March 17, 2022
Grave’s End by Elaine Mercado
It’s the middle of the night. You’re lying in bed, almost asleep. But a banging wakes you. Your eyes fly open and your heart freezes. What is it? You can’t imagine what it could be. Is it a ghost—or your radiator?
When faced with inexplicable happenings in your home, a place you want to consider a safe haven, it may take time to discern the source. At first you may have no explanation for the events and phenomena. If you can find no natural cause, you may fear what’s happening. Assigning possible meaning requires you to question, research, test, and evaluate.
If you diligently rule out natural causes and consider that such happenings as seeing balls of light, glimpsing shadowy figures, and being touched by unseen presences in the night are supernatural in origin, where does it leave you?
You might decide to do nothing. If so, can you learn to live with spirit housemates? You would need to overcome fear of spirits manifesting in your personal space. For example, if you heard a disembodied voice say, “I love you” in your dark cellar, how would you feel? Warm and fuzzy? Or scared shitless? Would you ever get used to it? You could try, but you may never become perfectly comfortable with such contact.
You may face loneliness, wondering why these strange things are happening to you and your family. Could you confide in anyone else about them? Who?
If you admit to a confidant that you believe what’s happening in your home is supernatural, would they believe you? Will they accept and help you, or mock and reject you? Receiving criticism might make anyone hesitate to share their paranormal experiences with others.
In Grave’s End: A True Ghost Story, an allegedly true account of a haunted home, Elaine Mercado’s husband personifies dogged unwillingness to attribute events to supernatural causes. He provides for Elaine and their daughters plenty of doubt, disbelief, disagreement, sarcasm, and harassment. After Mercado deals with unpleasant phenomena, such opposition simply piles on more grief.
At another point in the narrative, her husband suggests a different approach. He says, “…I couldn’t figure out what was happening to me. I think if we just keep our heads, whatever it is will just go away” (71).
But what if you do keep your head, and it doesn’t go away?
You could move. Yet, what if, like Elaine Mercado, you have nowhere else to go? You may be unable to escape elsewhere on your own. Elaine found herself in this situation before she became a nurse; she couldn’t afford to take the girls and move out.
Mercado is obviously an anxious person, overprotective, prone to worry. Even if you aren’t, many reasons could prevent you from leaving a problem house. If you could afford to vacate, like most people you may be reluctant to make such a drastic change. (Some folks don’t flee abusive relationships for the same reasons.) It makes it even harder to go if the entities aren’t seriously hurting you.
With my study of Spiritualism and mediumship, the experiences in Mercado’s book rang true. Because of her doubts, her husband’s opposition, and all that she dealt with that I’ve outlined above, it took her a long time to acknowledge the source of the activity in her home. However, it boggles me that, suffering as she and her daughters did, she did nothing about it for over a decade!
Mercado disliked the thought of a medium coming (109). As a result, she and her girls suffered a while longer. She and Karin weren’t sure they liked psychic Marisa Anderson “cleaning” the house. Finally, though, Mercado acknowledged that the trapped spirits were suffering and needed to be sent on their way toward the light.
Mercado concludes, “[Experiences with spirits] proved to me, without a doubt, that we survive our physical death” (174). Although not everyone will agree with her conviction, it came to her hard-earned.
I found Grave’s End a fascinating story about why spirits may linger on earthly properties and what one family did about a haunting. Such accounts provide rich fodder for conjuring fictional tales of the supernatural.
I’ve read a ton of books about the afterlife and a few specifically on rescuing spirits trapped in the physical realm. One such book I edited and published on this topic is by Doris and Hilary Severn called The Next Room [Kindle].)
If you’re currently dealing with supernatural activity or know someone who is, I recommend my book, How to Tell If Your House Is Haunted: And What to Do If It Is. I wrote it to explain how to determine whether phenomena is spiritual in origin, what to do about it, and how.
May you and your home find peace as Elaine Mercado did.
