distraction no.99

Nova Ren Suma | On Writing & Writing Distractions

Not an Author Newsletter… something else.

Guest Post: A Ghost Story from Nina LaCour

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

By Nina LaCour, author of HOLD STILL

I teach high school part-time, and one of the classes I teach is Gothic Literature to juniors and seniors. Early in the semester, I give my students an assignment to bring in a scary story. We close the curtains and light candles in these bronze and glass candlesticks I found at a flea market, and we go around the table and tell our stories. There’s a story I always tell. Like any good ghost story, it happened a few years ago to a friend of a friend of a friend of mine’s ex-girlfriend. (That sounds like a joke but it’s true.)

It was college, and this girl was sick of living in the dorms. All of those tiresome conversations. All of those people everywhere she went: in classes, in the laundry room, sleeping in beds across from hers. Even when showering, she was aware of all the other people showering on both sides of her. So, when spring break finally arrived, she decided to leave town and spend some time on her own.

She was going to school in Santa Cruz, a couple hours south of San Francisco, so she meandered up the coast in her handed-down little car, took hikes during the day, camped at night faraway from designated campsites so that she wouldn’t see anyone else and feel obligated to talk to them. She had a wonderful trip; it went exactly as she hoped it would. She drove along the stunning coastline and then cut inland, drove up into hills, got lost on purpose. She camped in a new place every night, and every day she took photographs of the landscape. She played her guitar and listened to how she sounded in the wind without other voices in the background.

When she had enough of solitude, she drove home to her parents’ house for the rest of the break. A couple days later, she remembered the photos she took, and brought her film to be dropped off at a one-hour lab. She picked them up that afternoon and, eager to see how they turned out, flipped through them in her car before leaving the parking lot. There was the shot of California coastline: jagged and blue. And there was the view from the hill she hiked up to camp. And there was a photo of her sleeping. There was the deer she saw the next morning, The towering redwood tree. And there was a photo of her sleeping. This pattern continued, and, to her growing horror, she found that there was a single photograph of her sleeping for every night she had traveled.

The details after this get fuzzy. All I know is that she was shaken. Actually, shaken isn’t the right word. She was traumatized. She didn’t know how this had happened, but she ruled out the possibility of someone following her. She was all alone the whole time. Sometimes she parked right next to where she camped, but most evenings she hiked in. If someone had followed, she would have known. That left two possibilities: either the supernatural was at work, or she had gone insane and had played a joke on herself, setting up her camera, pressing the timer, and then pretending to be asleep.

My friend doesn’t know what happened to her after that, except that her parents moved her stuff out of the dorms and, as far as he knows, she never went back to school.

(Illustrated by Robert Roxby)

Normally, I would leave the story there. But I tell this in class, and a big part of Gothic Lit is taking stories apart and discovering why they scare us. This incident contains a few gothic elements, but most prominently is the idea of sanity vs. madness. In the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s now obscure but once wildly popular The Castle of Otranto, when the characters encounter the supernatural they question their own sanity. This happens over and over—in the presence of ghosts and an animate skeleton and a portrait that cries blood—and each time the characters wonder whether what they are seeing is real or imagined. The question then becomes, Which is more frightening—to be faced with a supernatural (and often threatening) being, or to lose your mind?

To me, and the answer is different for everyone, but to me, the idea of that girl alone in the wild and completely insane, playing a sinister trick on herself, is one of the most chilling scenarios I can imagine.

I picture it like this: She hikes far out into the hills, where no one else is around. She eats her dinner of nuts and dried fruit and cheese. She lies on her back and watches the stars, and feels happy in the simplest, best way. And then she falls asleep, only to wake up hours later no longer herself. As someone else, she pulls out the camera. She sets it on her backpack, focuses on the spot where she had been sleeping. As someone else, she sets the timer, and climbs back into her sleeping bag, and feigns sleep, her mouth partly open, her eyelids closed and relaxed. After the shutter releases, she smiles, or maybe she laughs because no one is around to hear her. As someone else, she gets back up, puts the camera back where that other girl, her true self, had left it. She settles back into her sleeping bag, pleased with herself. In the morning, the girl wakes up from unbroken, blissfully solitary sleep, packs up her things, and begins her next day unaware of the other girl with her.

