Thank You, Carter Smith

This past weekend, I had the privilege of seeing my first novel made into a film that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The novel is called One for Sorrow. The film is called Jamie Marks is Dead. Early on in my novel, the narrator, Adam McCormick, observes in his high school yearbook after Jamie Marks is found murdered, that he and Jamie share the same page, the same square even, but Adam’s photo is on one side of the page, and Jamie’s is on the other. For me, coming away from watching Jamie Marks is Dead feels similar to that moment of two people’s souls blurring and mingling into one.

Carter Smith, the director and screenwriter for the film, kept that moment intact, actually, as well as a lot of the novel. Though there are some changes, the story has retained the essence of the book for me. I’ve already noticed some fans of the novel online who had managed to see it at Sundance mention the changes from book to film, but that’s the nature of novel adaptations–they modify a very large story, 320 pages in this case, to fit into an hour and forty minutes of screen time. Novels and films are two different forms, and taking a novel into the film format will, by necessity, mean some things will have to change. Unless the adaptor is doing a literal translation of book to film, which for me always falls flat, simply because the two forms don’t do the same things, don’t function in the same ways (though they do have crossover points, obviously).

So in this adaptation of One for Sorrow, you’ll see that it’s a troubled single parent household instead of a troubled two-parent household, that Adam comes from. There’s no grandmother in Adam’s memory who taught him how to count crows to the counting crows nursery rhyme, which explains the change in title. And instead of squatting in an abandoned church, Adam squats in an abandoned warehouse. Some events in the book have been collapsed, or moved around in time. There are some pieces of dialogue that have been moved from one scene in the novel to a different placement in the film. And there’s even at least one entirely new scene that Carter created for the script that I absolutely love (involving the ghost of Frances Wilkinson), and that feels entirely organic to the story, made from the same essence of how I imagined Frances in the novel. 

I loved every moment of it, even the changes. Carter created a visual poem using the imagery and motifs of the novel, and watching the film was absolutely fascinating for me to see all of those codified metaphors and symbols unfold on the screen like one of those flower teas that, once dropped in water, seem to bloom and bloom again, until they fill their container.

The film focuses on the relationships between the teenagers in the novel, so other side storylines have been pushed into the background or excised altogether, and that, I think, was the entirely right choice to make. Those were the relationships and that was the storyline that were the center of the novel, too. Novels have room for background characters and side plots that might make a film feel clunky and overpacked if absolutely everything was brought over in the transfer.

This movie is dark, cold, blue and green. It holds the essence of winter and death and regret and longing inside it. And somehow, hope flowers in its darkness. That’s the book, too, really, or what I hoped I’d achieved as the tone and essence with the novel.

So I feel like I couldn’t have asked for me and my story to have been placed into better hands. Carter and his cast and crew made something I can feel good about being a part of. I can’t wait for people to see the absolutely gorgeous cinematography that Darren Lew brought to the film, too. It’s dark magic, the look of the entire thing.

Park City is unlike any place I’ve ever visited, and is the complete opposite of my daily life in the declining town of Youngstown, Ohio. A tiny skiing town nestled in the mountains, where Christmas apparently never goes away. Lights were strung from street corner to corner, throughout the trees, ever so precious that even the bulbs in the trees were made to seem like seeded berries. The people at the festival seemed professionally beautiful, as if they’d stepped out of magazines, and they lined the streets waiting to get into overfull restaurants and huddled around each other in the hopes of getting off the wait list for certain movies.

For most of the premiere day, I was nervous and felt like I was swimming through a haze, couldn’t collect my thoughts well, and kept bumping into things or feeling dizzy, much like Adam in the novel does after the body of Jamie Marks is found. But when I arrived at the theater, Carter appeared out of a knot of people and when I saw his smile everything seemed to go back into focus. I went through the media tent with him and the actors, who happen to be some of the nicest, warm people I’ve met, and any nerves I might have had that day were just gone in an instant. It helped to see the actors and Carter himself also felt anxious. I think being around everyone who had a stake in the film allowed for an easier pre-show experience of butterflies.

The lights went down, the lights went up, and everything afterward has felt a little altered for me. I’ve felt a bit like the character Adam in the days since, feeling like I’m seeing two worlds merging together in front of me, back and forth, one laid over the other. I feel stunned, to some extent, but in a good way. My vision will come back into focus again at some point, like it did when Carter came out to greet me and the proverbial light from the lighthouse brought me back in to shore safely.

