Monday, 28 April 2014

A to Z Challenge 2014 - Ghosts - X is For X marks the spot, X?, X-roads

A to Z Challenge 2014 - Ghosts
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This is it, X marks the spot, what's important about the climatic part of a story? I have to admit, I don't know any ghost story writers beginning with X, so I'm going to be sharing a few stories where the author is unknown. And for my haunting spot today, I'm talking about crossroads. Plus there's part 23 of The Burning Web, in which Tris comes to Julienne's rescue.

X is for X Marks The Spot
X marks the spot: climax, confrontation, xenith - whatever you want to call it, there has to be a payoff, the climax of the story, and it better be good. Your story shouldn't go out with a damp fizzle, so whether it's an emotional climax, or one full of action, I think there is one rule to remember with a climax: it should be the answer to the questions you've been posing in your story. I don't mean that there's some kind of explicit list of loose ends and plot points that has to be run through (although that is what it might look like in a writer's planning notes), but what I do mean is that I don't want to be left hanging. As a reader, I want a return on my investment for reading. That doesn't mean the whole arc has to end, it also doesn't mean there can't be a cliffhanger, although, personally, I'm not fond of them, but a writer better damn well conclude the important points for the part of the story the book represents, or I'm going to be mightily pissed off with them ;P.

In a ghost story, the payoff can be anything from the ghost revealing their purpose, be it good, or bad, to a full on confrontation between good and evil - it can even be the revelation of that obscured bit of plot the writer had been foreshadowing all the way through. In The Woman In Black, the 2012 movie, there's a showdown of sorts between Arthur and the ghost, an attempt to resolve the pain that is driving her to kill. This is, in fact, a more dramatic climax than that of the book (excluding the denouement), and works very well in the film format. Wuthering Heights starts and finishes with the climax, where Kathy finally comes for Heathcliff. And for a climax that is more emotion than action, Malcom Crowe's revelation in The Sixth Sense is beautifully done.

So, in short, when writing the climax of the story, don't let your reader down. ;)
by Sophie Duncan

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Tris limped away from the taxi as it turned, manoeuvred round Julienne's old Volvo and drove away down the drive, leaving him in the gloom of a winter sunset. He could just about see the impressive door, it was open a crack, enough for him to see the shadows round it like a dark half-halo. Before he could bring himself to approach any further, he looked up at the looming frontage and called without much hope, "Julienne?!"

His voice echoed off the bricks back at him, falling almost to silence, but then the ripple was interrupted by a woman's cry. It was Julienne, the sound full of fear, and it was coming from upstairs. Urgently, Tris hobbled towards the door, his weak leg aching badly where he had been unable to pick up his stick with its now horrible associations. He stumbled through the door and headlong at the stairs, catching himself on the newel post as his leg gave out under the strain. He hauled himself up the stairs via the banisters, forcing his leg to work as the thought of Julienne at the mercy of Margaret drove him on.

"Julienne?" he called again as he turned the corner on the stairs.

"Tris!" his friend's terror came immediately back at him from the right: Margaret's room.

Tris cursed the moment he had found Margaret's letters, all orchestrated by her, he had no doubt now, and pushed himself away from the stairs towards the opposite wall. From there, in the gloom, he could see the door to the front bedroom, mainly closed, but with flickering yellow light coming from underneath. Leaning against the wall, Tris forced his leg to work and lurched his way to Julienne. So much strain on muscles he could not properly control meant that Tris fell against the door and it swung in with him hanging on the handle for support. He rapidly pushed himself straight, though, as he was greeted with a room awash with candlelight.

Hundreds of candles, big ones, skinny ones, round and square were scattered over the floor, giving the whole room a glow from the bottom up. Only a small patch of floor from the door to the centre of the room was free from the constantly moving light and there, waiting for him was Julienne. His friend was standing in the centre of if all, hands clasped in front of her and her face breaking into a smile as soon as she saw him.

"Welcome, Tris," she greeted, holding up her arms to him.

Tris stayed where he was, his fear for Julienne rapidly morphing into suspicion. He wanted to ask what was going on, but part of him already knew.

"You must come in, Tris," Julienne offered, indicating to her side among the candles, and her tone, although light, lilted just the wrong way for Tris to trust the invitation.

When his spine chilled and the hairs on the back of his neck rose up, Tris' heart sank through the floor and he turned his head. He shouldn't have been shocked, but he still cried out his fear as he came face to face with madness. All semblance of the innocent wife was gone, he could see the hatred in Margaret's eyes, her mouth pinched into determination. She reached for him and he lurched backwards into the room, kicking over candles, snuffing some of the precious light. Margaret pursued him.