Mercado, Elaine. Grave’s End: A True Ghost Story. Llewellyn Publications, 2001.Comments to this post
March 10, 2022
Darkness and Blindness in The Others (2001)
The Others (2001), directed by Alejandro Amenábar, is one of my favorite supernatural horror/psychological thriller movies. It’s got everything I love: horror, the supernatural, the afterlife, mystery, suspense, Christianity, and Spiritualism. It shows what a haunting is like from “the other side.”
I could approach this film in so many ways. But I want to point out some things about darkness and blindness.
While the screen is still dark before the opening credits, a voiceover begins in which a woman says, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” This is the first instance of information coming from darkness that can be taken two ways: as a mother telling her children a bedtime story (beginning with Genesis chapter 1, where God says, “Let there be light”), or a medium beginning a séance with a table full of sitters.
Grace lives with Anne and Nicholas in her island manse which she keeps in perpetual darkness because the children are photosensitive and will die if exposed to strong light. Yet light in the darkness is exactly what they all need.
It’s 1945, and Grace, played by Nichole Kidman, is still waiting for her husband Charles to return from the war. The previous house servants abandoned their positions some time ago. The children bemoan the fact that, like Daddy, everyone disappears and doesn’t return.
Because they cannot leave the house, Grace homeschools the children using a religious curriculum. She’s a devout Catholic who spends much time indoctrinating the youngsters about such subjects as the four hells, notably limbo for children. As a Christian, she believes in the afterlife. But her rigid doctrine blinds her to the reality that they’re all dead. Their experience fails to align with her beliefs, so she cannot understand the nature of their plight. How and when will the light dawn?
Grace tells Mrs. Mills, the head housekeeper, that she doesn’t like fantasies or “strange ideas,” which she says the children entertain. But the children are closer to the truth—Anne, especially—than their mother is. Anne hears and sees “others” in the house, including a boy named Victor. Yet even the girl is in the dark about the reality of the afterlife.
Who are they? “Ghosts?” her little brother asks. She tells him they’re not ghosts. “Ghosts aren’t like that,” meaning people—like the kids, mother, and servants. Rather, ghosts “go about in white sheets and carry chains.” This is simply more misinformation that blinds them to what the afterlife and spirits really are like.
When Grace herself hears evidence of others in the house, she rushes into the “junk room,” where everything, like ghosts, are covered with sheets. She finds a Victorian photo album of the dead, its subjects all with closed eyes, and begins to see the light.
Grace determines to leave the house for town to fetch the priest, but on her way, she becomes lost in a fog so thick she cannot see where she’s going. Miraculously, she meets Charles returning from battle. Because he is so shell-shocked, he’s unable to shed any light on their situation—until Anne tells him the truth. Although viewers are still kept in the dark about this secret, the result is that Charles departs.
Things come to a head when Grace awakes in horror to find that all the draperies in the house have been removed, spirited away. The house is filled with light, ghastly light. The “others” are forcing her to see the light. Upon searching the house, she discovers a photograph in the servants’ quarters. All three of the servants are dead. She’s been entertaining departed spirits.
During the climax, Grace and the children at last find the “others” sitting in an upstairs room. The old woman, the “witch” that Anne sketched, is engaged in automatic writing, scribbling words she hears from the other side. Words that Grace and her children are screaming: “We’re not dead!” This is a primary tenet of Spiritualism: the dead are only so-called, for “We affirm that the existence and personal identity of the individual continue after the change called death” (https://nsac.org/what-we-believe/principles/).
I love how the books and movies required for my MFA course are tying into everything I’ve studied. I’m impressed with the writers’ knowledge of Spiritualism. For example, when Anne is dressed in her communion gown (looking like a ghost), her change into the blind old woman is a reference to trance mediumship and the Spiritualist phenomenon of transfiguration. This scene foreshadows the end in which the séance reveals “the other side of the story.”
