost Story

I heard this from the time I was very little, a story told by my great-grandmother, Hannah Outwater, ne Shook. I was twelve when she died at the age of 88. Her gift of an animal 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, but it is a story for another time.

When they reached Kalamazoo, Hannah’s father, Isiah, rented a farm, and that is when the strange 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. Sometimes during the night there was such a commotion in the barn it sounded like the horses were going to kick down their stalls, but when they went out to investigate, the family found the animals asleep.  And a reddish stain on a guest room floor could not be cleaned with any amount of elbow grease.

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.”


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 very much at all.  For me the story will always be true, whether it happened or not.

So Cold the River

Just arrived from Amazon and in my book queue (the short one): So Cold the River by Michael Koryta, which I learned about from an NPR interview/review during a recent homeward commute.


Koryta is a crime novelist whose father took him, at age eight, to see the ruins of the West Baden Springs Hotel in Indiana, once called the eighth wonder of the world.  He tried and failed to work the hotel into a crime novel, but it wasn’t until he decided on a venture into the supernatural that his story took off.

West Baden Springs Hotel, West Baden Indiana

The story involves a filmmaker hired to uncover and document the history of a dying man, and one of the clues is a bottle of “Pluto Water,” apparently from the lost river, “an evil force” that flows around and under the hotel.

It sounds like a tale to read around the fireplace on a dark and stormy night, but I’m not going to wait that long.

Richard Peck’s Characters: Blossom Culp

One of the most compelling story openings I know in young adult literature comes from Richard Peck’s, Ghosts I Have Been:

“I tell you the world is so full of ghosts, a person wonders if there’s a soul to be found on the Other Side.  Or anybody snug in a quiet grave.  I’ve seen several haunts, and been one myself.

When I heard Richard Peck speak of his work at a local Borders, someone asked how many times he rewrote his opening paragraphs.  “Probably seventy times, on average,” he said.  Such dedication to craft is one reason Peck’s career spans more than 39 years, includes 39 novels, a Newbery Medal, and the National Humanities Medal.

Of the many other reasons for Peck’s success, one of the most notable is his unforgettable characters.  Peck writes about outsiders, and the heroine of Ghosts, by circumstance and choice goes her own way:

There are girls in this town who pass their time up on their porches doing fancywork on embroidery hoops.  You can also see them going about in surreys or on the back seats of autos with their mothers, paying calls in white gloves.  They’re all as alike as gingerbread figures in skirts.  I was never one of them.  My name is Blossom Culp, and I’ve always lived by my wits.”

Peck, who believes that “a novel must entertain first before it can be anything else,” leads his heroine through episodes both side-splittingly funny and tragic.  Blossom’s friend Alexander Farnsworth (not that she’s sweet on him, she assures us) has fallen in with a rough crowd, who plan to go outhouse-tipping on Halloween night, 1913.  She teams up with Old Man Leverette so save his privy.  As the boys begin to push at the structure, Blossom, dressed as a ghost, jumps out:

“The candle flickered and guttered between my white veil and [Alexander’s] suddenly white face.  His arms fell from the door jamb, and he let out the high whinny of a fire-crazed horse…He keeled backwards and fell flat on the ground.  ‘A HAUNT!  I AM CURSED!’ he screamed and lay on his back like a turned turtle, with his fists jammed into his eyes.”

That’s only the start of the night’s trouble for the vandals, for Old Man Leverette is hiding nearby, his shotgun loaded with rocksalt.  Blossom has a talent for righting wrongs and what is imbalanced.  Declaring that there is more to be learned on the wrong side of the tracks than the right, she next takes on the “mean girls” of the town, members of the exclusive “Sunny Thoughts and Busy Fingers,” club.