Other than life (thanks Mom and Dad!), I think this may be the greatest gift anyone has ever given me. In the book, Adam gives words to Jamie to help him sustain a meaningful existence in his afterlife. At one point, Adam learns the power of the words, Thank you, which you would think a simple thing. But simple things are reduced in significance by overuse, a flattening of meaning by the scripted nature of our daily lives and that’s a loss for all of us when we fall into routine engagements with the world.

I learned the significance of Thank you some years ago, when I needed the help of other people to get through a dark period and other people did, in fact, help me, even when I felt at my most alone. I learned the power that connecting with others can have, with making friendships and relationships that make life worth living. And I learned that giving back and forth, that exchange between our individual spirits, binds us together.

To see and be seen, to be understood and to comprehend another.

This has been one of the most meaningful exchanges I’ve ever experienced.

So I want to say thank you to Carter Smith, who has given my words back to me in a different form.

In an interview he did at Sundance, he said after reading One for Sorrow, he was haunted. After seeing Jamie Marks is Dead, I want to say, Likewise. I’ve been bumping into things in the days since I left Sundance. Walls, lockers, people. Doesn’t matter what, I’m walking into it.

And I’m glad it was you.

Finalist for storySouth’s Million Writers Award

A new awesome thing:

My story “Invisible Men” (originally published in Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse Online and reprinted in Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction) is a finalist for storySouth’s Million Writers Award!

The award is given out annually to celebrate the best short fiction published online. Needless to say (but I’ll say it): I’m thrilled to be recognized, and for that story to be recognized especially.

So here’s the thing. A jury selected the top ten finalists, but the winner is selected by popular vote. So if you’re reading this, please consider the list of potentials and vote.

Vote for my story, of course! ;-)

You can venture over to the storySouth Million Writers Award website and find the listing of finalists by clicking here.

And you can find the voting form by clicking here.

Thanks for voting!

Wonders of the Invisible World goes to Knopf!

I have good news (following on the heels of a rough past two months). Today it was announced that my next novel, Wonders of the Invisible World has been acquired by Knopf Books for Young Readers!

Here’s the announcement in Publishers Weekly:

Melanie Cecka at Knopf has acquired a debut YA novel from adult novelist Christopher Barzak, called Wonders of the Invisible World. In it, a teenager must unravel a generations-old family curse before it destroys those he loves. Publication is set for fall 2015; Barry Goldblatt of Barry Goldblatt Literary brokered the deal for North American rights.

To say the least: yeeeeeeeeeesssssssssssss!!!!!!

My mugging

Hi all. I’m sorry this note is short, but I only have the use of one hand right now. A lot of friends have emailed or messaged to ask what happened to me in NYC and how I am doing. This is the short version, due to my not being able to type with both hands. And it’s hard because of that to reply to everyone individually.

On Sunday night, after seeing a movie with my friend Rick and some other NY friends, I walked Rick home to his building late at night, then headed off to the apartment where I was pet-sitting for a friend for ten days. On my way back to my place, I took Bleecker Street, a street I’ve always taken since I started visiting NYC twelve years ago on a regular basis. In the blocks between 7th Avenue and Perry Street, I was attacked by two young men. One in particular did the attacking. The other stood in shadow for most of the time. I didn’t even know he was there initially.

What happened was, I was looking at my cell phone and as I stepped up onto the curb, the attacking young man came out of a shadow and punched me in the face. On my chin, specifically. It was the hardest hit I’ver ever felt in my life, not that I’ve felt many. It took me up off my feet. Though I didn’t know it at the time, my flip flops flew off, and so did my glasses. I landed on my back, hard. But also on my left arm, which I instinctually used to try to brace the fall. I saw stars, literally, and my vision went in and out. When I finally had it back, seconds later, the young man was standing over me. He said, “Give my your phone.”

I was in shock, pretty stunned, and I had damages I didn’t register already. But somehow, for some reason outside of myself, I pulled myself up from the ground, dragging my left knee and foot against the sidewalk as I did so, because I couldn’t use my left arm, which resulted in some bad road rash, and stood in front of him. In a fit, I began hitting him across his face with my phone, saying, “You want my phone, here’s my phone.” This went on for a while. I said some other things while I was swinging, like, “Who do you think you are?” and “What kind of person jumps at someone and hits them in the middle of the night?” I swear, I was like an outraged granny with a handbag, except I had an iPhone. And I wasn’t a granny, and my swings fell hard.