Although the medium is blind to the physical, she sees in Spirit. Because of her contact with the other side on behalf of the living, Grace and the children do see the light. But only concerning their current state: they are dead, this is what ghosts are like, and the house belongs to them. Instead of allowing the light of their new understanding to enable them to move on like Charles, they determine they will never leave. The final shot of the gates being chained indicates that what remains within are only ghosts.
Grace and her children’s situation depicted in The Others is a problem I discuss in my book How to Tell If Your House Is Haunted:
To disembodied souls, the “soul body” is just as physical and solid to them as their physical bodies were, and instead of moving on (because they don’t know they’re supposed to), they remain on the earth plane among people who are still physically embodied.
The only problem is that disembodied souls usually cannot make themselves seen or heard by those still living. When loved ones and helpers in the spirit world come to escort them away from the physical realm, they refuse to go because they don’t believe they are “dead” (physically) and have no concept or belief in an afterlife.
The danger for these souls is becoming stuck on the earth plane instead of progressing to the joys of life in the higher astral realms.Lee Allen Howard, How to Tell If Your House Is Haunted
How to Tell If Your House Is Haunted: And What to Do If It Is reveals what happens when you die and where you go. It’s available for Kindle and in paperback. Happy hauntings!Comments to this post
July 27, 2013
Cemetery Photo Shoot
I love cemeteries. Always have. It’s part of my creepiness, yet as a Spiritualist, I find them not morbid, but peaceful, places. So being a Spiritualist, a medium, and a writer of dark fiction, a cemetery was the perfect place for a recent photo shoot.
Sunday morning July 21, I met accomplished photographer John Colombo for a session. You’ll see John’s striking photos in many of Pittsburgh’s better magazines and newspapers. Here he is, fiddling with his equipment. (He’s the photographer, not me…)
We convened at The Homewood Cemetery in Squirrel Hill, an east Pittsburgh neighborhood.
It wasn’t as hot as it was earlier in the week, but as we approached noon, we were both sweating. And in some of the early photos, the sun was in my eyes—until we found a shady spot and a guardian angel.
A model, I will never be. It took me at least 200 shots to loosen up. In most of the early pics, I look like I have a length of rebar rammed up my rectum. “Uptight” is a good word.
Then, by a shady mausoleum, I finally relaxed (and stopped squinting). None of these pics are the final, edited versions. They’re low-res outtakes. But I wanted to share my fun (and chagrin) with you.
You’ll see one of the finals in the right column of my site here soon. In the meantime, say, “Cheese!” and smile pretty!
John Colombo: http://www.johncolombo.com/
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June 27, 2013
The Importance of Research in Fiction Writing
This article first appeared on Anne J. Fotheringham’s site, Book Editor Plus.
Although fiction is a product of the imagination, if it’s set in the real world at least partially, there will be some real-life things you must get right. This means being accurate with your facts. In a contemporary story, if you’ve got a seasoned outdoorsman who drinks water directly from a still pool in a stream, you haven’t done your research.
Water can be contaminated with a variety of things risky to health and isn’t safe to drink without some kind of treatment, including filtration, chemical disinfection, or boiling. Boiling is best. If this isn’t possible in your story, you’ll get points for realism and accuracy if your character knows the dangers and does his best to mitigate them. If you don’t know your outdoor lore, readers who do will detect your gaffe and call you on it. (They may also quit reading or complain in a review.)
For instance, in DEATH PERCEPTION, my latest supernatural crime thriller, protagonist Kennet Singleton runs the crematory at a local funeral home. When I first got the idea about a young man who can discern the cause of death of those he cremates by toasting marshmallows over their ashes, I knew nothing about funeral homes or cremation.
One of the first things I did was conduct a general Internet search to acquaint myself with the processes of cremation and embalming. Then I went to visit a funeral home with a crematorium. A friend arranged for me to meet the funeral director, and I spent an hour there one afternoon learning about their process.