Tris fell, landing more by luck than judgement in the open space beside Julienne. She did not move to help him and he could only raise his arm and scream as, with an animalistic wail, Margaret descended on him. Like it had in the garden, the weight of Margaret's rage enveloped him and Tris convulsed against her, but his body numbed with the ice of her presence and this time the world was ripped away.

Tris' senses rebelled for a few desperate heartbeats, but then they were no longer his own. He was looking out at a room he did not recognise, a sick room, and an old woman was lying in a bed. He was walking over to her, a pillow held between his hands, and he paused, looking down at the sleeping features. Tris didn't understand what he was seeing until, to his horror, the pillow descended over the woman's face. Tris reeled away from the image, sickness churning his stomach, but he had no choice when his mind's eye showed him that same old woman laid out, a gentleman in high collar standing by her bed, his view now some way off. The man turned and walked over, holding out a letter.

"You have been a fine nurse, Miss Merigale, thank you. Here are your references, but you do understand that I must sell this house within the week. I am sure you will find another employer without delay."

The spike of anger from Margaret threw Tris out of that image and it was his only companion in blackness as he gasped the horror of that murder away.

"She wants you to see, to understand," Julienne's voice brought Tris back to reality.

He was curled on his side at his friend's feet and she smiled down at him like they were back in her front room having tea. Tris shuddered, his muscles like water as Margaret held on to him and he could do nothing to stop her as she dragged him back down into another moment.

Margaret was carrying a cup of broth this time, stirring it as she walked over to the bedside of another old lady in another sick room. The woman smiled at her, putting down a book she was reading, and she took the broth.

"You are such a dear, Margaret," the gratitude came and Tris' chest tightened as he watched the stranger sip the broth.

His trepidation proved correct, because his senses were then dragged sideways to the same room, but much later in the dim light of candles, and the poor woman was retching uncontrollably over the side of the bed into a basin, supported by none other than Margaret. Tris didn't need to see any more to know what had happened, but he saw a similar scene to the one Margaret had shown him before, the handing over of the references, the rage at being thrown out.

"Over and over again," Julienne tutted and Tris came back to himself to find her kneeling over him, a hand on his shoulder. "They pushed her aside, putting her on the streets. In the end, Berwick was her only way out."

Tris' stomach lurched and he dug his nails into the rough floorboards as Margaret forced him back into her mind. It all rushed by, the letters, calculated to attract Kenneth, the quiet wedding and a wedding night that ended in a ripped nightgown and tears. Tris struggled with the input, forcing himself out of the vision and rolling onto his back. He threw out his arm, resisting Margaret's influence and knocking over another cohort of candles. Julienne reached for his forehead, stroking gently. He growled his defiance at her, but she just smiled and advised, "Don't resist her. You can't."

Tris felt Margaret tighten her grip again and he threw his head back, trying to expel the presence from him, but it was no good, he sunk back into her world and this time he was walking down the back corridor of the house carrying a tray. On the tray there was a small wine glass and, once more, something was being stirred into the tawny liquid there. Tris' heart thundered in his chest as he walked with Margret into the front living room to find Kenneth seated on the chaise near the window.

"Kenneth, my dear, your tonic," Margaret informed her husband demurely and crossed over to him.

The man gave her a sour look and waved her away.

"Put it over there," he ordered.

Yet, in this Margaret was queen and she offered out the tray, telling him, "You know what Dr Northholt said, you have been neglecting yourself."

Kenneth tutted, but took the glass, knocked back the contents and slammed it back down on the tray.

"Now get out," he dismissed.

The sense of satisfaction that ran through Tris was nauseating as Margaret turned and walked away.

"Margaret had to rid herself of his advances," Julienne's whisper accompanied him into the next vision, "only he discovered her."

Margaret walked into the front room to find Kenneth sitting in his usual place, looking out the window. She was surprised when he gave her a cordial smile.

"Ah, Margaret, come in. I have some good news and I wish us to celebrate," Kenneth began, inviting her forward and indicating to a decanter and two glasses on the table beside him.

Kenneth coughed as Margaret crossed to him, sat and took his hand, waiting with some satisfaction for the fit to pass. When it did, he patted her sign of affection and told her, "Pour the wine, my dear."

Margaret did as she was told and, once they were each holding a glass, Kenneth held his up and told her, "Dr Northholt has told me of a place that may provide a cure for my palsies. It has been a miracle to others afflicted as I am."

"That is good news," Margaret agreed, watching Kenneth sip his wine.

