(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)
By Camille DeAngelis, author of PETTY MAGIC
I’m addicted to ghost stories. You can write me the most delicious scary story ever and it still won’t satisfy me, because then you’ll have to write me another, and another, and…well, you see what I mean.
But when you love something you’re just dying to share it (sorry, couldn’t resist), so I offer you this list of Things to Do When You’re Dead: several marvelously creepy short stories, two books, and a podcast. For your instant gratification, all but the books are freely accessible online.
1. Steal a ripe young maiden and imprison her in your mausoleum.
“You visited the town of Rotterdam some four months ago, and then I saw in the church of St. Lawrence your niece, Rose Velderkaust. I desire to marry her, and if I satisfy you as to the fact that I am very wealthy—more wealthy than any husband you could dream of for her—I expect that you will forward my views to the utmost of your authority…”
Man, dead people can be really greedy—just ask the 19th-century gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu, author of “Schalken the Painter.” His wife, Susannah, succumbed to a fever a few weeks after her dead father paid her a visit in the middle of the night (read this excerpt from his biography for the full story). As an increasingly eccentric widower, Le Fanu’s Dublin neighbors called him “the invisible prince.”
(Oh, and if you’re in the mood for a good vampire story, read Le Fanu’s “Carmilla”; the story predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by twenty-five years, but it was ahead of its time for another reason: the vampire, a girl, doesn’t go for boys…)
2. Have a tipple on your grave.
Somehow this bottle of brandy, even under close observation by individuals posted at the grave, will disappear without a trace…
What’s a Halloween celebration without a dash of Poe? “Happy Birthday, Mr. Poe” ties into the mystery of the “Poe Toaster,” who (up until recently) left a bottle of brandy on Poe’s grave every January 19th. (This one’s from Castle of Spirits, a repository of true ghost stories. Read two more of my favorites here and here.)
3. Dance along a sea cliff under the stars.
(The following excerpt will make sense once you know that a killeen is a sort of cemetery in Ireland where stillborn and unbaptized babies are buried. The killeen in this story is situated too close to a sea cliff, and through coastal erosion the bones are falling into the water.)
“I’ll bet they’re happy when they’re washed up out of those graves. Imagine how they must feel when they get out of that cliff, when they feel the starlight and fresh air on their little skulls. I’d say they get a whole new lease of life. I’ll bet if you came down here some moonlight night you’d see them, all these little skeletons, jumping around and dancing and singing their little heads off. And then, just before sunrise, they run down to the waves and swim out to sea until their arms tire and they sink gladly down to the seabed…”
—from Mike McCormack’s Notes from a Coma (not a ghost story, but read it anyway!)
4. Wait for your one true love to be reincarnated…
“I wish,” I said, “oh, how I wish you were a woman and not a picture! Come down! Ah, come down!” I laughed at myself as I spoke; but even as I laughed, I held out my arms…
E. Nesbit is best known for her children’s novels, but her spooky stories (originally published as Grim Tales in 1893 and re-collected by Wordsworth Editions) are just exquisite. My favorite is “The Ebony Frame,” in which a young man who’s inherited his ancestral home discovers a pair of portraits in the attic: the man looks awfully like himself, and the lady is strangely familiar.
5. …or spend the rest of eternity with a man you never liked that much to begin with.
This was love, the thing she had never had, that she had dreamed of, hungered and thirsted for; but now she had it she was not satisfied. Always she looked for something just beyond it, some mystic, heavenly rapture, always beginning to come, that never came.
May Sinclair’s “Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched” follows the romantic disappointments of Harriot Leigh all the way into the afterlife, in which the roads of her youth always lead her back to the one thing she’d give anything to escape. It’s psychologically complex and beautifully written—the purgatory scenes are so vivid you have to stop and pinch yourself to be sure you aren’t dreaming.
6. Guard your ill-gotten treasure.
The repast was not sumptuous, but there was a bottle of old Lachryma Christi which he much recommended, and which the youth tasted with great satisfaction…
Catherine Crowe was one of the most celebrated writers of mid-19th-century Edinburgh, having published a collection of “true” ghost stories in The Night-Side of Nature. “The Italian’s Story” is charmingly framed as a tale of ancestral greed and redemption told to the author across the dinner-table. (Mrs. Crowe generated a strange story of her own when she ran through the streets of Edinburgh in her underclothes, perhaps convinced that no one could see her.)
7. Yell at your secretary.
Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death offers a fascinating history of the Societies for Psychical Research on both sides of the Atlantic. As you can see from the excerpt I posted on my blog, it really gets interesting when the researchers themselves start dying off…
8. Come home, smoke a pipe and play with your grandkids.
On episode 51 of Jim Harold’s Paranormal Podcast, the Irish folklorist and author Bob Curran tells of meeting an old man in a pub who swore his grandfather came back on All Hallows’ Eve to visit his family. I love Jim’s podcasts, and this is one of my favorite episodes.
9. Tell a friend, in not so many words, what happened to your body.
“I could tell you something about it, but the question is how much you’d believe, and whether you could restrain yourself from reporting it to the Society for Psychical Research…”
If I had to pick my very favorite ghost story, Willa Cather’s “The Affair at Grover Station” would be one of the few I couldn’t possibly choose between (see also #4). The pay-off arrives in a single detail, which may be why it’s so effective (and memorable).
10. Wallow in your existential angst. (You think life is rough? Wait ’til you’re dead!)
My aspect was a matter equally unthought of, for there were no mirrors in the castle, and I merely regarded myself by instinct as akin to the youthful figures I saw drawn and painted in the books. I felt conscious of youth because I remembered so little.
No list of this description would be complete without an entry from H.P. Lovecraft: “The Outsider.” He’s over the top, but sometimes that’s just the sort of story you’re looking for.
11. Rot. (Really, what else is there to do?)
“For God’s sake,” I cried, “do not go in there! Let us get out of this dreadful place!”
Ambrose Bierce, the American journalist who penned The Devil’s Dictionary, disappeared without a trace in Mexico in 1913. He wrote many excellent short stories—you may recall “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” from high school English class—and while this selection (“The Spook House”) isn’t technically a ghost story, the lack of any resolution or explanation makes it that much more disturbing.
Camille DeAngelis is the author of two adult fantasy novels—Mary Modern (2007) and Petty Magic: Being the Memoirs and Confessions of Miss Evelyn Harbinger, Temptress and Troublemaker (2010)–as well as a first-edition guidebook, Moon Ireland (2007). She is currently writing a novel for young adults.
Visit Camille online at camilledeangelis.com.
Follow @pettymagic on Twitter.