Being a technical writer, I took copious notes and made sketches. I even tape-recorded the session so I could go back to it if I later couldn’t make sense of my notes. Back home I typed up the document, making computer diagrams from my sketches, and ended up with a 15-page document that I later referred to when I wrote scenes in which cremation took place.
I also read a lot of books on the subject of death, funerary tradition and processes, and cremation. I still have a carton containing these titles:
- Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America by Stephen Prothero
- Cremation in America by Fred Rosen
- Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial by Penny Colman
- Round-Trip to Deadsville: A Year in the Funeral Underground by Tim Matson
- What Happens When You Die: From Your Last Breath to the First Spadeful by Robert T. Hatch
- I Died Laughing: Funeral Education with a Light Touch by Lisa Carlson
- One Foot in the Grave: The Strange But True Adventures of a Cemetery Sexton by Chad Daybell
- Cemetery Stories: Haunted Graveyards, Embalming Secrets, and the Life of a Corpse After Death by Katherine Ramsland
- Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? by Kenneth V. Iserson, MD
Some of these books were more useful than others, but I gleaned something from all of them. I used this knowledge to build a foundational structure based on facts about death, embalming, cremation, funeral homes, and cemeteries.
I likewise did research on personal care homes. And more on marijuana growing, poisons, prescription drugs, sexual fetishes, crime, guns, and police procedure. (Yes, all of these are in DEATH PERCEPTION.)
Did I get it all right? I suppose if an expert in any of these areas reads my book, she might find a flaw. But I performed due diligence and did my best to accurately ground my fiction in fact. Even much of the Spiritualism and Kennet’s psychic abilities are based on research and experience.
All this said, must you know everything about everything? No. You can’t. Other funeral directors may do things differently in their places of business, and that’s okay. But my facts are accurate according to how one funeral director operates his crematorium.
Although you can’t know everything, it pays to do your research in as many areas as possible. Then have knowledgeable beta readers check your work for accuracy. Sound research lends authority and realism to your writing, and these are what loyal readers enjoy.
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June 25, 2013
Using Your Day Job in Your Writing
This article first appeared on Sally Bosco’s site.Comments to this post
June 14, 2013
My Path to Publication
As a creative exercise in second grade, Teacher had her pupils write a story. “Be as creative as you can be, children.” I penned—penciled, rather—my debut horror fiction on a ruled school tablet. Teacher, ostensibly pleased with her prodigy’s genius (more likely concerned with a tow-headed eight-year-old’s mental health), passed my work to the elementary school principal. (“Children, ‘principal’ ends with P-A-L—the principal is your PAL.” Keep reading, and then decide…)
Unknown to me, Principal Sprunger, also the president of the local Lions Club chapter in Berne, Indiana, read my story to the men of our little Swiss community and then in good humor fined my father a dime because the preacher’s son had written such an “awful tale full of skeletons, witches, and blood.”
That is the story of money first changing hands in relation to my fiction. (That dime never found its way into my pocket. If it had, I would have biked down to the White Cottage and bought myself a small soft serve cone, for sure.)
I continued to write through elementary and high school. The Brookville, Pennsylvania, Jeffersonian Democrat newspaper printed our school newsletter, for which I’d written a grisly Halloween story. They decided to reprint my story in the town newspaper. This should have overjoyed me, but they printed it anonymously and didn’t pay me for it, either. Bastards.
I placed a short story and some poetry in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s New Growth Arts Revue. I stopped writing for a few years, but started again when I envisioned a scene about a young man who had been shot in the stomach and stumbled into an alley to die. I developed this into my first suspense novel for the Christian market, WHEN THE MUSIC STOPS, long out of print.
After completing my master of arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, I entered the publishing arena and compiled a trade paperback anthology of shorts based on the Ten Commandments. THOU SHALT NOT came out in 2006. It’s a great collection of horror and dark crime. Check it out.
I’ve placed a few short stories for pay in the past decade, but after hundreds of rejections, two years ago I decided to take a different route.
One of the reasons I’ve had trouble in placing my work, especially novels, is because they don’t cleanly fit into a genre slot. Why is this important? Because brick-and-mortar bookstores need to know where to shelve a book. So part of the writing-for-print-publication process is writing for a shelf spot. (And length requirements in genre fiction in part are based on how many books will conveniently fit in a cardboard carton for shipping.) I think that’s just ridiculous.
I had been working on a novel proposal for Dorchester Publishing/Leisure Books. But after the debacle with their selling ebooks without remunerating authors, I stuffed that idea down the disposal.
In a nutshell, since second grade, I’ve learned that publishing by the traditional route is inorganically restricted and highly improbable. The royalties paid (if they pay)… well, suck.
So I recently published my second novel, THE SIXTH SEED for e-readers and trade paperback. It cost me nothing to post it, and I’ve been selling downloads at a 70% royalty. And I can add meta tags with no concern for a shelf spot or how I will otherwise categorize “a dark paranormal fantasy fraught with suburban Pittsburgh horror—family drama with aliens.”
I followed the same path for DEATH PERCEPTION, my latest supernatural thriller tinged with horror and peppered with dark humor:
Nineteen-year-old Kennet Singleton lives with his invalid mother in a personal care facility, but he wants out. He operates the crematory at the local funeral home, where he discovers he can discern the cause of death of those he cremates—by toasting marshmallows over their ashes.
He thinks his ability is no big deal since his customers are already dead. But when his perception differs from what’s on the death certificate, he finds himself in the midst of murderers. To save the residents and avenge the dead, he must bring the killers to justice.
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June 12, 2013
Using Beta Readers to Evaluate Your Fiction
This post first appeared on Mike Mehalek’s blog, Writing Is Tricky.
So, you’ve written a novel and done your revisions and polished it as best you can. Is it ready to send to an agent or publisher—or to publish yourself? Hard to tell.
Instead of crossing your fingers and exposing your manuscript to the risk of immediate rejection, why not first let someone read your book and provide feedback? If they spot any problems with story, plot, characters, or writing, you’ll have a chance to improve your work before you send it to someone who’ll buy.
Writers have been doing this forever, passing on their finished manuscripts to a close circle of trusted readers. But for the new novelist, it’s one more step along the path of learning to become a published and professional writer.
Whom should you choose? It’s best not to choose someone who isn’t an avid reader, who doesn’t like the genre you write in, or who won’t give you honest feedback (meaning both praise and constructive criticism).
A good beta reader is someone who reads widely, reads in your genre, and can discuss with intelligence the elements of fiction (characters, plot, description, setting, dialog, narration, etc.). Your best bet may be another writer whose back you can scratch at a later date.
If you’re working to deadline, it’s wise to set a date for the review to be completed. Just make sure you give your reader plenty of time to read, and agree on the deadline beforehand.
If there are specific issues you’re concerned about—for example, “Does Mrs. Gulliver seem like a fully formed character to you, and are her motivations understandable and sufficient to fuel the brutal murder she commits?”—you may want to communicate these up front so that your beta reader can be on the lookout as she reads. And make it clear that you’re looking for constructive feedback to make your story better, not just ego strokes.
If you send an electronic file (.mobi, .epub, .pdf, or other), make sure the copy is marked “BETA” on the cover page. Ditto for a printed version. And if your printed version is looseleaf, put it in a binder to keep the pages from getting lost. Invite your reader to make comments in the margins as she reads.
This is your precious intellectual property. You may want to include a copyright statement and warning on the title page and in the footer of every page, along with the specific reader’s name.
On the title page: “BETA COPY 1, date”
In the footer of every page: “Copyright 2013 Your Full Name. Duplication prohibited. Beta Reader’s Name – Beta Copy 1 – date”
This way, if you create more than one version, even if a page is removed from the binder, you’ll know where it came from. Print a fresh version for your next reader with the footer changed appropriately.
Once you hand your reader the manuscript, leave him alone. Don’t call or text every day, asking about his progress and whether or not he likes it. The exception here is inquiring about progress as you near your agreed-upon deadline.
When the reading is done, it’s time for a talk with your beta reader. You may want to prepare and print a list of questions about characters, plot, description, setting, dialog, narration, and so on. If they fill it out, you have their answers in writing.
If you sit down to interview, make sure you put her at ease and encourage her to speak his mind candidly about his opinion. Then, let him talk, and keep your mouth shut. Resist the urge to jump in and explain everything (although you should answer questions when asked, or if you’re unclear about what they’re saying). Above all, turn off your emotions, turn on your smile, and THANK him for the hours he’s spent helping you.
If you get published, a nice touch is to mention him in the acknowledgments section, gift him a signed copy of the book, or take him to dinner. Or all three. If his feedback was valuable, you may want to call on him again.
Then, you evaluate the feedback. It may be a good idea to get another reader’s opinion before you overhaul your manuscript based on your first reader’s input. Fix obvious errors, naturally, before printing a fresh copy for your second reader. But remember that opinions are just that—opinions. No two readers will agree on everything about your book. However, if two or three readers point out the same problem, it’s a good sign that you need to do more work.
I followed this process with DEATH PERCEPTION, my latest supernatural thriller tinged with horror and peppered with dark humor. My beta readers were Kerri Knutson and Gary Reichart, whose feedback I appreciate very much. You’ll see them mentioned on the acknowledgments page with a few treasured others.
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June 11, 2013
The Ghost of Backstory in DEATH PERCEPTION
This post appeared originally on the blog of Jason Jack Miller, author of The Devil and Preston Black, Hellbender, and The Revelations of Preston Black. Check out his site.
The Ghost of Backstory in DEATH PERCEPTION
Backstory is everything that happened to the protagonist before the story begins. In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby calls this the “ghost.” The ghost is usually some negative event from the past that still haunts the protagonist in the present. This past trauma is the source of the hero’s current psychological and moral weakness. It’s his internal opponent, what Truby describes as the “great fear that is holding him back from action.”
In DEATH PERCEPTION, my just-released supernatural thriller, young protagonist Kennet Singleton’s backstory ghost is his father’s drunken violence, resulting in his father’s death and the loss of his mother’s eye. Lack of a good role model has crippled Kennet from striking out on his own; at 19, he still lives with his invalid mother in a personal care home and holds only a part-time job at a local funeral home.
However, Kennet’s natural hypersensitivity toward his father’s moods and abusive behavior birthed a psychic gift that blooms when an old prophetess lays her hands on him. Later he discovers that he can discern the cause of death of those he cremates—by toasting marshmallows over their ashes.
When he begins believing in himself and using his gift to avenge the spirits of those who have been murdered (ghosts of a different sort), Kennet finds the courage to stand up for himself and forge his way toward independence.
Good stories dramatize the process of a flawed character overcoming past wounds on the path to wholeness. Even in a tale of horror and supernatural crime, Kennet’s “ghosts” find justice—and peace.
DEATH PERCEPTION is available in trade paperback, Kindle (.mobi) and Nook (.epub) at https://leeallenhoward.com/death-perception/.
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June 8, 2013
Writing Characters with Psychic Abilities
This appeared originally on the blog of Hunter Shea, author of the dark and paranormal. Check out his site.Comments to this post
June 6, 2013
The Spiritualism of DEATH PERCEPTION
This was originally posted at http://buildingthebridge.wordpress.com, the site for my metaphysical and spiritualistic musings. From the acknowledgments page in the book: “We affirm that communication with the so-called dead is a fact, scientifically proven by the phenomena of Spiritualism.” –Principle #5 of SpiritualismComments to this post