The guy eventually jumped backward, out of my range, and looked off to the side. He said, “Aren’t you going to help me?” and it was only then that I realized there was a second guy with him. I do remember thinking, Oh god, please don’t come help him. I quickly looked where he was looking, and saw the second guy crossing the street away from us, shaking his head, saying, “You picked the wrong dude.”

The guy who attacked me then looked back at me. I was still swinging wildly and cursing at him. I’m good at cursing, especially when I’m afraid and pissed off. He shook his head like he couldn’t believe this is how things went, and then he turned around and ran away from me.

It was only after he ran away and turned a corner that I realized I was barefoot, and that one of my feet was bleeding bad, and that I couldn’t see well, because my glasses, too, had flown off in the hit and fall part of the incident. I got down on all fours, found my flip flops and put them on like I was in a horror movie, frantically, afraid, and then started looking for my glasses, which I was sure were broken, but turns out, when I found them, they weren’t.

I got up, turned back in the direction I came from, saw the friend of the assailant crossing the street back to my side about block down, and thought, Oh Christ, just leave me alone! He started coming toward me. I held up my cell phone and shouted that I had called 911 and to come for it. The fact was, I had tried to dial 911 but my phone had clicked off in the fight because my thumb had covered the top button thing and when I tried to call it up I couldn’t get a screen. Frantic, I faked it. Then the “friend” of the assailant turned down a street corner too.

I huffed it back to the apartment where I was staying, angry and scared, and locked myself in once I got there, and tried to reach my friend Rick, whose phone was off because of the movie we’d gone to, and he’d forgotten to turn it back on. My arm, I realized only then, was beginning to swell and had stabbing pain going through it. I iced it and talked to my partner on the phone, and kept trying to call my friend Rick. I was sort of out of my head, afraid to leave the apartment at that point. I decided to wait until morning to get medical attention.

So I spent the night in a lot of pain, with my arm turning colors and swelling to a point where I thought the skin would burst and weird alien worms would swarm out of it. Then in the morning Rick got my messages and came to my place with a cab and took me to the emergency room. I have a fractured left humerus, right beneath the ball that locks into the shoulder socket. My arm is really crazily black, bruised from the fall it took for me.

I had to return home the very next day, and when I did, I went to get follow up care with an orthopedic trauma specialist. I’ll be in a sling for 4-6 weeks, and on some pain meds that are making me woozy. So while I’d like to respond to all of my friends individually, I hope you’ll understand that I can’t right now. I love you all to pieces, but it’s taken me forever to write this with one hand. I hope you understand.

I’m incredibly grateful for the outpouring of support in this time for me. I’m on an emotional rollercoaster, and I appreciate all of the kindness people have shown me in the wake of this event. Right now I’m trying to come to terms with the event beyond the event itself, and trying to stop thinking about all the pieces of that incident that fling themselves back into my vision at odd moments. It all feels a bit like a nightmare. I’ll try to be in touch as soon as I can. Thanks again for caring.

Until then, love to you all.

Where Thy Dark Eye Glances

This month brings out an interesting anthology from Lethe Press, edited by Steve Berman. Entitled Where Thy Dark Eye Glances, the anthology collects stories from writers who are engaging with the work of Edgar Allan Poe in a queer manner.

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The anthology is divided into sections that categorize the type of interplay you’ll see from the writers working with Poe’s stories and poetry: Poe the Man (the man himself as character), Poe’s Writing (retellings), and Reading Poe (stories in which reading Poe is integral to the plot or characters).

I have a story of my own in the Poe’s Writing section, (“For the Applause of Shadows”) retelling his famous doppelgänger story “William Wilson” from the point of view of the doppelgänger, which, in my version of things, isn’t a doppelgänger at all, but a real person with whom the William Wilson who narrated the original story has had a sexual relationship, and in an attempt to bury that relationship, murders him. It rewrites the original tale, which is almost always read as a story about a narcissist whose double, representing his conscience, haunts him for his bad deeds. I’ve literalized that haunting, and have hopefully added a different dimension to the story by reading it as a tale of spurned love and revenge.

