Happy Halloween! Of Ghosts and . . . Cats!

Tonight I will celebrate Halloween by revisiting that most classic of ghost stories, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.  Since The Philosopher teaches an evening class and I have the remote to myself, I will settle for a cinematic version of the gothic novel.  While there have been many film adaptations since the novel was first published in 1938, I like the one released by Mobil Masterpiece Theatre in 1997, starring Charles Dance, Diana Rigg, Emilia Fox, and Faye Dunaway.  Rebecca’s murderer literally “gets away with murder” in this version, which is an accurate acting out of the original story.  (In earlier performances, such as the one starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, Hollywood directors altered the plot so that no crime goes unpunished.  Evidently a keen sense of morality ruled on screen in the 1930s and 40s.)

 In Rebecca, the fabulously wealthy and handsome Maxim DeWinter brings his new bride home to the family estate of Manderley (situated on the romantic, wind-swept English coast, of course).  We never learn the new Mrs. DeWinter’s name, as her character is overshadowed by the lingering spirit of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife.  Rebecca is not a “ghost,” but rather an unseen presence, a memory that haunts Manderley and overlays the house with a foreboding sense of evil.  The new Mrs. DeWinter learns that Rebecca wasn’t who she seemed, and that her death was not an accident.  Only by discovering the truth of Rebecca’s life and death can Maxim and Mrs. DeWinter find happiness together.     

I find intriguing the idea of a person or event whose memory leaves such a strong imprint on those left behind that they must wrestle with a lingering darkness.  In my first novel, Shadows at Moose’s Run, thirty-year-old Maddie returns to her childhood home after the death of her mother, a Rebecca-like character whose shadow still lingers in the house, asking for a redemption that Maddie cannot give. 

But while Maddie’s mother remains an ominous presence, I do have a more humorous, ghostly cat in the novel!  In the following excerpt (which may or may not remain in the final draft), Maddie has moved back to Moose’s Run to take care of her widowed father.  She thinks she has seen the ghost of the family cat, although she wants to assume the specter is merely a trick of light and shadows.  Her new friend Jackson has set up his ghost-hunting equipment in hopes of finding something. 

My friends and family will recognize the four-legged friends that appear in this scene.  We really did have cat named Jackie (after Jackie Onassis Kennedy—you’ll have to ask The Toothfairy about that), and we did give the local wildlife the most peculiar names.  The Unabomber also makes an appearance—at least his cabin does.          

From Shadows at Moose’s Run, Chapter 17

             . . . Since Jackson installed the camera, I had checked it every morning, except for the previous two days.  Any appearance by the Ghost of Jackie, or other wayward spirits who happened to pass through, must have occurred sometime since Wednesday.

             I shuddered at the thought.  I had assumed that I would know if any ghostly visitors lingered at Moose’s Run, that I would feel something—a presence, a gentle breeze, or a movement of some kind.  Instead, I hadn’t sensed anything.  

            Jackson suggested we take the camera downstairs and hook it up to the large television.  “We might as well view it on the big screen,” he said. 

            I brought two mugs of tea and a plate of cookies, and we settled into the couch as if gearing up for the latest blockbuster. 

            Jackson groaned in disappointment at the beginning of the recording.  After several seconds of static, we watched a panorama of the living room, as seen from the corner where he had installed the camera.  A few uneventful minutes later, the image dissolved into more static.  

             We had almost given up hope of seeing anything more, when the panorama popped up again, and with it, a brief movement—a mere blip—in the lower left corner of the screen.  The picture dissolved into blurry black and white lines once again before the camera focused on another movement of something small and dark in front of the large glass door that slid open to the deck. 

             “There’s something there!”  Jackson leaned forward to peer at the screen. 

              Despite my reluctant participation in our ghost-hunting experiment, I now felt compelled to stick around, as if watching a bad movie, if only to find out what would happen next. 

             After another few seconds of static, the living room came into focus, and this time the image remained fixed on the screen.  The strange movement began again as the small, dark object grew larger and more regular in its movements.  It resembled a branch of one of the small ponderosas, waved up and down in front of the glass by an invisible hand. 