Nina LaCour is a high school English teacher and former bookseller. She is the author of the award-winning Hold Still. A San Francisco Bay Area native, Nina lives in Oakland, California. Her second novel, The Disenchantments, is coming out in February 2012 with Dutton Books.

Visit Nina online at ninalacour.com.

Follow @nina_lacour on Twitter.

Comment on this guest blog and you’ll gain an extra entry for the big Halloween giveaway on October 31, containing prize packs of signed books plus books and ARCs donated by my publisher Penguin Teen!  

You can keep track of all the “What Scares You?” guest blogs with this tag.

35 responses to “Guest Post: A Ghost Story from Nina LaCour”

  1. While I do wonder if she was followed, the idea that she was doing it herself is the creepiest thing there is. Makes me wondered what happened next.

  2. That story reminds me of Turn of the Screw, with the aspect of someone feeling completely sane but starting to question whether they really are or not.

    For some reason, something I could do to myself doesn’t creep me out nearly as much as ghost stories that contain ghosts or other malevolent spirits. I’ve seen too many things in my life.

  3. Yikes! If she was doing it her ‘sorta’ self, mabe it was that other self that hated all the ppl around at school and planted the whole ‘lets travel’ idea in the head. Or, it was paranormal…either way; wow!

  4. Great story…glad it didn’t happen to me!
    For me, the supernatural angle isn’t as scary as, say, some lunatic following the girl who is out camping by herself. Sometimes people can be more frightening than ghosts.

  5. I love that. It took me a bit to sort through the “friend of a friend of a friend’s ex-girlfriend” part though. Haha. 🙂

  6. This is so creepy! And it’s so . . . logical. Not logical in a logical way, but it makes sense that it could happen. Ah! True stories are better then fiction, no?

  7. Good story. This would be so scary to find all these pictures when she thought she was alone.

  8. I agree with you – the idea of losing my mind is far scarier than a supernatural explanation. I like the way you picture it. Very creepy!

  9. Super creepy – but I have to say, I find the idea that someone was following her, taking pictures of her every night, to be WAY WAY WAY creepier than the idea that she’s a little unhinged and doing it herself. Because ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? What kind of person would do that? And why? And what might they have done if she had spent just one more night out there? *shudders*

  10. Yeah, see, that kind of stuff is freaking to me. I don’t know what I’d do if I really found that kind of stuff on my camera, and there’s something to be said for film cameras because of it. With digital, you could flip through the pics any time and see it. Maybe even delete it in a moment of freaking out. That way, it’s just… there.

  11. Wow, so many comments! I’m so glad that you guys enjoyed it, or at least found it scary. It’s one of the scariest stories I’ve heard and I love that it manages to inspire such terror without any blood or physical violence. It’s all about the unknown. I love that.

  12. Super creepy, and as a Gothic literature aficionado, I LOVE that you brought up The Castle of Otranto. It’s definitely not all that scary to modern eyes, but Horace Walpole fascinates me. I mean, who really takes the time to transform their home into a Gothic castle anymore?

  13. I’m with Tiffany – except I’d have to say, “I’ll never begin camping”
    That type of solitude actually freaks me out – creepy picture or not. I’m far more comfortable in a dorm or apartment complex, surrounded by people, even if I’m not actually hanging out with them.

  14. I love that everyone is scared for different reasons. The scariest to me is the idea of a real person following her and taking pictures–because the kind of person who would do that…what else would they do?

  15. Your story was so creepy, I couldn’t sleep after I read it. I had to share it with my high school sophomores the next day at school – they LOVED it, too!

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