The anthology has a lot of wonderful stories in it. Richard Bowes’ story, “Seven Days of Poe” has got to be one of his finest pieces of fiction to date, and I seriously hope readers seek the anthology out for this story alone, because it deserves to be read and to be awarded things for how good it is. Matthew Cheney appears with his own retelling of “William Wilson” that is so completely meta, I felt truly disembodied while reading it. And Steve Berman himself puts a really cool spin on Poe the man, especially facile with writing in a Victoriana manner, with “Poetaster”.

One of the very cool things about this anthology is that it’s actually a part of a kind of series. Lethe Press has previously published a similarly themed anthology of queered revisions called A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes, in 2011. And after this Poe anthology, Lethe will be releasing another Queering the Canon anthology that employs the Bram Stoker’s most famous creation, Dracula. That anthology, Suffered from the Night, is due out next month, and I’m happily reading a pre-release copy at the moment (stories by Livia Llewellyn, Laird Barron, and Lee Thomas all really excellent).

Talking with Steve Berman recently, he plans to continue the series with an anthology dedicated to Arthurian Legend. A Good Deal More Than a King should release in 2015, and I’m reallylooking forward to it.

Reviewing Reviews

I’ve been remiss in blogging all of the reviews that Before and Afterlives has brought in. And while reviews don’t always interest everyone, they usually interest the writer of a book. So either indulge me or flee as fast as you can! One only has a book come out every so often (at least if you write at my pace), so I’m trying to enjoy the first several months in the life of my newest.

Last month, Lambda Literary reviewed the collection, and said this:

Barzak has a talent for pulling you into a story within the first two or three paragraphs. All writers strive to accomplish that, but few do with such regularity and finesse as Barzak. He weaves complex plotlines into a short space and brings to life an assortment of characters and personalities that each stand on their own as unique and believable, even amidst the supernatural hauntings.

– See the whole review by clicking here. 

Likewise the book lover Curt Jarrell had this to say:

Reading these tales is akin to consuming a literary banquet. You will be rewarded with the rich blend of fine, often lyrical writing, touches of the otherworldly (i.e. ghosts, mermaids, etc.), subtle plotting and characters you’ll identify with, people who will touch your heart. 

  The collection also contains a story I consider a masterpiece.Each detail, every word and description build images and emotions that linger in the mind and heart long after reading.

The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire” is a beautiful and terrible tale of a child born with a unique affliction. Easily the most lyrical of the collection, the story overflows with joy and sorrow, blood and laughter, love and loss. It is thought provoking and emotional. It reminded me of a story Flannery O’Connor might have written. I was dazzled, moved by it’s beauty and brought to tears at it’s conclusion. Wow!

You can read that entire review here.

And over at the Lit Pub, Eddy Rathke reviews the collection too:

Who is to say that the unreal and the real cannot inhabit the same pages? Barzak’s skill here is making a foundation in reality so solid and believable that when the world’s glimmering shifts fantastic you are so swept up in it that it had to be that way. His fiction does not contain magic and monsters to illustrate magic and monsters but to show how beautiful and unknown and haunting our world is. 

The entire review is readable by clicking here. 

Brit Mandelo at Tor.com reviews Before and Afterlives

And another great review for Before and Afterlives comes in. This one from Brit Mandelo at Tor.com. Brit takes the collection and analyzes it in depth, by way of three particular stories that display three very different styles or approaches I take in my writing. Being able to perceive something like that is particularly available for a reader to notice in a single author, full length collection that spans a decade of a writer’s stories. Which is why I love short story collections. There’s a breadth of vision to story collections, rather than the depth of the immersive experience novels tend to provide. 

In any case, here’s a bit of what Brit has to say. But you should really click over to read the entire piece:

“What We Know About the Lost Families of ——- House” is in the vein of a gothic. It has a haunted house, grim family secrets, incest, murder, and most of the other accoutrements. Barzak, though, takes the typical gothic and twists it by giving the narrative through a communal voice: a voice that represents the town itself, the people who make it up and who have observed ——- House’s history. In a move familiar from Barzak’s other stories, which are often densely and carefully constructed, this piece relies on strong, detail-oriented prose with an engaging voice; however, it also relies on the audience’s familiarity with the tropes of the genre to offer a different avenue of exploration.