Politely, she did the same.

"We shall be travelling within the week," Kenneth continued, downing the rest of his glass, his hand shaking as he reached out to Margaret for a refill.

Margaret gulped a little more of her own glass and then obediently added more wine to Kenneth's glass. He lifted it to his lips again and then watched her, the glass poised. Margaret took another sip and shifted away from the intense gaze, a little unnerved by the smile playing over Kenneth's lips.

"What is it, my dear?" she eventually prompted.

"Quite enough, quite enough," Kenneth replied and she realised he was looking at her glass.

He was so close to her, she could see a thin bead of perspiration on his forehead and then she felt it, the first tightening of her chest. Dropping the glass, Margaret stood and fled.

Tris fought his way through Margaret's fear: he had seen the rest of this murderous moment, but now he had no sympathy for the black widow. He came back to himself panting and looking up at Julienne, who was smiling at him benevolently.

"She kills people," he tried to reach through that bland expression to the woman he knew.

Julienne waggled her head and stroked his fringe off his face in an absurdly motherly gesture.

"Strictly, Margaret encourages others," she corrected.

Tris' muscles were like water, Margaret having drained much of his energy, but he tried to sit up. Julienne pushed him back down with a gentle pressure on his shoulder.

"Lay still," she soothed and then told him, "My mother was the next to last of a long line of spouses shown the right way by Margaret."

"Your mother," Tris checked, shivering as the lies began to tumble in on him.

Julienne nodded and looked sheepish.

"A little white lie, I'm afraid."

She sighed lightly.

"Mother never really got over killing father. I don't know why, he was a bit of a beast and I was glad when she hit him."

"You were there?"

"I was thirteen and I watched from the pantry," Julienne replied like she was telling him about a pleasant trip to the beach. "Mother took me away from Berwick then, and I loved her, so I stayed away like she told me to, but when she died, Margaret called me back."

Margaret's face appeared above Julienne's then, looking down on him with that same triumph he had seen in the garden. He already suspected the rest, but Julienne confirmed, "Michael was already ill, so no-one noticed when he died a little too quickly."

Tris didn't want to believe that this generous, amiable woman was a killer, but the evidence shuddered through him as Margaret's influence chilled the room.

"After that, I didn't know what to do. Margaret wanted more people and when Johnathan needed to get away, I finally realised it was time to sell the place. It was just perfect when my agent told me about you and Xander wanting to buy. Of course, I recognised your name and, already being a killer, I knew you'd be easier to influence."

"No," Tris moaned his denial at that, throwing his arm over his face to block out the horrible calculation.

"Don't grieve, Tris," Julienne cajoled, her tone motherly again. "Embrace it, let Margaret have you. You're not like the others, you see, you are open to her in ways none of the rest of us could give her. She wants you now, all of you."

Something cold was slipped into his limp palm, metal, and Tris lifted his arm from his face to see an open cut-throat razor in his hand. Reactively, he gripped the handle as the stark prospect of what he was supposed to do gave him goosebumps. He glanced wildly up at Julienne, not quite believing what was being commanded of him, but there was no denial there.

"Join her," Julienne encouraged.

"N-," Tris began his denial, but as he shook his head, Margaret's face contorted into that visage of madness Tris has witnessed that morning, and she descended on him with another shriek, right through Julienne.

Margaret's power flooded into Tris, rage and madness possessing every pore.

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Author Info: Author X
So, I don't have any ghost story writers in by book collection that begin with X, and neither could I find one on Google, so I thought I'd share some of  the stories that remain anonymous, but can still make us shake in our boots :).

A Night In A Haunted House, which can be found in The Best Ghost Stories 1800 - 1849, is a tale in two parts. The first part is that of a clergyman telling the tale of his first married home from which he was driven by the presence of a club-footed ghost - the most terrifying part of his tale is the description of how mortal woman and ghost occupy the same space on a bed - the very idea gives me the heebie jeebies! The second half is of a foolish man who, on hearing the first tale, wishes to spend the night in the haunted house alone. And thus, he meets a ghost!

There is a second anonymous story in this collection as well. The Deaf & Dumb Girl, which it is suggested is a classic French tale, a moral warning. The narrator is certainly not subtle about his opinion of a young officer who joins a coach that is taking a group of strangers on their journey. The young man is showy, conceited and doesn't give a damn about who he woos and then leaves behind him. The carriage is flagged down by a priest who then puts a deaf and mute girl onto the carriage, at which the driver complains bitterly, since there is always trouble when she travels with them. The carriage immediately becomes cold and the atmosphere changes, since the girl is a haunted creature, pale as death and silent as the grave. I shall not continue the story, I will let you find out what happens, but needless to say, the young officer is involved and there is a price to pay for his philandering.

There are many other great ghost stories that have been handed down by word of mouth and by collectors of such stories all over the world. In fact, all the factual ghost stories I have shared with you in this A to Z are of the anonymous kind, told, retold, embellished and tweaked to suit the teller/listeners over the years. Our rich ghostly heritage in Britain owes everything to these sharers of spooky tales round fire sides and over ales, so, here's to the anonymous ones!

British Hauntings: Crossroads
Pinnock Bridge Crossroads, Pluckley
Haunt of the Gypsy Woman
Crossroads hold a macabre and peculiar place in British ghost lore, because their use was twofold. They were traditionally a place of execution, where gibbets were hung displaying the bodies of those executed. They were also the place where bodies were buried, not only of those executed, but also for suicides. The reason being, if the ghost rose after death, the spirit would be confounded on which road to take and be stuck at the crossroads. Thus, we have a good share of crossroads said to be haunted spread across the British Isles.

The bridge where the old gypsy woman still rests selling her water cress in Pluckley is in the middle of an elongated crossroads, so maybe that is why she remains there, because she does not know how to get home.

According to the book, The Lore of the Land, by Jennifer Westwood & Jacqueline Simpson, there is a crossroads at Chalvington in Sussex, where a miller, who was too honest to make a living, hanged himself and his body was taken out to the nearby crossroads, staked to the ground and buried there. The could have just been an old wives' tale, but a Victorian decided to dig up a gnarled old tree that grew out of the stake and found a skeleton below it - make of that what you will!

Highwaymen, robbers, murderers, all were executed and displayed at crossroads the length and breadth of Britain, so it's not really surprising we have our fair share of ghosts to scare unwary travellers at these points of no return.

I'd love to hear your own spooky stories, add them to the blog comments. :)

A few of us discovered that we all had supernatural themes for the AtoZ so we got together and did a mini list. If you also have a supernatural theme (ghosts, monsters, witches, spells etc), please feel free to add yourself to the list.

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  1. Now for me, I like it when some stories finish on a cliff-hanger, it makes me think what could've happened next, and I like that.

    So, there was more to Julienne's tale, had a sense there would be. ;) But as for poor Tris, I hope a certain ghost comes to his rescue, or I think it's lights out for him.

    We were such a superstitious folk back then, but thankfully, superstition did lead to some great haunting tales, especially those surrounding crossroads. :)

    1. I think, for me, it depends on the nature of the cliff-hanger - it's another one of those devices that can be used very well to intrigue and engage, but also it can be used like a sledgehammer, blunt and painful.

      You called it on Julienne - I've been trying not to let it slip :)

      I think all of us are a little bit superstitious still, it's just we don't let it govern our social behaviour any more - and yes, it has led to some really interesting tales.

  2. I loved the movie Woman in Black. It was one of the few that really scared me! As a "climax" though, I only remember the car-in-the-mud scene and the finale (so sad), so their climax must not have worked very well on me. I'd love to read the Dead & Dumb Girl story! Why can't it be on Guttenberg? *sniffle*

    1. I really love the head to head between Arthur and Jenette, where he tries to give her son back to her - the way she walks up the corridor, the lights going off in front of her and the screaming dive over Arthur nearly had me in the seat behind at the cinema ;P It's not in the book. The ending is sad, but also a 'win' for Arthur. because he and his wife still saved his son - I thought it was better than both the book and the Carlton TV ending. :)

      I'm sorry, I searched for the stories outside the book, but it looks like the author compiled the stories from sources unknown. :(

  3. Resolutions is nice, but a good cliff hanger can be very intriguing. Yet, for them to be intriguing the main points in the story has to be wrapped up or your readers or watchers will be very disappointed.

    1. I don't mind a cliffhanger if, as you say, the main story is wrapped up.

  4. I have read many ghost stories where the author built things up...then never paid it off. Very disappointing!

    1. I've come across those as well. The Mist in The Mirror, by Susan Hill, is a great story, but the payoff at the end is a bit quick for me, I wanted more meat on 'them bones' :)

  5. I've always thought anonymous stories and poems to be kind of haunting in their own right. In a day and age where works of art are all attributed to their creators, the ones that aren't just seem that much more intriguing and mysterious. The Deaf and Dumb Girl sounds interesting. Boy, do I have tons of ghost stories to read now. Thanks, Sophie! :D

    1. Glad to be of service :) And yes, you have a point, anonymous stories have a lonely glamour to them.

  6. Hi Sophie - I haven't read any ghost stories for ages ... I've got a couple of books here from my ma ... Must have a look at them. ... Then there's the folk stories from Cornish tales ... But I definitely don't like being shortchanged ...

