On this episode of Strange & Scary Story Talk I discuss Kelly Link’s, The Specialist’s Hat, a work that earned Link the World Fantasy Award in 1999. It is a literary mash-up of horror, fantasy and fairy-tale. Disturbing, strange and brilliant, The Specialist’s Hat is almost as fun to discuss as it is to read-and it calls to be read over and over and…
Tonight on Strange & Scary Story Talk I discuss Henry James’s exquisite short story, The Altar of the Dead. This beautiful and haunting tale is not only a meditation on death, betrayal, forgiveness and unconditional love, it is also a reflection of what haunted James himself at the time he wrote it. The Altar of the Dead demands careful reading, not because it is unnecessarily complex but because James was so generous in his crafting of the tale that you do not want to miss all he offers.
*Please note that James’s 1904 masterpiece was The Golden Bowl, not The Glass Bowl. Unfortunately by the time “glass” stumbled out of my mouth, it was too late to turn back.
Are you tired of saccharin-sweet made-for-TV Christmas movies? If so, do as the Victorians did and invite a few ghosts to your next holiday gathering, or at least fix yourself a cocktail or cup of tea and read a classic ghost tale where winter is bleak and death is serious business. This week on Strange & Scary Story Talk I discuss Elizabeth Gaskell’s THE OLD NURSE’S STORY, a gothic tale of jealousy, betrayal and terror.
Let’s resurrect the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. On this episode of STRANGE & SCARY STORY TALK, I discuss the long history of this tradition and explain why the Victorians took a particular interest in the dead and their relationship with the living. I also talk about why Christmas is the perfect time to welcome ghosts to our holiday celebrations.
This week on STRANGE & SCARY STORY TALK I discuss E. Nesbit’s ghost story-or should I say corpse story-In the Dark. Nesbit is best known as a British writer of children’s fiction. She channeled her darkness into her lesser known stories for adults. In this episode we also explore Nesbit’s demons, the infantilizing power of fear and the importance of the ghost story in helping us grapple with what most terrorizes us.
It’s Devil’s Night, Mischief Night, Halloween Eve, the perfect time to discuss one of the greatest scary, short stories ever written-Marghanita Laski’s THE TOWER! I do not understand why this story is not included in the short literary fiction canon along with Shirley Jackson’s THE LOTTERY and Flannery O’Connor’s A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND. Please check out the latest episode of STRANGE & SCARY STORY TALK, my YouTube channel where I discuss dark and twisted short fiction, and share your thoughts. Is this story as great as I think it is? Also, if you like what you see, be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode.
A short story by Heather Nanni
“Hannah,” my mother said, watching me through the rearview mirror. “Think of a name, but don’t tell me what it is. Okay? Did you think of one? Ready?” She waited a minute, glancing back at me and smiling, and then she said, “Blaire.”
I wondered how my mother did it. “Yes, Mommy! Yes! Yes! Do it again. Let’s play again.”
“Okay, Hannah, now remember not to tell me. And be sure not to move your lips. As a matter of fact, why don’t you look out the window? That way I can’t even see your face. All right. Think of a name.” She waited a moment. “Did you think of one? Are you ready?”
“Okay. Here goes.” She made her silly drumroll sound-the one I tried to mimic but couldn’t. “Cindy!”
“Mommy! How do you do that? Again! Again!”
And so the game continued, until my mother had enough. “All right, Hannah. That’s it. Mommy’s tired.”
“Mommy. How did you do it? Tell me how you did it? Is it magic?”
“Hannah, you know there’s no such thing as magic. I’m disappointed at you for even asking. It’s God’s special gift to me.”
“Mommy, do you think God will give me the gift too?”
“No Hannah. Like I said, it’s a special gift from God to me. You have gifts, right? Like the doll I gave you for your birthday? Did Mommy expect a doll too?”
“Well then you can’t expect this gift either.”
That’s how it started. I was six years old when Mom first played the game with me. And, although Mom told me I didn’t have her gift, once, when I was a few years older, I tried to see if she was right. We were having tea together and I said, “Mom, think of a name.”
“Why Hannah?” she asked.
“Because I want to see if I can do what you do.”
But, rather than think of a name, she reached across the table and slapped me in the face. “I told you already! That’s God’s gift to me. You greedy thing!” With that she threw my teacup against the wall, tea and ceramic pieces flying everywhere. After I cleaned the mess, she sent me to my room where I remained until the next morning when she took me to her minister so I could confess my sins. I was eight years old then, and it would be years before I tried my hand at mom’s gift again.
As I got older, mom developed her skills and expanded her repertoire. By the time I was about ten, she no longer limited herself to guessing names. She read my thoughts.
“Hannah, did you like the chicken Mommy made for dinner?
“Hannah, do you like Mommy’s new outfit?”
“Hannah, did you pay attention during today’s sermon?”
My answer was always, “Yes, Mommy,” and her response was invariably, “Oh Hannah. When will you ever stop lying?” Then she would continue with either a reprimand or a beating.
When I was a teenager, I realized my mother was paranoid.
“Hannah, did you tell Kathy about what happened here last night?”
Kathy was my best friend. Of course I told her about what happened the night before. How my mother rolled on the floor and begged God to expel the demons from our house. How she prayed over me, dragged me by the hair and locked me in my bedroom. My mother didn’t wait for me to answer. Instead she punched me on the side of my head and took me to her pastor’s office where they decided it was best to take my phone away and not allow me to see my friends any longer.
Being without friends or any life outside of school gave me a lot of time to study my mother. I learned the only thing that calmed her down after working herself into a frenzy was watching religious videos-mainly of zealot preachers yelling at congregations to repent. One night, she woke me from my sleep and yanked me out of bed. “Did you say your prayers?”
I hadn’t. I had fallen asleep. My mother raised her hand to strike me, and when she did I just closed my eyes and pictured her walking out of my room and going into the living room to watch a video. To my surprise, she lowered her arm and left, and, like a sinner’s sudden realization that Jesus is their Lord and Savior, it came to me-if I could hold a thought with an image rather than with words, my mother would receive the message without even realizing.
It took a lot of practice and a lot of beatings to perfect my skill. I started small-envisioning a roast chicken rather than asking my mother to make one. It was tricky though. If I allowed the words to slip in-I hope mom makes a roast chicken for dinner-she would hear them.
After about three months, I decided I could put my gift to good use and help my mother manage her meds. She took all sorts of pills-for arthritis, migraines, her heart condition. I got pretty good at visualizing her not taking some, taking too many of others, swallowing entire bottles. One day, in fact, I walked into her room and found her lying on the floor, an empty bottle of heart meds next to her. I never felt so strong in my life. I finally had God on my side.
Of course, I’m nothing like my mother. I would never abuse my gift. Anyway, I’ve got to go and take mom to day care now. She’s never been the same since her unfortunate incident with the pills. She really needs round-the-clock assistance. Looking at her through the rearview mirror, it’s hard to imagine the person she once was.
“Hey Mom. I have an idea. Let’s play a game.”
I believe that most artists have one question that drives their work. Through their craft they strive to find the answer or explanation to that singular uncertainty which haunts them.
Does God exist?
Does the devil?
Who is my father? My mother?
Am I a monster?
What did happen that night?
What is wrong with me?
What is wrong with the world? What did he mean when he said___________?
What did she mean?
Was it all a mistake?
Did I do the wrong thing?
Did I live the wrong life?
For me, I write to find the answer to this question: Is it real?
Is it real? Is his love real? Is her love? Is this person my loved one claims to be real? Was it all real, all those beliefs and principles? Are your feelings, your affections, real? Are mine? Are you real? The person you assure me you are, are you real? Is everything my life is built upon real? Is all I hold dear real? Is the deer I just saw in my lawn real? Is that color of my lawn, the verdant green of the grass, real? Is that black speck I see out of the corner of my eye real? Is something really there? Those voices I hear as I lie in bed, are those real? That person that I see standing in my doorway as I drift off to sleep real, is she real?
Is it real? This is the most terrifying of questions because it is followed by-if it is real, what then? And, if it is not real, what was it?
Is it real? The answer to this question can be the most assuring or terrorizing of responses, but, more frightening than the answer itself is the uncertainty which drives the question. The uncertainty of what truly is. The terror lies in the not knowing.
I wrote Fade Into Another Place as I witnessed my mother succumb to the horrors of dementia-a disease that damns its victims to an eternity unknowns. An eternity of wondering, is it real?
Fade Into Another Place
Out of the corner of my eye
It is black.
Perhaps a cat?
Not my cat.
He has long since departed.
who has found his way inside
this place where I reside.
Not too long ago,
I had a visit from a friend
who everyone tells me
has long been dead.
But oh so real
as we sat and had a cup of tea.
“Don’t you see?”
“She is here,
as plain as can be.”
Is it something that haunts this place?
as I sit
for another friend to arrive.
But, I know.
This is an empty place,
and I must journey alone.
No friends to accompany me
as I make my way
past faceless strangers who talk and whisper.
and I try to hear.
Will they confirm my deepest fear?
Their voices rise-
a cacophonous symphony
as they chatter
Silence is what I need
to concentrate and discern
what is real
and what is make believe.
And so I go
until I fade away
into another place
I will be young again.
Its a dank, gray Sunday here in New England, the perfect time to curl up with a collection of dark and twisted tales. If you want to set the mood for Halloween, The Cat in the Wall, my small book of short stories, is available in both ebook and paperback formats.
Two summers ago my daughter, who was almost nine years old at the time, and I visited Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts. The house was beautiful and impressive, but my daughter was frightened not only in the house but outside as well, even as we walked through the magnificent gardens that Wharton herself designed. My daughter said the property felt haunted and asked if we could leave.
I later learned that The Mount is in fact rumored to be haunted. Surprisingly, Wharton had a deep fear of ghosts, despite having been a talented ghost story writer. Some of her most popular ghostly tales are Afterward, The Lady Maid’s Bell and The Triumph of Night.
It was our visit to The Mount that inspired this poem, which I originally posted in August 2018.
Melancholy, Like an Old Empty House
So, this is what it feels like
Like an old, empty house
sitting atop a hill
on a hot summer day.
Inside, it is dead, silent, still.
Like a fever, the heat permeates the walls,
the film covered windows
the narrow stairwell-
meant for the unseen,
hiding under smiles.
Melancholy, like an old, empty house
where the sun emanates a jaundiced glow
and the dust and ghosts
sit at the table awaiting tea
to be poured into cups
stained with past regrets.
But the time to drink is over
and the thirst that remains
If you want to learn more about Wharton, The Mount and her story Pomegranate Seed, please check out this episode of Strange & Scary Story Talk. Also, please note that while recoding I inadvertently say that The Mount is set upon a 13 acre property rather than 113 acres!