The story is not told from the point of view of the young woman who marries into the House to communicate with its ghosts, as I’ve mentioned before, so it’s not a typical gothic. Moreover, and more interestingly, though the town’s communal narrative is concerned with rescuing her by the end and with telling us her story as if it’s tragic, it’s impossible to read it the way the townspeople want us to. Their patronizing tone, their willful ignorance and their excuses, render the reader unable to sympathize with their point of view entirely, so we cannot believe or support everything that they do or say. As with the underbelly of resentment, neighborly knowledge, and gossip in any small town, the town in which ——- House is located is conflicted, uneasy, and often judgmental. (Of course, considering the ending, they are perhaps not entirely wrong to want to burn the House to the ground.) This sense of play with form and with tropes is common to Barzak’s short fiction.

And, of course, so are the ghosts: Barzak’s fantastic work is often concerned with the strangeness that lies just outside of everyday life. In Before and Afterlives, as the title implies, there are many sorts of hauntings, not merely of houses and not all of them unpleasant. There is a resonance to these pieces about death and lingering, or about leaving and loss, or all of the above, that makes them quite memorable—just as much as the generic experimentation and the investment in telling different-but-familiar stories with rich characters and settings…

On the other hand, “Plenty” is a different sort of story, one that represents another thread in Barzak’s body of work. It’s set contemporarily, it deals with economic impoverishment, the decay of industrialism, and the fantastic alongside one another, and it offers—more than a plot, though it has one of those too—a developmental arc or moment in a person’s life. “Plenty” and other stories like it in this collection are, in a word, intimate. They are character driven, observational, and often the narrative arc serves a greater provocative emotional arc. In this piece, where friends come apart and together based on differences in their personalities and life choices, a fantastical table that makes feasts—but only for someone so generous as to want to give them away—helps the protagonist to see what he had been unable or unwilling to see about his good friend’s inner nature. The other man is able to reconsider his own distant friend’s apparent selfishness through his gift of the table, his willingness to part with it and to keep its secret for the betterment of the suffering community. (Put like that, it’s almost a parable.)

These characters and their realistic, unfortunate misunderstandings and misapprehensions are the focus of the tale. When Barzak is studying people, telling us their stories, his work is powerful; these stories incite a great deal of consideration about others, their needs, and the functions of living in a world where industrialism in the West is decaying and whole cities are ground under by poverty. Barzak’s background in an Ohio city of similar experience adds a distinct level of solidity to many of the stories set in or around that milieu, and offers the reader a glimpse into the sort of survival that those places require…

Before and Afterlives reveals a series of confluences and concerns in his short fiction, and as such, works remarkably well as a coherent collection. It’s a thoughtful, pleasant, and lingering sort of book: many stories, many lives, and many deaths to consider—as well as how these things, and the people that power them, intersect and reflect reality in a fantastical mirror.

James Sallis reviews Before and Afterlives

Something really amazing came in this week: a review of my collection by James Sallis, in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

When I say it’s something amazing, I mean it. Because, man, I have never read a review that was written so eloquently and with its own poetic energy to it like this one.

And on top of that, it’s a great review of my collection, bookended with reviews of Kij Johnson’s latest collection and George Saunders’. Great company to be in!

In any case, I received permission from the publisher to show a decent chunk of the review here on my blog. I’m still bright-eyed from reading a review like this, by someone who reads really closely. This excerpt is the main body of the review for my book, but there are other bits in the whole review, which I’ll link to once it goes up on the magazine’s website:

Boxes, black or not, come in every imaginable size and shape. And there’s that word again. Imaginable. Imagination. Image.

     “Lying here in this abandoned hotel, I have done it once again. Once every year or so, depending on my finances, I allow myself to die. […] Now comes the burning sensation of re-entry, a tingling sensation that grows to feel like fire. As I find myself returning to my body, every cell expands, flooding with electricity. […] I gasp for a first breath, then howl like a newborn. After this I can see the people who killed me hovering over my body, their oval faces peering down, curious, amazed.”

“A Resurrection Artist” is a story that wears its subtext like a second skin just beneath the first, something that might be said of many of the stories collected here in Before and Afterlives. Are they about haunted houses, the death of a classmate one hardly knew, a world in which mermaids wash up so regularly on the beach that the police have clear procedures to deal with them? Yes. But for all their high fantasy and somber tones, the stories speak clearly and directly about straightforward things — verities, daily struggles, and choices. Like going on.

     And they move, forever restless, forever reaching.

