In this steampunk world, railroad cars are as tall as three-story buildings.
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey is not about ghosts or ghost stories but is instead about the places (houses, prisons, brothels, mental hospitals, parks, cemeteries, etc.) that have, for one reason or another, come to be thought of as haunted. This book doesn’t espouse a belief in ghosts or hauntings or a disbelief in them. When you read the book, you decide for yourself.
Most ghost stories are folklore, “urban legend,” or tall tales. They start with a grain of truth and go on from there to fantastic make-believe. But, no matter how implausible the stories are, people are willing to believe them without question because they affirm a belief that there is, indeed, life after death. When you hear a ghost story that begins with a tragedy, an unresolved and unavenged murder, it’s satisfying on a psychological level because it makes you feel good that such a terrible thing has happened to somebody else and not to you and, more importantly, it makes you glad you’re alive.
Ghost hunting has grown into an industry, popularized in part by “reality” shows on TV. People believe what they want to believe. If a person on TV is telling you convincingly that a house, a commercial building, park, or cemetery is haunted, you believe it because it’s so easy to believe. Why shouldn’t you believe? When somebody takes the time and effort to dig deeper into a ghost story, however, the truth is often uncovered, and the truth is not nearly as interesting or as much fun as the tall tale.
Sometimes a house or its owner need only be eccentric or unusual. Sarah Winchester (1840-1922) is a perfect example. As heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, she was fabulously wealthy. The Winchester repeating rifle was the gun that “won the West.” Sarah bought a house in San Jose, California, and began adding on to it and, once she got started, she added and added and added. The house was never finished but, by the time she died in 1922, she had 160 rooms, staircases that went nowhere, and other features that, over time, marked the house as “haunted”—haunted supposedly by all the people who were killed by the Winchester rifle. When people think of American haunted houses, the Winchester house in San Jose tops the list. Serious scientific investigation, however, has yet to uncover credible evidence of a single ghost at the Winchester house. People believe what they want to believe.
The house that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to write his 1851 gothic novel, The House of the Seven Gables, is in Salem, Massachusetts. The house still stands and is a tourist attraction. There’s no absolute proof that the house is haunted, although it very well could be if you go entirely on the way it looks. Inside the house is a “secret staircase” on which people claim to have experienced ghostly emanations. Nobody has ever seen an actual ghost in the house, though. Hawthorne didn’t think the staircase was important enough to include in his novel.
The Lemp family of St. Louis became wealthy from the manufacture of Falstaff beer in the 1890s. They had their brewing plant, and their residence, in South St. Louis. Underneath their property were vast natural caves in which they stored the beer before electronic refrigeration became common. As wealthy and successful as the Lemps were, they were also plagued with mental illness, which today might be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Several of the Lemps committed suicide. People believe the ghosts of the Lemps haunt the house, which is now a restaurant and a bed-and-breakfast. Employees at the restaurant claim to have seen spirits, or at least felt them. Teams of “ghost hunters” regularly inhabit the premises, looking for evidence of spirits that nobody else has been able to find. The vast brewery is also still standing but is mostly unused, except as a haunted Halloween attraction in October.
So, in addition to the Winchester house in San Jose, the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, and the Lemp house in St. Louis, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places takes us to a brothel in Nevada, an abandoned mental hospital in Maine, a plantation in Louisiana, a park in Portland, Oregon, that’s haunted by the ghost of a murdered fifteen-year-old girl, a house in New Orleans where slaves were mistreated, a prison in West Virginia where prisoners were starved and neglected, and from there to creepy Los Angeles hotels, where deceased stars still cavort, Civil War battlefields where many thousands of men died and on to Detroit, the once-thriving industrial hub of the U.S. that has its share of tragic ghost stories, most of them fabricated but still believed by people who are willing to believe what they choose to believe.
If you believe in ghosts, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places won’t get you to not believe in them, but the one thing the book does is to show that most ghost stories can be easily explained and debunked. The thing is, though, the truth is not nearly as compelling as the legend or the tall tale that, over time, has come to be accepted as the truth.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp
A Bird There Was ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
She sat on a bench at the edge of the park to rest before going on home. She was old and hot and out of breath and the bag of groceries she carried made her arm ache.
A small boy went running past, first one way and then the other. On the third circuit around the bench, she motioned him to stop.
“What’s your hurry?” she asked.
“I’ve got to find my friends.”
