Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between

Real Weird

Halloween clip art

You think it’s hard explaining to Aunt Ermintrude why you read romance? Try telling anybody who isn’t a fan that you write fantasy. Regardless of gender or pay grade, their eyes immediately narrow to slits. “You don’t really believe that stuff?”

Do you?

The unspoken follow-up hangs in the air in all its italicized, accusative glory. You’d almost think they were frightened of something.

I usually answer with a smile and a little shrug. You see, I do.

Not all of it. I’ll pass on vampires, werewolves and the sexy shifters of urban fantasy. While I’ve known my share of bloodsuckers and leeches, I’ve never known anyone to sprout fangs without the help of good prosthetics. None of the wolves of my acquaintance grow extra hair on the night of the full moon, and forget the notion of a sexy dragon. I’ve been on the receiving end of dragon’s breath. It involved a near fatal dose of habanero peppers, quickly followed by other, less pleasant…outcomes.

But the rest of “that stuff”? Let me put it this way, I possess a rather limited imagination. If you read something truly weird in my fiction, chances are it happened to me.

Like the ghost cat that shares the house with my husband Greg, our corporeal cat and me. My Halloween freebie for the Samhellion recounts some of Ghost Kitty’s adventures, but I saved the creepiest one for you.

It happened several months after Our Most Benevolent Feline Overlord joined the family. His Benevolence likes to sleep in a bed warmed to the body heat of his human slaves and soon trained us to leave the bedroom door so he could move freely in the wee hours. I’d grown accustomed to the thump of a twelve-pound tom cat landing on the corner of the bed and stalking across the comforter, so I didn’t think anything of it one particular night when I felt the thump and the poke poke poke poke of little cat feet negotiating the covers. Then I looked up and noticed His Benevolence sitting on the threshold of the room and nothing sharing the bed with me. Nothing…unless you count the very visible, cat foot-sized depressions in the comforter.

I gulped. It’s one thing to know your house is haunted by a spectral cat. But. On. The. Bed. While you’re in it?!?!

Disgusted at his human’s cowardice, His Benevolence flicked his tail against the floor. He leapt onto the bed and padded to his customary spot at my side. Ghost Cat squished a little round by my feet, and there the three of us stayed until Greg joined us shortly before dawn. He tried to tell me I was dreaming, but I insisted he turn on the light. A cat-sized depression remained in the comforter by my feet, though the sense of a weighted body had dissipated.

The experience wasn’t a night terror. I was awake and mobile the whole time. In fact, I deliberately petted His Benevolence to prove I could. Plus, neither His Benevolence nor I could’ve smushed that particular spot in the covers without disarranging the rest of the bed. There was no chill, either. The temperature in the room never dropped, and once I got over my freak, there was no sense of menace. It was just…

Weird.

My novel-in-progress, tentatively titled Highway from Hell, features two other real weird personal experiences. Since they deal with the undead and shouldn’t-be-moving, they fit right in with a 21 century retelling of the myth of Eurydice trailing her rock star husband Orpheus out of hell.

If there is one constant in fantasy, horror and science fiction, it’s this: the only surefire method of killing a monster is to chop of its head. It works on anything with a body—vampire, werewolf, zombie, dragon, Cthulhu, Martian… Sometimes you have to find the right head to chop, or cut off several at once, but the principle remains. It even works with the Immortals of Highlander, and that franchise has more lives than Dracula and my ghost cat combined. Cut of its head and it’s dead, dead, dead.

Except when it’s not.

While strolling in my local park a couple years ago, I noticed what appeared to be a red-headed pigeon waddling purposefully down the path. The red that caught my eye wasn’t the wash-out, rusty red splotches you usually see on a piebald pigeon, but a real, honest-to-goodness scarlet. Blood red, if you will. Oooh, the shiny. Employing my best Elmer Fudd stealth technique, I sidled up for a closer look. I needn’t have bothered with the wery wery qwiet. The rich ruby color that caught my attention wasn’t a red-feathered head, it was the meat end of a severed neck. Kinda gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “bird brain”.

Dead bird walking isn’t as singular as you’d think. A rooster known as Mike the Headless Chicken survived eighteen months after losing his head. And he wasn’t the only one, though he was probably the only chicken to find himself more popular than a sitting president, which is a whole other level of weird in itself.

Then there’s the stuff that defies description or explanation, which appears to have no precedent in history or folklore and is, pardon my blanks, scary as –it.

My late writing partner Teri Smith was the Queen of Weird. If there was a ghost anywhere within five miles of her, it wouldn’t, ahem, rest until it came up to her and shook her hand all the way to the bones.