     He has a taste for blurriness, Christopher Barzak has said in interviews, for stories that change shape as you read them, for writing fiction that skates around various genres, sometimes going straight through their territories, other times just around the edges, and oftentimes starting out in one kind of story and ending up in another.

     “What We Know About the Lost Families of — House,” the social history of a haunted house, abounds with the stories of those who inhabited it and with finely wrought sentences such as “And Jonas’s father, the gun cracking his life open like a pocket watch, to let all of the time spill out of him.”

     Much as Kij Johnson’s “Fox Magic” led to her novel The Fox Woman, Barzak’s “Dead Boy Found” later grew up to become his novel One for Sorrow. Part coming-of-age story, part the portrait of a dissolving family, part ghost story, it recreates for us the far-reaching effect of a boy’s murder on a fifteen year-old classmate barely managing to hold himself together, tugged this way then that, in the flash and tamped-down fury he sees about him.

     Another begins, “There was once a boy who was born wrapped in barbed wire. The defect was noticed immediately after his birth, when the doctor had to snip the boy’s umbilical cord with wire cutters.”

     Like Kij Johnson’s, Christopher Barzak’s stories do not take the shapes we anticipate; they continuously mutate, changing as our eyes move down the page, as language doubles back to catch its breath, as a comma pauses to hook its tail into a sentence. And dense as they are — “Dead Boy Found” spins from a domestic argument to the mother’s paralysis in an auto accident, to discovery of the murdered child, to the haunting of the girl who found the body, to Adam’s own unsettling encounter with dead Jamie, then flashes forward to what his life will be — the stories unfold easily, nary a bump in the road.

     Determined that something undeniable and nontrivial will happen to the reader.

Kirkus reviews Before and Afterlives

A late but  better than never review from Kirkus Reviews came for Before and Afterlives at the tail end of last week. It’s a goodie. I’m happy. I can only post a couple of lines from the review without infringing on copyright stuff, lalala, so I’ll post two of my favorite lines here, and then link to the rest of it, which you can read at the site itself.

“The 17 stories collected here bring readers into worlds where mermaids beckon to the sea, where a boy wrapped in barbed wire becomes wrapped up in love, where the end of the world is just another way to find yourself, and where ordinary characters meet extraordinary circumstances. Barzak takes what readers know (or think they do) and skews the view, exposing a new side of reality. Fans of speculative fiction especially will enjoy this ride through the fantastic worlds Barzak conjures.”

Read the rest by clicking here.

Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter)

Today’s preview from Before and Afterlives is the opening of my story, “The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter,” which originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s a story about a young girl named Sylvie, who has a talent for manifesting ghosts around her, making them visible to others. And it’s about how her father, an out-of-work laborer, recently widowed, capitalizes on his daughter’s ability by becoming a ghost hunter. Set in Warren, Ohio, this is one my favorites of my “locally set” stories, because it features a scene at the Ghost Walk in Warren, an annual tour of the city’s historic district and mansions held in the month of October that I’ve like to go on for kicks since I was a teenager. Little did I know as a teenager that going on the Ghost Walk would give me a scene to write into a story fifteen or so years later.

Also, in case you’re not an Amazon.com shopper, Before and Afterlives is also now available at Barnes and Noble.com and Weightless Books.

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The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter

 

Syl-vie! Syl-vie! Syl-vie!” her father calls through the hallways of the house.  The ghost hunter’s beautiful daughter sighs, wipes a tear from the corner of her eye, looks out the cobwebbed window of the attic.  Sometimes it’s the basement, sometimes the attic.  Occasionally a house has a secret crawl space, and if she sensed it, she’d go there and wait with the creepy crawlies and spinning motes of dust.  Through the false eyes of the portrait of a lady with her toy poodle sitting on her lap, she’d watch her father negotiate the living room, the swathe of his flashlight cutting through the dark.  “Syl-vie! Syl-vie! Syl-vie!” he’ll call–always call–until the ghost hunter’s beautiful daughter finally says, “Here, Daddy.  I’m in here.”

“Sylvie,” he’ll ask, “my God, how do you do it?  Tell me how to find you.”

How does she do it?  If only Sylvie knew, she would try to stop it from happening.  The whispered calls, the bloody walls, the voice of a house, the way it told you how bad it was hurting.  If she could turn it off, she’d gladly do it.  She’s had enough of houses, their complaints, their listing, the wreckage of their histories.  If only she could be normal!

She peeked her head out the side of the false wall that time, waved, and he gasped.  “Clever girl!” he exclaimed a moment later, his shock fading, replaced by a grin.  He ambled over to put his arm around her and squeeze her affectionately while he admired the dark passage behind the deteriorating gaze of a two-hundred year old society woman and her once white poodle.

He calls now, too.  His voice comes from the floor below her.  Upstairs is where this house’s ghost lives, in the attic.  They are so dramatic, ghosts, thinks Sylvie.  If only they’d settle down, give up on whatever keeps them lingering, maybe their lives would get a little better.  No more moaning in pain, no more throwing things around in frustration.  No more struggling to get someone to notice you.  Give up, thinks the ghost hunter’s beautiful daughter.  Why don’t you just give up already!

“Here,” Sylvie whispers.  When her father calls again, she speaks louder.  “Here, Daddy!” she shouts.  “I’m up here.  In the attic.”

His feet thud on the pull-down steps until his head rises over the square Sylvie climbed through half an hour ago.  The ghost here hadn’t tried to hide from her like some.  She hates that, the way some shudder when they see her, wrinkle their noses, furrow their brows–the way they disdain her very presence, as if they are saying, You’re not who I was waiting for.  You’re not the one I want.  This ghost, though, had little expectations.  It had few conditions or requirements.  It was an old woman, and old women aren’t as picky as lost children, spurned lovers, old men whose sins were never forgiven, people who cannot bury hatchets, people who cannot bear to leave even after life has left them.

“Sylvie!” her father gasps.  “Oh my, Sylvie, what have you found?”

The ghost is barely holding itself together.  At first Sylvie wasn’t sure if it was even human.  It might have been some strange sort of animal.  She’s seen those before, though they’re rarer.  Afterwards, they don’t always know how to hold the shape they had in life.  The old woman is gaseous; she probably doesn’t even know what she’s doing in this attic.  Liquids are sorrowful, solids angry, throwing chairs and mirrors and lamps across rooms at their leisure.  Gases, often confused, are usually waiting for some sort of answer.  What is the question, though, Sylvie wonders.  What don’t you understand, old woman?

The ghost hunter nods at his daughter briefly when she doesn’t answer, then goes directly to the old woman’s figure in the corner.  The old woman turns to look at him.  Her face is misty.  Wisps of moisture trail in the air behind her when she turns too quickly.  She is like a finely composed hologram until she moves, revealing just how loosely she’s held together.  She looks past the ghost hunter, over his shoulder, to meet his daughter’s gaze.  Sylvie turns away from her to look back out the cobwebbed window.  A long, wide park of a yard rolls out and away, trees growing in copses, with a driveway unspooling down the middle of everything, leading out through the wrought iron fence to the tree-lined road.  This was her father’s favorite sort of grounds to hunt, his favorite kinds of ghosts lived in places like this, usually.  Sylvie can’t bear to look back at the old woman.  She knows what comes next.

There is the click, the sucking sound, the high moan of the old woman’s ghost, and then the silence ringing in the dusty attic.  Her father sniffs, coughs, clears his throat, and Sylvie knows it is okay to look now.  She turns to find him fiddling with his old Polaroid camera, pulling the film out and waving it in the air until it begins to develop.  “That’s a good one,” he says.  “Not the best, but not the worst either.”  The old woman’s ghost is gone.  He looks up and sees Sylvie watching him.  Blinks.  Sylvie blinks back.  “Thank you, sweetie,” he says.  Then:  “Come on now.  The Boardmans will be back shortly.  We should get going.”

*

     The road is gray, the tree trunks are gray, the sky is gray above her.  There are no discernible clouds, only drops of gray rain pattering down, speckling the windshield of her father’s car as they pull away, and further away, from the haunted mansion.  Sylvie remembers visiting the mansion once with her mother.  In October.  For Halloween.  The mansion, one of many, sat in the historic district of one of those small Midwestern cities in one of those states with an Indian name.  Each Halloween, members of the community theater hid among the mansions and family cemeteries of the historic district, buried themselves in orangey-red leaves, covered themselves in clothes from the previous century, adopted slightly archaic ways of speaking.  They were ghosts for an evening, telling stories to small groups of people–parents and children, gaggles of high school boys and girls who chuckled and made fun of their dramatic renditions–who had come on the Ghost Walk through the park and along the river, where once the people whose ghosts they now played actually had walked, loved, hated, drowned themselves out of unreciprocated affection, hid amongst the tombstones from abusive husbands, hung themselves before the police came to arrest them.  Her mother’s hand holding hers, how large and soft it was, moist, how her mother’s hand quickly squeezed hers whenever a ghost brought his or her story to a climax.  “This is it, Sylvie!” said her mother’s hand in that sudden squeeze.  “Something wonderful or terrible is going to happen!” the hand told her.

