Sunday 30 October 2011

What I Keep in My Whisper Jar - Guest Post by Carole Lanham

What I Keep in My Whisper Jar by Carole Lanham

Through the garden gate was the hump of an old cat grave and Penny told us to tap our foot on it three times for luck so that’s exactly what we did, tap tap tap, until all the luck was gathered up - luck, in this case, revolving entirely around the hope that we might find the dead body of our elderly neighbor still lying on the floor, or maybe catch a glimpse of a real living ghost.  “Don’t open that thing yet,” Penny said, as we tromped over the paint-peeled hatch of a cyclone cellar on our way to the creepy house.  “Let’s save it for last.”

Penny was the girl who lived down the street and while I can’t recall whose idea it was to go inside the scary house, I was all for seeing it – every cobweb, every shadow, every bone.  There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned scare!

Whenever someone asks what a nice girl like me is doing writing horror stories, I laugh like butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth, wipe my hands on my apron, and offer them a homemade cookie.  I have a strong tendency to deny all association with the dark figures who turn up in my work.  I want to pretend I don’t know those crazy characters in the least.  Then I remember about the haunted house in the neighborhood where I lived when I was a little girl.  Truth is, I went through that garden gate once and tapped my foot on the old cat grave, hoping with all my heart to find something scary and grim.  I was four years old at the time and I brought my two year old sister along with me.  Even though I had yet to begin kindergarten, I already understood that someone must always be along for the ride.

I can’t remember the names of all the kids who were with me that day but bits and pieces of our adventure have followed me down the road of life in the form of clothes-less hangers jangling in empty closets and bare nails poking from scuffed walls.  There were ghosts in that house to be sure, though they were not see-through spirits of the usual moaning variety.  Rather, they were dents from coffee table legs engraved in the carpet, and cabinet doors that opened on shelf-paper stained with the rings of vanished Comet cans.   A dead body would have been one thing, but I had probably never seen a room without furniture before and all that abandoned space was somehow more frightening than the thought of my body keeling over dead.  What happened to the old guy’s shoes, I longed to know?  Where was the refrigerator where he kept his milk?  And where was his milk?  He’d been scrubbed and swept and dusted away so thoroughly that there was nothing left to see.

I have no idea what the other kids were feeling but I’m guessing it must have spooked them too.  We ran from room to room expectantly only to stop and turn in slow circles, looking.  I can’t recall finding so much as a shirt button.  Did they bury his toothbrush with him, we wondered?  We went into the bathroom to check on this and that’s when we saw the most terrifying thing of all. 

It was in the toilet.

 “Poop!” someone yelled, and we tore out of the house, yelping with fear and bumping into each other in our effort to escape.  After all those empty rooms, that one unexpected sign of life had everyone in a panic.

I’m betting we laughed about it afterwards but it scared me.  Even so, I’ve always been a glutton for punishment and I wanted to see more.  We made our way to the cellar door and this time I tried to prepare myself for the disappointing possibility that we would find little more than black nothingness when we got the thing open.  It stood to reason that the person who had stolen the rest of the dead man’s life had probably stolen whatever was in the cellar too.  In any case, we’d lived through the poop, so how bad could it be?  

Eventually, with the combined might of our stringy pre-school muscles, we threw the heavy door back on its hinges and everyone peered down in the hole. 

Dozens of glassy eyes looked up at us.  I squinted.  They squinted.  Finally we recognized each other and there was a terribly terrible screech.  On both ends.  “Cats!” someone yelled.  I tore across the yard, leapt over the lucky grave, and banged through the gate, giggling my head off even as my heart exploded inside my chest.  Boy, did we frighten ourselves!  My sister snitched the second we got home, but it was quite a wonderful day.

Thanks to Google Maps, I was recently able to hunt down the very same house I broke into with the neighbor kids all those years ago and visit it again.  Fortunately, glimpsing it through the wonders of Street View has not altered the images I carry around inside my head.  We moved away from the neighborhood before I started school, but I can still see that haunted house as it once was and this is partly due to the fact that it stood directly behind my own house.  As a result, it looms over the Easter egg hunts of my youth in home movies.  It’s the backdrop behind kids in birthday party hats and aunts with funny hairdos smoking cigarettes.  It’s featured in every photo that involves our swing set.  But I also remember that old house because that’s how my weird brain works.  I have a photographic memory for things that most people consider to be worthless information, and no.  I can’t tell you where I put my car keys last night.  One must have their priorities, don’t you know?

What gets kept in my head is dictated by the smallest of feelings behind the smallest of things, the impressions of which tend to become stamped in my memory for all of time like leg dents in a carpet.  When it comes to writing scary stories, I love quiet fear.  A nagging sense that something is wrong is more worrying to me than a face full of blood and guts.  And I’ll take a soft, shuffling sound behind a locked door over an ax murderer every time.  I don’t guess the emptiness of that old house would have scared or surprised my mother very much, but then I was a four year old with an over-active imagination.  A balled-up sock under my bed was maybe just a sock or maybe a shrunken head that someone had hidden there.  Children make for wonderful characters because they’re chock full of all manner of small feelings.

In keeping with my love of wee things, my short story collection The Whisper Jar draws upon the fearsome nuisance that is a secret.  I find secrets to be particularly loaded with fun.  Hidden rooms, hidden truths, hidden love - the minute you try to steal something from view, it has the potential to grow into quite the proper monster, doesn’t it?  As for the sneaking, chicken-hearted, two-timing, wobble-kneed, band of no-good regretters who populate my work, I suppose I ought to go on and embrace them for all I’m worth.  When it’s all said and done, I don’t think they can help themselves.  Like me, they were born to love a good forbidden romp in the dark.


Carole's book 'The Whisper Jar' is released tomorrow by Morrigan Books.


Deborah Walker said...

I think that sounds just like my type of horror.

Jeff Coffield said...

You've gone and caused me to buy it even though I'd rather purchase a book than e-book.

Jeff Coffield

Cate Gardner said...

Thanks for this awesome post, Carole.