            As we continued to watch, the branch transformed into a network of branches, and then, the profile of a pointed face came into view—black button nose with deep-set nostrils, a white furry chin, large dark eyes, and finally, pointed ears surrounded by tufts of fur.

            “It’s Boy!”  I exclaimed. 

             The deer walked into full view of the camera, his antlers bobbing as he ambled towards the branches of one of the pines hanging over the deck and nuzzled them with his nose and mouth. 

             “It’s a buck!”  Jackson’s eyes widened as he scratched his head in bewilderment. 

              “His name is Boy,” I explained.  “At least that’s what we call him.  He hangs out in the forest around the house—he has for years.  I didn’t realize he ever managed to get onto the top deck.” 

             “He’s probably looking for something to eat.” 

              “You could be right.  One of the vents from the kitchen lets out at the edge of the deck.”

            “It’s a buck,” he repeated in disbelief—and disappointment.  He hadn’t expected the camera to capture a living animal, instead of a dead one.

            We watched Boy as he sauntered across the deck and disappeared from view.  With his exist from the scene, the image on screen disintegrated into static. 

            I grabbed my cup of tea from the coffee table and sat back smugly into the cushions of the sofa.  “I guess the camera does work.  It just picked up the wrong visitor.”

            “Wait!”  Jackson had scooted to the edge of his seat and was staring at the television.  “What the hell?”

            I followed his eyes back to the screen, which showed the figure of a man, jumping up and down in front of the large glass doors.  With his striped pajamas and the hair sticking straight up from his head, he resembled an escapee from the padded room of a mental institution.  It was Dad. 

            I covered my mouth in embarrassment and glanced at Jackson out of the corner of one eye.  He was looking at me, eyebrows raised.

            “That’s Dad,” I said dryly. 

            Jackson’s mouth curved into a cheeky grin.

            Another figure came into view, a fat, cocky raccoon that trotted back and forth in front of the glass.  Dad was attempting to capture the black and white, whiskered face on his digital camera, and, in return, the animal seemed to be taunting Dad.

            “And that is O’Henry,” I sighed.  “O’Henrietta is probably somewhere in the background, watching from the woods—or else she’s nesting in Kaczynski’s cabin at the bottom of the hill.” 

             Jackson had leaned back into the sofa and crossed his arms over his chest as he studied me, a bemused smirk still lingering on his lips.  I had some explaining to do—about my eccentric family, both human and animal, that skulked around Moose’s Run in the middle of the night.

            “O’Henry?  O’Henrietta?” 

            “Those are the names my sister Cherise chose.  I think she named the male raccoon Henry because she thought it sounded funny, and then one day she was out in the forest and started calling, ‘O—Henry!’, and it just kind of stuck.  And what else would you call the wife of O’Henry, but O’Henrietta?” 

             Jackson was nodding his head slowly, taking in both the action on the screen and my strange explanations.  “And Kaczynski—the Unabomber?  Where does he figure into all of this?”

            “There’s an old abandoned shed at the bottom of the driveway.  A neighbor up the canyon uses it to store gardening equipment.  We think it might have been an outhouse a long time ago.  When Cherise would misbehave, my mother would threaten to send her down there to live.  My mother always called it Kaczynski’s cabin.  I don’t know why.  I think she and Cherise saw an article about the Unabomber in the newspaper and thought the cabin would be the kind of place where he would hide out.” 

            Jackson was still shaking his head when the final image of Dad, on hands and knees with his nose pressed to the glass as he baited the raccoon, disappeared from the screen and the recording stopped.  Both Dad and raccoon had moved outside of the camera’s range of detection.  I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard any commotion during the night.  Either I had slept soundly, or Dad had been unusually quiet.

            “I suppose you can’t make the camera more selective in the images it records,” I asked.

            “Fortunately, no.”

            “Fortunately?”

            “You have to admit, this stuff is much more entertaining that a recording of a mere ghost.”  Jackson looked far more elated than if we had seen the Ghost of Jackie as clear as day on the recording. 

            “Okay, so you probably think my entire family is certifiable.” 

            He chuckled.  “Just about.” 

            I sighed in exasperation.  “But have you at least had enough ghost hunting now?” 

             “Absolutely not.  I think we should keep trying.  We know that the camera works, and that there’s a significant amount of activity around here in the middle of the night.” 

