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.

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  He followed this up with two more books in the same vein, The Cypress House 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:

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.

The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer: A Book Review – Part One

Heinrich Zimmer (1890 – 1943) was a Sanskrit scholar, an Asian art historian, and an expert in Indian philosophy and spirituality.  After the Nazis dismissed him from Heidelberg University in 1938, he made his way to the US where he taught at Columbia as a visiting professor.  The young Joseph Campbell attended some of his lectures and became a close friend.  Zimmer died of pneumonia in 1943, and Campbell spent the next 12 years editing and publishing some of his papers.  Campbell finished Zimmer’s book on folklore, The King and the Corpse, in 1948.

I discovered Zimmer’s writing as a freshman in college at the same time as I discovered Jung.  The two men, in fact, were long time friends, but their writings on myth and folklore were different.  Jung and his circle largely used story to expand and validate their theories, while Zimmer, and Campbell after him, sought to find the living essence of ancient tales that will speak to us now if we learn to listen.

In his introduction to The King and the Corpse, Zimmer called himself a “dilettante,” from the Italian verb, dilettare, “to take delight in.”   The essays in the book he said, “are for those who take delight in symbols, in conversing with them, and enjoy living with them continually in the mind.”   When I read Heinrich Zimmer, I discovered I was that sort of person.

Heinrich Zimmer, 1933

The King and the Corpse is collection of tales from around the world presented, along with Zimmer’s personal meditations, in a style of exposition later popularized by Campbell.  There’s a story from the Arabian Nights, four stories from the Arthurian cycle, and the rest come from India. The one that has always stayed with me is the title story, “The King and the Corpse.”

For ten years, every day, as a king sat in his audience chamber, an ascetic beggar appeared and wordlessly gave  him a piece of fruit.  Thinking little of it, the king gave the gift to his treasurer who tossed it over the wall into the treasure house.  One day a monkey got loose and hopped onto the king’s lap.  Playfully, the monarch gave him the fruit.  The monkey bit into it and a jewel fell out and rolled across the floor.  The king and treasurer hurried to look in the treasure house, where they found glittering jewels in the pile of rotten fruit.

It had been years since I read this tale, but I’ve seen this motif in other stories, and this time, its power jumped out at me.  The king’s attitude toward the fruit mirrors my own attitude toward health and youth in younger days, when these gifts arrived every day, with little effort on my part, almost as if life owed them to me, and there was no end in sight.  In his essay, Zimmer takes a larger perspective, suggesting each day we are given is like a piece of fruit hiding a jewel that we might discover if we only stopped to look.

The next day, when the ascetic arrived, the king demanded an interview before he would accept the gift.  The beggar said he needed a brave man, a hero, to help in a work of magic.  He asked the king to meet him at midnight on the night of the next full moon, in the funeral ground, where the dead were cremated and criminals hanged.  On the appointed night, the king strapped on his sword and strode through the smoke and flames of the funeral pyres, ignoring the clamor of ghosts and ghouls.  He found the ascetic, in sorcerer’s robes, drawing a magic circle on the ground.  “What can I do for you?” the king asked.  The magician told him to cross to a certain tree, cut down the body of a hanged man, and bring it to him.

This too, according to Zimmer, is a sign of the king’s youth and naiveté.  The realm depended on him, but without a thought, he agreed to meet a magician that he didn’t know, by himself, at the dark of the moon, at the witching hour on dangerous ground.  Yet the king was nothing if not brave.  He cut down the hanged man and hoisted the body onto his shoulder, but as he did, the corpse began to laugh.  “What is it?” the king asked.  The corpse said the way was long and offered to shorten the king’s journey by telling a story.  When the king did not reply, the corpse began.  He told the king a complex tale, filled with moral ambiguity, and then asked which character in the tale had been right.  “And by the way,” the corpse added, “If you know the answer but do not tell me, your skull will explode.”

To Be Continued.


Recently I was chatting with a group of other writers about the rule of thumb that you have to grab your audience in the first few pages or lose them.  The consensus was that nowadays, you have just the first few lines.  One man said, “And you have to start with action.”

I don’t believe this, and said as much here last year (  For me, character is primary, and I also have a penchant for mystery.  Action for action’s sake usually puts me off – I need to bond with Jake and Elwood before I care about the car chase.

Yet the conversation started me thinking about the kind of books that instantly draw me in.  When I got home, I pulled down some novels with openings I admire to look again at what the authors do.

One of my favorite reads of the year was Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, a stunningly original story and beautifully written as well.  It includes one of the best openings I have ever read.

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This is the day of the reaping.”

In four sentences, we learn a lot about who we’re dealing with:  an articulate girl who notices details, loves her sister, does not have a father or very much money, and soon has to face something ominous called “the reaping.”  We meet an appealing character, two mysteries (where is her father and what is a reaping), and an instant sense of dread.  The opening of this best seller proves that you don’t need action to grab a readers attention:  nothing “happens” except the narrator reaches out and finds her sister is not in bed.

Another memorable book I read this year was The Cypress House by Michael Koryta.  The first two sentences drew me in:  “They’d been on the train for five hours before Arlen Wagner saw the first of the dead men.  To that point it had been a hell of a nice ride.”  Nothing “happens” except one man has a very unusual vision.

A favorite literary novel, Ariel’s Crossing, 2002, by Bradford Morrow starts like this:  “Dona Francisca de Pena never believed in ghosts, and even after she became one herself she couldn’t help but have her doubts.

Maybe its just the season, but half the stories I pulled down featured ghosts.  Here is another, a favorite YA novel, Ghosts I have Been, by Richard Peck, which begins:  “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.”

Such a compelling hook does not happen by accident. Once at a reading, someone asked Richard Peck how many times he revised his opening pages. “Sixty or seventy times on average,” he said.  Because of that focus, you can open almost any one of his more than 30 novels to find an enticing beginning.  On the Wings of Heroes, an historical novel published in 2007, even begins with action, but it is not action for it’s own sake.  It is action crafted to draw in an audience of middle-grade boys:

“Home base was a branch box elder tree in front of the Hisers’ house out by the curb.  We could count on the Hisers not to mind when we pounded in from all directions to tag out on their tree.  We plowed their sod when we skidded home, bled all over their front walk when we collided, knocked loose the latticework under their porch.”

This is admittedly a small sample of books that appeal to my taste, but they prove several points.  Book openings are critical.  It takes real art and sometimes sixty or seventy drafts to draw a reader into a story.  At the same time, it is no more correct to say a book must start with action than to say that it can’t.  There are lots of ways to pique curiosity and interest, and that is what it’s really about.

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.

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 86 or 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 did a credible job in telling 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 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.