Friday, November 14, 2008

Haunting Good Reads

(First of all, before I get started: everyone go over to Ian’s blog and wish him a happy birthday in his comments today. He deserves it, even if he never posts anymore.)

I’ve mentioned in prior posts that, supposedly, a ghost wanders around in my house. Despite the fact that two people claim to have seen him, I really don’t believe this. I’ve been living in this house for over a year now, here all day and all night long when I’m not traveling for business. I’m an insomniac, which means there have been plenty of times that I’ve been up, doing my own wandering at 2:00 a.m. I’ve seen neither hide nor hair of the man who is supposed to climb the stairs in his night shirt.

However, I do believe he exists. He just doesn’t like to show himself. He is a bookish ghost who likes to steal from our collection. He’d probably go unnoticed by someone who had less of a literary obsession, but he has not escaped my keen senses. Last winter he both pissed me off and spooked me enough that I came truly to admire him. At the time, I was reading Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence. The copy we have of this book is an old, small, hardcover whose dust jacket must have bitten the dust long ago. I was reading it for the outmoded authors challenge, which meant I always had pencil in hand, so I could underline passages and take notes in the margins.

I was reading that book in our library one evening and set it down on the ottoman before going to bed (something I often do). When I came back down the next morning, both the book, and the pencil I was using to make my notes were gone. I searched all over the library for both. The blanket I keep on the chair was tossed over the ottoman, and in that desperate way I often do when looking for something I can’t find, I kept lifting up the blanket and looking under it for the book. Finally, I decided I must have been so tired that I’d taken the book off somewhere else, and I began to search other rooms, to no avail. During this search, in that other desperate way I so often do when I’ve lost something, I kept coming back to the library and looking under that blanket. Finally, I got fed up and threw the blanket off the ottoman as a reminder that absolutely nothing lay beneath it, that the book was nowhere in the library (I’d already taken both chairs apart, checking under and behind their cushions). I temporarily abandoned my search and went upstairs to start my work day.

Bob went off to the church to work. Around noon, I started getting hungry and ventured downstairs to pull together some lunch. For some reason, I decided to check the library again for the missing book. When I walked in, I was flabbergasted. The cushions on my chair were all in disarray, and both the book and the pencil were sitting on the ottoman. So happy to have found the book, at first I wasn’t too concerned about this weird turn of events. But then I thought about it for a while, immediately coming to the conclusion that Bob was playing some sort of trick on me, especially since we’d only recently been informed that we had a ghost in the house.

I called him at the church, but he promised me he had not been playing tricks on me. As a matter of fact, he got somewhat spooked himself and came home to check to make sure nothing was missing and that no one was in our house. How absurd was that? I’d been home all morning. I would have heard if anyone had been in the house. Besides, why would anyone breaking into our house decide to mess around with chair cushions and old copies of books by outmoded authors? I was still convinced he was playing a joke on me, doing a fine acting job, but when he seemed to be just as convinced that I must have somehow managed to miss the book earlier in the morning, I really did get a little spooked. I’d looked way too many times for it to have been there all along. I might have second-guessed myself if I hadn’t had the moment in which I'd thrown off the blanket, assuring that the ottoman was completely empty. It definitely had been a bookless ottoman when I’d gone to work that morning. I locked the basement and attic doors (because, you know, that will keep a ghost at bay) and went back to work.

That brings us to the second spooky book story. Last October, I decided I was going to read Ghost Story by Peter Straub as one of my “Halloween treats.” I happened to take a trip up to office headquarters just after I’d started reading it, and I had it with me. When I got home, I didn’t completely unpack my book bag and didn’t think about it, because I was busy reading something else at the time (probably The Moon and Sixpence). The next day, I went in search of it and couldn’t find it. I checked my (now empty) suitcase about ten times. I went through the contents of my book bag about a hundred times, and finally (sadly, because it had been such a good book) concluded that I must have left it somewhere. I figured I’d get another copy of it at some point, but I didn’t. Fast forward a couple of months to my next trip up to the office: I opened my suitcase to pack, and what did I find inside it? You guessed it. I tried to pick up where I’d left off, but couldn’t remember all the different characters, so just decided I’d save it for some other Halloween and start it all over.

So, September rolls around this year, and we’re headed up to spend the month in Maine. Bob’s looking for a good Halloween treat himself. I suggest he take Ghost Story, which has since managed to stay put on the shelf in the guest bedroom. He obliges, takes it along, starts it while we’re up there, and finishes it once we get back home. He loved it. He’s dying for me to read it. He tries to get me to take it with me when I head up to the office again in mid-October.

“No. That’s how it disappeared last time,” I tell him. “Besides, it’s pretty scary, and I don’t think I really want to be reading it when I’m all alone up there. It kind of got to me last year.” I left it behind and took my book about vampires (because, of course, that wasn’t likely to spook me in the least when I was all alone) instead. Once back home, and disappointed that the vampire book was good but not as scary as I’d expected when I started it, I told Bob it was time I found some fiction that would really scare me; I was in the mood. His response? Ghost Story, of course.

“Does it stay scary? Did it really, really spook you?” I wanted to know. He assured me it did, but he said Ramsey Campbell’s The Overnight was another good choice. Thus began the search for Ghost Story. Guess what. It was nowhere to be found. Nowhere, which made no sense. There are only about three different places Bob would ever leave a book after finishing it, and I knew I hadn’t picked it up and moved it at all. I looked, again, about a hundred times in those three different places: on or around his bedside table, on or around one of the chairs in the library, and on or around one of the chairs in the room we call the Santa Fe room. It wasn’t there. I started looking elsewhere: coffee tables, bookshelves, around my bedside table. It was definitely gone. I surmised that the ghost, for whatever reason, just didn’t want me to read that book.

About two weeks later, Bob found it on his bedside table. So, tell me: do you think the ghost is taking these books, reading them, and returning them? Or do you think I’m just under the influence of The Overnight (which is all about a haunted bookstore)? I say “yes” to the first question, “no” to the second, and raise my teacup to this very clever ghost, who obviously has good reading taste.


Anonymous said...

I like to think that the ghost is borrowing them and reading them. It gives me hope that there are books in the afterlife!

Emily Barton said...

Becky, yes I think I like the hope of books in the afterlife, too. Maybe he's coming and getting them from us, sharing them with others, having a good life at all we ignorant folks in this life, and then bringing them back. Wish he'd bring some back from the afterlife in exchange, though..

Anonymous said...

Your ghost is creeping me out! At least he seems to be friendly. I wonder what he thought of Ghost Story? And if I can be a ghost and still read books, I have to start working out how I can haunt the Library of Congress!

Rebecca H. said...

So how does it feel to have a readerly ghost in your house? Creepy at all, or fun, or just frustrating, since you have to spend all that time searching for books!

Emily Barton said...

Stef, oh yes. We'd better plan some sort of demise for ourselves at the LC, because that's where I want to hang out and steal books after I die.

Dorr, it's all 3: creepy, fun (I've been wondering if I ought to try baiting him with something), and very frustrating when I'm dying to read something and it's disappeared.