Out of those park-like promenades of oak and maple lined streets they drove, back into the center of their shabby little city.  Warren.  Named after the man who surveyed the area for the Connecticut Land Company that pioneered the Western Reserve, Sylvie had learned in Ohio History class only a week ago.  Before that, when someone said the name of the city, she had always thought of mazes and tunnels instead of a man who measured land.  She misses picturing those mazes, those tunnels.  Though the city is small, shrinking each year since steel left these valley people decades ago, it is tidy and neat, not maze-like at all.  It’s a city you could never get lost in.

Once past the downtown, on the other side of the city, the wrong side of the tracks but better than where they’d been living, her father likes to say, they stop at the Hot Dog Shoppe’s drive-thru window, order fries and chili cheese dogs for both of their lunches, then continue on to the house Sylvie’s father purchased several months ago.  “An upgrade, Sylvie,” he had said when he took her to the old brick Tudor with the ivy creeping up one of its walls.  Much better than the falling-down house where they’d lived when her mother was alive.  Sylvie still passed that house on her bus ride to and from school each day.  That house could barely hold itself up when they’d moved out last spring.  Now it really was falling down, leaning to one side unsteadily.  The windows had all been broken by vandals and thieves now, people looking for leftover valuables.  Not jewels or antique furniture.  Copper piping, aluminum window frames and siding–anything they could turn in for money.  They found nothing in that house, though.  Sylvie’s father had already stripped the place before others could get to it.

Inside he sits at the computer desk, as usual, one hand pressing the hot dog to his mouth, the other moving the mouse, clicking, opening e-mail.  They’d had a lot of work in the past year, after word spread that her father could truly rid homes of lingering spirits, temper-tantrum poltergeists and troublesome ghosts.  He’d built his own website after a while, and bought the new house.  He was going to give her a better life, he told her.  A better life than the one he’d had.  Sylvie wondered why he spoke as if his life was already over.  Her mother was dead.  Her father was alive despite his deathly self-description.  How could he not see the difference?

“Another one!” he shouts while chewing a bite of his chili dog.  He grabs the napkins Sylvie has placed beside the mouse pad and wipes away the sauce that dribbled out while he spoke.  “Listen to this, Sylvie.”

*

Dear Mr. Applegate,

     My husband and I have recently read in the newspaper about your ability to exorcise spirits.  Frankly, my husband thinks it is bullshit (his word) but for my sake he said he is willing to try anything.  You see, we have a sort of problem ghost in our home.  It was here before we were.  It’s the ghost of a child, a baby.  It cries and cries, and nothing we do stops it except when I sing it lullabies in what must have been the baby’s room at some point in this home’s history.  Sometimes we’ll find little hand prints in something I might spill on the floor–apple sauce, cake batter I might have slopped over while I wasn’t paying attention because I was on the phone with my mother or perhaps a friend.  If it were only the hand prints, I don’t think it would matter very much to us.  But the crying just goes on and on and it’s begun to drive a wedge between my husband and me.  He seems to be–well, I’m not sure how to put it.  He seems to be jealous of the baby ghost.  Probably because I sing it lullabies quite often.  At least four or five times a day.  Sometimes I worry about it, too, when I’m out shopping or seeing a movie with a friend or my mother, and I’ll think, How is that baby?  I hope the baby is all right without me.  I mean, it won’t stop crying for my husband even if he was at home.  The baby doesn’t like him.  And often he’ll leave and go to the bar down the road when that happens until I come home and sing it back to sleep.  We’re not rich people, though, Mr. Applegate.  And the prices I read on your website are a bit out of our range.  Would we be able to bargain?  I know it’s a lot to ask, considering the task, but as of now we could afford to pay you eight hundred dollars.  I wish it were more, but there it is.  You’re our only hope.  Would you help us?

Yours sincerely,

Mary Caldwell