“Where did they go to?”
“I don’t know. They were here and now they’re gone.”
“You’re sweating and all out of breath. Why don’t you sit down and rest for a while?”
He sat beside her on the bench and when he had his back aligned with the back of the bench, his feet were a long way from the ground.
“You’re awful young to be out here in the park by yourself,” she said.
“I wasn’t by myself until my friends ran off and left me,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to them. I think they might be playing a trick on me.”
“If they treat you that way, you’re probably better off without them.”
“I guess I should go on home now.”
“Where do you live?”
“Over there.” He pointed over his shoulder in a vague direction.
“Where’s your mother?”
“She’s at work, I guess. She’s a waitress.”
“She’s leaves you by yourself?”
“With my sister. She’s fourteen.”
“How old are you?”
“Nine. But I’ll be ten pretty soon.”
“You’re a very pretty boy, you know that?”
“Boys can’t be pretty.”
“Well, you’re handsome then. Is that better?”
“What’s your name?”
“I’ve known a lot of Bobs in my life. Tell me your last name so I’ll able to tell you from all the others.”
“My last name is White.”
“Your name is Bob White?”
“There’s a bird called Bob White.”
“You don’t see them in the city, but where I grew up in the country we saw them all the time.”
“They say their name.”
“Their bird call. It sounds like they’re saying bobwhite, bobwhite, bobwhite. That’s how they get their name.”
“I never heard of a bird say its own name.”
“If you’re lucky, you’ll have a chance to see one and hear its beautiful call before you die. Until that happens, you will not have lived.”
“Do you have any kids?”
“I had a daughter and a son. My daughter died. My son lives out west.”
“What does he do out there?”
“Oh, he goes to work every day. He has three kids of his own. I’ve only seen pictures of them.”
“Why don’t you go live with them?”
She laughed. “I haven’t been asked.”
They sat silently for a while and watched the cars zooming by.
“Everybody certainly is in a big hurry today,” she said.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“Three more blocks and I’m home.”
“Do you live in a house?”
“No, it’s an apartment.”
“Do you like it?”
“I like it all right. It gets lonely at times. I used to be friendly with the neighbors but they moved away. I don’t hardly ever see the new people.”
“We live in an apartment, too. On the third floor.”
“Would you like to come home with me?” she asked. “Are you hungry?”
“I’d better not,” he said. “I’d get in trouble.”
“Well, who’s to know?”
He shrugged. “Nobody, I guess.”
“I have some nice cottage cheese and some canned pears. There’s nothing better on a hot day.”
“I haven’t ever had cottage cheese but I know what it is and I don’t think I’d like it.”
“Well, I have some baloney and cheese and I just brought some fresh bread. I could fix you a sandwich and I have some root beer.”
“Do you have mayonnaise to put on the sandwich?”
They stood up and began walking. He offered to carry her bag of groceries, but she felt restored now and wanted him to see that she could carry it on her own.
Her half-basement apartment was in an old thirteen-story apartment building that, in recent years, had fallen into disrepair. All the respectable people had left and been replaced by a different kind. She dug her key out of her purse, opened the door and stood aside to let Bob White go in before her.
“Wow, this is nice!” he said.
The front room was cool and dark. She opened the blinds and let in some cheerful slanting sunlight.
“You’ve got a piano!” he said. “Do you play songs on it?”
“I used to, but I’m out of practice now.”
He sat on the couch and bounced a few times. “Who are those people in the pictures?”
“It’s my husband and me when we were young and the other one is my mother and father and my two sisters and me.”
“Where do they live?”
“They’re all in heaven. Except for me.”
“What happened to them?”
“Oh, you know. Old age. People die. You’re too young to know about it yet.”
“Do you have a bird?” he asked, spying a bird cage sitting in the corner.
“I had a bird but he got old and died. I kept the cage because I thought I’d get another one someday.”
She went into the kitchen to put the groceries away and when she came back, Bob White was resting his head on the arm of the couch.
“It’s so quiet here,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind living here.”
“Is it noisy where you live?”
“The neighbors get into fights. One time the police came.”
“I bet the police made them quiet down, didn’t they?”
“Only for a day or two.”
“Not much you can do about it, I guess,” she said.
“Do you ever go to the circus?”
“Once, a long time ago. I remember the elephants because I saw them up close and afterwards they gave me nightmares.”
“What kind of nightmares?”