Like the time we were driving home from some late night sessions at Romance Writers of America’s 2000 convention at the Marriott in downtown Washington, DC. I’m what polite people refer to as “directionally challenged”, so it should come as no surprise that I managed to use a half tank of gas finding my way from Adams Morgan to I-95 South. In the process, I drove past nearly every haunted building in downtown DC.

Teri stopped being polite after the second face appeared at the window of a closed historical landmark. By the time Dolley Madison waved from the second story of the Cutts-Madison House, she was shielding her eyes and singing “La La La La” at the top of her not inconsiderable lungs. For months afterwards, she wouldn’t let me anywhere near a steering wheel unless she had personally verified the route on Mapquest, Yahoo and Google Maps, and researched the passage to ensure an accidental wrong turn wouldn’t land us in the middle of a Civil War battlefield or a spectral reenactment of the Lincoln assassination, complete with tri-state manhunt and John Wilkes Booth’s death scene.

I thought it was great. Having Teri triple-map all our destinations cut our travel time by half, and we usually managed to drive by a Starbucks along the way. Venti ice tea for the win! But good as the strategy was, it couldn’t cover every eventuality.

A few months later, a friend came to town to bury her aunt’s ashes in the family plot. After the Saturday afternoon ceremony, the friend and her family, Teri and I retired to Embassy Suites in Alexandria, Virginia, to honor the departed with reminisces and healing laughter. Again, Teri and I left late, well after midnight. But as with RWA, we expected a late drive and hadn’t drunk anything except water, tea or soft drinks since dinner.

The garage underneath the Embassy Suites wanted to be a labyrinth when it grew up, but it was well lit and Teri found the car pretty quickly. (Have I mentioned I’m directionally challenged? Rinse. Repeat. I have, word of honor, gotten lost in an elevator.) I even took the precaution of asking the night clerk at the front desk which exits we could use—in Teri’s hearing—so that we stood a decent chance of making it out of the underground before we had to be at work Monday morning.

Everything was proceeding according to plan, except for this weird echo we heard as we snaked through the levels to the nearest exit. It sounded like someone banging a hammer against a piece of sheet metal. But who’d be doing that after 1 a.m.?

It wasn’t somebody. It was something.

The sign over the exit we planned to use—a huge metal panel, four feet high and as wide as a traffic lane, suspended from chains as thick as my wrist—was jumping like a Jack Russell terrier after a treat. It wasn’t swaying back and forth or from side to side. It was shaking and shimmying, its left and right sides jerking upward in random patterns that set the chains clanging and the metal howling.

My first thought was earthquake. Earthquakes aren’t common in northern Virginia, but they do happen. But the building wasn’t shaking, only the sign. Meanwhile, Teri was wheezing a high, thin sound and trying to climb into the backseat without taking her eyes off the sign.

No way we were driving under that thing, even if it meant backing all the way through the labyrinth to the other end of the building. Fortunately, we weren’t far from the hotel’s lower lobby. I barely tapped the brakes before Teri was out of the car and pounding up the stairs to the hotel doors. She beat me inside by yards, and Teri was a large woman. She couldn’t move fast. But that night, she damn near flew.

While Teri gasped for breath beside me, I explained the situation to the night clerk. My description was a marvel of rationality. I elaborated on the dangers of metal fatigue, random air currents and potential structural instability. I invoked the insurance rates on my antiquated Chevy Cavalier. Not once did the faintest hint of anything paranormal or supernatural pass my lips. I didn’t spend all those years in government public relations for nothing.

Maybe she was just tired, but the night clerk looked bored. “The ___ Street exit, huh?”

I nodded. Teri nodded, too. She still couldn’t talk.

“Okay.” She pulled a paper ticket from a drawer. “This’ll get you out the monthly exit.”

I stared. The woman accepted my story so calmly and gave in so quickly, without once suggesting we pay extra. Had she heard it all before? How often did this happen? Teri, however, was completely focused on escape. Not trusting me to quit while we were ahead, she snatched the ticket out of the night clerk’s hand and dragged me back to the car.

By the next day, her curiosity exceeded mine. We spent the next two weeks scraping the Internet for any hint of the peculiar at the Embassy Suites. We never found anything, which means nothing in Alexandria. Founded in 1749, the only city in the United States to surrender twice to the British in the same day, the largest slave market north of New Orleans, the longest continuously occupied southern city in the Civil War—who knows what might’ve happened there, or when?

Maybe that’s why people are so unnerved by the idea of someone believing “that stuff”. City streets, suburban tract homes, parking lots—the most ordinary places in our lives are one small fright away from the uncanny. No matter where you live, you’re not alone. As mystery writer Ellen Byerrum’s husband says, “There’s something in the woods.” It’s big and it bites.

And after thousands of years of civilization, we still don’t know what it is.

(Originally published in the Samhain Publishing Blog, October 21, 2010.)