Touching Ghosts is the fourth in a series of fire-themed posts about passion, illness, identity, and adventure, in celebration of the forthcoming new adult series, MADDIE AFLAME! from Go Deeper’s BENT imprint. You can find the first post here and an excerpt from MADDIE AFLAME! here.
I was a Brit immigrant who had just split up with my spouse when I first encountered a ghost. I was at the living room table in my new, shared house at the time, while my roommates (most of whom I hardly knew, back then) were out. There I sat, weeping into my hands. How would I pay my rent? How would I tell my family I was now single? How would I manage to stay in this country, which had now become my home?
Alone was the word that came as I wept: I am so alone.
As soon as I’d thought the words, my laptop switched itself on, opened up my iTunes library and started to play Frank Sinatra’s Me and My Shadow entirely of its own accord. (If you don’t know the song, the lyrics can be summed up as, “You are never alone because you’ve always got your shadow with you.”)
Now, my late father was a fan of Frank Sinatra, and this was about the most fitting song he could have chosen at that moment. I have no proof that it was Dad’s spirit that turned the song on, but I firmly believe it was. When I tell the story, people often say, “Oh my God, how eerie!” But you know, as I explained when talking about this on the Anaïs Nin Podcast with Paul Herron, it wasn’t eerie at the time. It was warm and reassuring.
You are not alone.
It strikes me as interesting that ghosts are often portrayed as cold, icy, unsettling, and predatory. As the opposite of warmth and the open hearth. The opposite of comfort. When I started writing Maddie Aflame! I knew the storyline had to feature ghosts. In the book, ghosts who have appeared suddenly, roaming the streets and arriving in the bedrooms of their living loved ones — ghosts that society has to somehow accept — have brought with them a whole new world for reasons the humans don’t yet understand. Some of the ghosts are eerie, while others are comforting, and this comes across in how these ghosts affect the atmosphere — chilling or warm, threatening or freeing. What’s more, in Maddie’s world there is a type of ghost that is icy cold and seemingly heartless. Such spirits are called The Ice Ghosts.
When you have to conquer Ice Ghosts, it turns out, Maddie’s fiery illness, Combustion Syndrome, can prove as helpful as it is frightening….
There is sexual fire in Maddie Aflame! too. In Maddie’s world, spirits can have sex with both spirits and humans. I’ve long believed that sexuality transcends the mortal plane, and I’m certainly not alone. (Take a look at this article on ghost sex, for instance, which includes Patti Negri, a worldwide expert on ghost sex. There are many people and fiction writers who adore ghost sex too.) Sex is something that can feel so intimate and powerful — or indeed, so destructive and frightening — that I can’t think it would end with the body. That said, sex between spirits must be something very different. Though I’ve struggled to work out how or where, I think I once heard Caroline Myss saying that what many spirits miss most is the human ability to touch. That makes sense to me.
I write on. I experiment. Still the ghosts come.
From my current draft, for instance, here is Maddie’s Mum:
Ahead of me, her body transparent, her ghostly features clearer than any other I’d witnessed, floated Mum. She was wearing her favorite daisy-print summer dress, but her bare legs were pale, fading down into nothing—no ankles, no feet, just an unfinished picture. She was holding out her palms and saying, Don’t be scared, darling! I felt her words with my mind rather than my ears, but the voice was definitely hers.
I stood there, frozen, my breath catching. How deeply I’d hoped to see Mum again like this! How often I’d dreamed that she’d come to me! “Mum?” I said, amazed, pulse racing in my ears. “Mum, is that really you?”
She was nodding frantically, her hands outstretched as if reaching for mine. It is, darling, it is! Like the other ghosts I’d come across, her voice seemed strangely distant, as if she was calling to me from the other side of the room. When I tried to let her take my hand, my fingers passed right straight through hers, meeting the sensation of warm, humid air like that of a tropical greenhouse. On the TV I’d heard a scientist say ghosts were made of vapors, and suddenly that made absolute sense.
We stood there facing each other in the darkness for a good few moments, her swimming blue eyes only slightly blurrier than the eyes of a living woman. Her wavy, fox-brown hair cascaded out behind her as if it were floating in the ocean’s depths.
“You’re so clear,” I said. “How come you’re so clear?”
I’m clear for you because I’m only here for you, she said. You’re the whole reason I’ve come.
In Maddie’s world, all ghosts communicate telepathically. In fact, that’s how mediums like the amazing James Van Praagh teach us spirits communicate in real life. (Check out this video for a taste of his mediumship.) Actually, I myself experienced a mediumship reading a few years ago, in which one of my own memories proved powerful. The night before the session, I’d been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer — the episode when Buffy and Dawn’s mom is in hospital and they fear she’s going to die. Teenage Dawn (the younger of the two sisters) is left by herself in front of a carousel, feeling she has been abandoned by everyone including Buffy and her mom. That night, as I watched the episode (one I knew very well) I felt a sudden grief. You see, when I was younger, my mother was in hospital for quite frightening reasons, and my father, without meaning to, shut me out of the experience because he was so scared. I was left alone, fearful and lost, as if sitting by that carousel like Dawn.
So, in the mediumship session, the medium was telling me things that proved she was genuinely in touch with my Dad. (For instance, she told me the name of my mother, my partner, and our dog within about the first sixty seconds!) But at one point during the reading, she suddenly stopped and looked at me, confused. “What does ‘carousel’ mean?” she asked. “Why does your father keep showing me a carousel?”
I shed a tear, I admit. I knew it was my father’s way of saying, “I see your pain and I’m so sorry I left you alone.”
Something just as miraculous happened at Christmas, as it happens. I’d been thinking about Dad, the medium and the carousel for days, when mother handed me an old photo of herself with my father. Amazingly, the shot had been taken when my parents were much younger and had been on holiday with my uncle in France. In the pic, they’re standing together in front of…you’ve guessed it…a carousel.
The photo was Dad’s Christmas present, it seems.
Our experiences of spirits in real life and those we write in novels can be very different, of course. But one thing I know: spirit doesn’t have to be all about coldness. Far from it. The comfort of the log fire, the beauty of the firework, and the passion of twin flames … And in my work, I’ll bring this wherever I can.
But we all have to overcome ice in our lives, right? That’s how heroes are so often born and tested. So, long live “eerie”! I’ll be bringing that too….