“They were chasing me and if I stopped running they’d trample me to death.”
“In the jungle?”
“I guess so. I don’t know where it was.”
“Did you ever go to the opera?”
“A long time ago. When I was younger.”
“What was it like?”
“I don’t seem to remember too much about it.”
“What time is it?”
“It’s two-thirty and then some.”
“I should probably go home now.”
“What about that baloney and cheese sandwich?”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot.”
“Aren’t you hungry?”
“Yeah, kind of hungry.”
She took Bob White into the kitchen and sat him down at her little white table with its red vinyl chairs.
“You have nice things,” he said.
“You like baloney?”
She made the sandwich, put it on a plate, gave him a knife and the jar of mayonnaise. While he was eating and, with her back to him, she took a bottle of root beer out of the refrigerator, poured it into a glass and set the glass in front of him.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Your mother taught you manners, I see. I like to see that in a young person.”
When he was finished with the sandwich and the root beer glass was empty, they went back into the living room.
“My friends are probably wondering what happened to me,” he said.
“They must not have been thinking of you at all if they ran off and left you.”
“Yeah. Serves them right, I guess.”
“I’m so glad I ran into you in the park today and we had a chance to get acquainted,” she said. “I don’t have many friends anymore.”
“What happened to them?”
“Oh, you know. They died or moved away. Nobody stays put for long in this world.”
“Is it all right if I lay down here?”
“Sure, if you want.”
“I feel sleepy.”
“Sure, go ahead and take yourself a little nap if you want.”
He slipped off his shoes and lay back on the couch with his head on the embroidered sofa cushion. She sat across from him in the rocking chair and rocked in time to his breathing.
When she was sure he was all the way asleep, she picked up the phone and dialed.
“Mr. Biesenbach?” she said quietly into the phone, holding the receiver in both hands. “Got one for you in the park today.”
She looked closely at Bob White to make sure he was still asleep and wasn’t hearing what she said. “No, it’s a boy this time and he’s just the prettiest little thing you ever saw. He has light-brown hair and hazel eyes and…what’s that? No, I don’t think he’s an orphan. He has a mother somewhere, but from what he said I don’t think she’s paying much attention. He didn’t say anything about a father. Father must be out of the picture. He has a sister who’s supposed to be watching him, but she’s only fourteen.”
She listened patiently to Mr. Biesenbach speak, keeping her eyes all the time on Bob White.
“No, no, no!” she said. “I don’t think anybody saw me, but you can never be too sure. People around here are nosy because they don’t have anything better to do. What’s that? No, I gave him a mild soporific in soda. It won’t last long, though, and when he wakes up he’ll want to go home. What’s that? No, he’s asleep, I said, on the couch in my apartment. What was that you said? No, you’re certainly going to want this one. He’s a real prize and you’ll see what I’m talking about the minute you lay eyes on him. He’s so cute and very, very sweet. As long as he’s treated right, he won’t give you or anybody else a bit of trouble. His kind comes along only rarely. Yes, Mr. Biesenbach. Yes, sir. And one other thing, sir, if I may take up one more minute of your time. I’m not going to let you stiff me on the price with this one. I’m taking a terrible chance every time I do this. If I’m ever caught, it’s the end for me. You only paid me two hundred for the last one. I’m going to have to have five hundred this time and when you see him you’ll know I deserve at least that much for finding him for you. Good. Good. I hope so. What’s that? No, no, I’ll wait right here for you. All you have to do is slip in the front door and carry him out to your truck. No, I think it’ll go smoothly as long as you get here as soon as you can, before he wakes up. No, sir, I don’t think it would do to wait until after dark. I don’t want to be responsible for keeping him here that long. Less than one hour, you think? Oh, that’s fine. I’ll be waiting right here for you by the door. To anybody who might be watching, you’re picking up some clothes I’m giving away to charity. It never hurts to have a story ready. Hah-hah-hah!”
She hung up the phone and sighed. Bob White stirred in his sleep but didn’t wake up. She sat watching him, barely moving, until, in no time at all, she heard the truck outside her door.
“Blessed are the pure of heart,” she said, “for they shall see God.”
She stood up and went to the door. She watched as Mr. Biesenbach backed the truck in as close to the door as he could get, cringing as his tires came near the flower bed. As he was stepping out of his truck, she turned and looked again at Bob White, still asleep on the couch, and she felt a twinge of sadness that she would never see him again in this life.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp