Monday, May 10, 2010

To Salem, With Love

So this weekend saw my sweetheart and me attending the Danvers Literary Festival in Danvers, MA at the gorgeous Peabody Institute Library as a Fantasy panelist along with these two lovely and talented ladies, Margaret Ronald (below) and N.K. Jemisin (above me). What a great panel and what a great day of talent! Thanks to Michelle (who fate directed me towards because of her blog, Tempting Persephone) for setting up such a lovely day at this lovely venue! With a hot-off-the-press book in my hand, I was there talking about The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker and fielding questions about the Strangely Beautiful series, (see me looking like I'm talking about something super important?) on craft, process, world-building and, of course, chatting a bit about the possibility of the Strangely Beautiful musical and what will happen next. The crowd was, as I hoped, fiercely intelligent but warmly friendly, our moderator was fabulous and it was such a delight.


I couldn’t be so close to Salem and not visit Salem. Truly, it would be criminal. Welcome to Salem, MA, land of the Puritans. Where this cheery guy here, Roger Conant, The First Settler of Salem in 1626 said: "Nope, I'm not going any further, screw you. Y'all can go elsewhere, I'm staying put." And Salem was born. Okay. Here's what he actually said (quoth the fancy plaque): “I was a means through grace assisting me to stop the flight of those few that then were here with me and that by my utter denial to go away with them who would have gone either for England or mostly for Virginia.” Them's plaque-makin' words right there, I tell ya. The sculpture makes him seem far more dynamic than his quotes.

So after the Literary events my beloved and I were dropped at the gorgeous Hawthorne Hotel - named for that beloved Salem son and famous author who I'll speak more of later, and set off exploring. To be very clear, I’m not interested in the sensationalism or the marketing of/obsession with the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, or identifying Salem only with that unfortunate few months in our nation's history, despite the fact that everywhere you look in Salem they've had to embrace it, from witches on broomstick icons on hair salons, police cars, schools, to even a bronze Bewitched statue. What I am interested in is not a false and material iconography of witches but I'm interested in the history itself. Because those trials had nothing to do with witchcraft and everything about politics, land, money, gender, power and the exercising of it. And, of course, what I am interested in is the ghosts. What’s as important to me as the knowledge of the history of a place is the energy I feel in it walking the land, streets and the buildings and meeting the people. After admiring our lodging for a bit, we of course, booked a Ghost Tour.

We looked for a ghost tour that focused on the historical aspects, not the hype. I believe in ghosts. I don’t need to be convinced, spooked, titillated or given a big production. What I appreciated about our awesome guide Tahra is how knowledgeable she was while knowing how to engage her audience and to make a tour fun as well as informative, without over-blowing the stories. A good ghost story needs no embellishment, its just a tale well told. The picture here is of the admittedly, totally creepy former Salem jail. (Now, of course, this is being turned into Condos. Have fun with those ghosts of the executed, folks!) If you go to Salem, find Tahra, she was great. Visit Salem Historical Tours. As a former tour guide myself, I’m telling you, take her tour. (And then, of course, tip her, she earns it and tour guides work hard). And let me tell you, Salem has some good ghost stories. So good I even have one of my own to tell. Seriously. Yes, for real. But more of that in a minute. Let me tell you about our lovely, sunny-if-not-quite-cold Sunday about Salem.

A primary mission in Salem was to pay homage to a wonderful writer, a pioneer of the Gothic novel and an influence of mine: Nathaniel Hawthorne. I was particularly charmed by our ghost tour guide Tahra showing us the “Grimshawe House” beside the town cemetery where he took down names for characters and where he began courting his future wife who lived in that house that would be immortalized, Sophia. (Seriously, how much do I love the graveyard courtship?) I visited the home where Hawthorne was born, learned about the room where he did much of his early writing, a place he called “the castle dismal” on Herbert Street, saw and explored the House of the Seven Gables (a side of which is pictured here) which he immortalized in his novel of that name, and generally soaked up as much as I could, gaining a new appreciation of a man I’d admired since high school when I read (and loved) The Scarlet Letter.

I did want to visit the Salem Witch Memorial that commemorates that time of horror and hysteria, politics, fabrications, human rights violations and all manner of wrongs against the innocent. Each name of the hanged victims (with the exception of Giles Corey who was pressed to his death beneath stones) are marked chronologically from Bridget Bishop in June of 1692 into September of that year, each victim marked on a separate bench. I was touched that on Mother's Day, many of the memorials had these little flowers bestowed upon them. The memorial is a sobering sight. The stone plaza is next to that town cemetery where Hawthorne courted Sophia and brainstormed ideas for his novels, and where I too took down some amazing, historic names for possible use in my fiction. I am nothing if not influenced by the actions of my predecessors. *s*

All right. So I suppose I owe you, dear reader, my ghost story. Now again, to be clear, I’m not interested in sensationalizing, especially since I write ghost stories and incorporate very famous ones into my Strangely Beautiful series - I take them seriously, but don't go overboard about them. I love hearing and telling ghost stories, I don’t necessarily need to see the ghosts to enjoy their tales and know they're out there somewhere. I’ve seen enough inexplicable things to be a believer, and so frankly I don’t find myself looking for paranormal experiences because I think that can be courting trouble if you encounter the wrong type of energy. I am of the opinion that if I’m meant to encounter something, I’m meant to. Looking too hard for things will only create falsehoods, tricks of the eye and wishful thinking. However Scandalous Women expert, award-winning blogger, author and dear friend Elizabeth K. Mahon did warn me the beautiful Hawthorne Hotel, built in 1925, was haunted, and my response, of course, was: “Cool!”

The haunting: 3am. Awoken in silence, groggy. Why I woke, I don’t know save that perhaps a shift in energy did so. I’ve always been a very light sleeper. The light within the room was pale and hazy from exterior street-lamps. I began to hear a noise. Faint, tinkling, a sparkling sound even. No footsteps, just the soft jingling, and it seemed to be in the hall. Like keys, I remember thinking. But there aren’t keys used for the rooms in the Hotel - there would have been when it was opened in the early 20th century - but now there are cards for the doors. And there was no room adjacent to us, should someone be jingling their keys, next door to us was the stairwell. As I was hearing this noise becoming more clear, there came a close and present scratch very near to me, a soft but distinct scrape directly above me, as if on the headboard, and the jingling stopped. I admit at that at that moment adrenaline kicked in, and my blood ran cold due to the proximity. Generally when I have seen or heard things, I’d prefer them to be a bit further away from me, to put a bit of distance between. These subtle goings on did not wake my beloved, and neither did I once silence again descended. I lay and contemplated it a bit, and wondered if I’d tell anyone. Then I thought; are you crazy, you write ghost stories, of course you should tell it!

As my darling Mulder would say, The Truth is Out There. And perhaps it might come and say hello. Perhaps some housekeeper or butler in the 1920s or 30s that likes to make his/her 3am rounds, passing through the doors those phantom keys seek to open. I totally recommend the Hawthorne, by the way, affordable and the staff were charming, the facilities lovely and its very conveniently located in the heart of Salem. The ghost (at least this friendly one, do be careful what you wish for as you cannot count on ghosts to all be benign) was just an extra perk.

T’was a lovely journey. Now on to the next: Next weekend? The Steampunk World’s Fair! If you’re in New Jersey, come visit my author Salon on Friday evening!

Don't forget to buy your copy of The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker and enter my contest! The more Shakespeare references you list, the more entries you get!

Happy Haunting!

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