    Interesting to think about these - cheers Hilary

    1. Ghosts are a fun read, so are myths and legends, I have a few books on the supernatural of the South West which have folk tales as well as ghosts - Arthur has lots of prominent myths in Cornwall, doesn't he.

  7. I never knew the background behind crossroads. Fascinating stuff! And scary. :)

    1. I'm always a little nervous when I drive round rural crossroads late at night because of the tales :)

  8. I never knew that about crossroads, it's interesting.
    The climax is always important in a story, especially a ghost story, where there are so many questions to answer.

    1. Crossroads are a place of meeting and parting at the same time - places of mystery :)

  9. Crossroads are not just British lore, but it's a feature of the Southern Gothic lore and going all the way back to the Greeks. Hecate, the Goddess of Witches and Ghosts was also the Goddess of the Crossroads.

    I am waiting till May then I'll read the story straight through!

    Timothy S. Brannan
    The Other Side, April Blog Challenge: The A to Z of Witches

    1. Some images/ideas appear again and again - I always think there has to be a good reason for that :)

  10. Oh Jesus! Julienne is a fraud! I hope Tris will prevail!

  11. I try to wrap up most issues by the end of story, but I like the good cliffhanger or something left to the imagination at times.


    1. I do like something to spark the imagination , to keep me thinking about stories after I've finished them, but I'm with you when it comes to wrapping up most issues :)

  12. I love a good ghost story, and one that can keep me from falling asleep due to the scare factor is always a terrific find. The ones you mentioned seems worth the scare. The story will Tris made intense reading and I loved it.

    1. The scare factor is a big one for me in ghost stories - there are a few where the scare isn't the be all and end all - like Ghost (although those shadow things that come for the bad guy in the end are pretty creepy).

      Glad you're enjoying my ghost story too :)

  13. I recently learned a Hungarian anecdote about a woman who tired to get rid of a rat infestation in her house by sending her husband butt naked to the crossroads at night to recite a spell. The husband was spotted, shamed, and they had to move to a new house in a new village. Rat problem solved :D

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary - Tales of colors
    MopDog - The crazy thing about Hungarians...

    1. That brings to mind the saying be careful what you wish for ;P

  14. Great post! It's something I've been thinking about in my own writing. As I write towards the climax, I'm trying to foreshadow its events but also make it a surprise. I hope it's a good one!

    1. Good luck with your foreshadowing and climax, if you're actively thinking about it as you go through then you're halfway there :)

  15. I also hate when a story just kind of ends, without any sort of climax or resolution.

    I've spent countless hours in cemeteries for almost ten years now, both doing volunteer work for Find A Grave and strolling through for my own pleasure, but I have to say I've never had any sort of ghostly encounter there. Then again, none of the cemeteries I've been to, not even the old Granary Burial Ground in Boston, have any stories of hauntings and ghostly activity like Bachelor's Grove in Chicago or St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans.

    1. Find a Grave, I've not heard of that - sounds like interesting work - there are so many fascinating things written on tombstones. One of the legends I have read says there should be no ghosts in a graveyard except the last person buried there - which I think is rather rough on the person who is buried there and makes me wonder where all the haunted graveyard stories come from otherwise ;P

  16. I will look into some from that book I mentioned, it is from the 1800s and I think it has ghost stories in it. I believe it is written in old Swedish, but I should be able to manage. The illustrations are funny though. If it will work out I will post on my blog later.

    1. That would be really interesting, thank you, I'll keep an eye out for your post :)

  17. I'm not really fond of cliff-hangers either unless I know a book is coming after it. If not, they just irritate me! Although, I do love to trick my readers. ;)

    Those stories sound so good! Now I want to read The Best Ghost Stories 1800 - 1849.

    1. I don't mind twists, if they're good ones, either, they can be fun and a eureka moment if they're done well - I think it's with all these techniques and tropes, if they're done well, they can be fantastic, but when used like a club, they can be awful :)

      The Best Ghost Stories is an interesting read - not least for the commentary at the front of each story.

  18. I'll only tolerate a cliff hanger if there's another book coming out.

    ~Patricia Lynne~
    Story Dam
    Patricia Lynne, YA Author

    1. It still depends on the cliffhanger for me, next book or no next book, I would like some satisfaction in the current book :)


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