            “Then I should at least warn Dad.  Tell him that any midnight antics will be recorded for all to see.” 

            “Not on your life.”  Jackson’s eyes flickered with amusement.  He was enjoying this way too much. 

              “I suppose things like this offer good opportunities for blackmail,” I said, “—if I ever needed to resort to such a thing in the future.”

               “Now you’re talking.”                                                         

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Stuck in the cornfields . . .

My husband used to eat well.  Very well.  Boursin-stuffed chicken breasts, Julia Child’s roasted chicken with tarragon, and tilapia in a delicate lime-butter sauce.  All washed down by some lovely vintage courtesy of our membership to the Wine of the Month Club, a wedding gift from a friend.

And then . . . I started to write.

Six months after the wedding, we packed up our earthly possessions, including one disgruntled cat, and moved to a small town in the Midwest so that husband could begin a graduate program in philosophy.  After giving up a high-paying career, the Colorado mountains I loved, and close proximity to friends and family, I ended up in—yes, you guessed it—a cornfield.  Oh, the things we do for love. 

So there I was, a childless, over-educated, career-focused women in her thirties, stuck in a less-than-inspiring, pink-collar job in a town where the only thing to do was join the local book club—a book club where professors’ wives drank too much Cabernet while discussing the remodels of their cute Victorians, the new first-grade teacher, and their dislike of that scene in Audrey Niffengger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife where Henry licks Claire before she steps into the tub. 

My ultra-trendy, cosmopolitan sister, already an accomplished dentist at the age of twenty-six, saw the probability of despair before I did. 

“Why is he taking you out there”?  She tossed her blond curls, fresh from a salon appointment on Boston’s fashionable Newberry Street.  “What on earth are you going to do out in the cornfields?”

As usual, The Philosopher didn’t miss a beat.  “I can think of lots of things I’d like to do to your sister in a corn field,” he told her.  Despite the tweed, The Philosopher is a red-blooded male who possesses a unique talent for irritating The Tooth Fairy.

I had always wanted to be a writer.  Since reading Jane Eyre at the age of thirteen, a series of outlandishly romantic plots had run through my head like a collection of bad screenplays.  I was too chicken to apply for Mary Gordon’s creative writing seminar at Barnard College because the application required a writing sample.  While in graduate school in my twenties, I penned a young adult novel and showed it to an editor—who promptly crushed my enthusiasm.  “That’s not how you write,” she said with the kind of bluntness one encounters in New York.  I had written the only way I knew how—like Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and Charlotte Bronte—all rolled up in one.  It seemed, however, that the Victorians were out, and chick-lit a la Bridget Jones was in.  Who knew?  I threw my precious manuscript in a drawer and did my best to forget about it.  After all, I had a dissertation to write, men to date, and a career to launch.

But holed-up in a two-bedroom apartment on the edge of the cornfield, bored and on a grad student budget, the stories returned in vivid technicolor, along with the irresistible urge to write them down.  After all, I wanted something to show for The Philosopher’s six years of graduate school—something that I had accomplished, something all mine. 

So I began to write. 

The Philosopher was supportive.  In fact, he told me that I was good—but that I treated my writing like a hobby, and if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to write more.  That was his mistake. 

I began to write—everyday.  I snuck out of work early, walked down the street to my favorite coffee shop with the loose-leaf tea and chocolate-chip scones, and wrote for two hours before heading home.  On the weekends, two hours would stretch into four and five.  After a few years, I had a 200,000 word manuscript, which, I later learned, was much too long for a work of commercial fiction.  Only J.K. Rowling and Diana Gabaldon can get away with something that big.    

And so . . . instead of Boursin-stuffed chicken breasts, The Philosopher ate rubber chicken, stewed too long in the crockpot.  And frozen pizza.  And mac n’ cheese with some Kielbasa thrown in—his own creation.  The time and creative energy I once poured into cooking elaborate meals went into developing scintillating plots worthy of a re-make of Dynasty, complete with strong-minded heroines and sexy heroes.

Along the way, I began to assemble a repertoire of fast, easy, and inexpensive recipes—tasty and nutritious dishes that I could throw together after an eight-hour work day and a two-hour stint of writing.  When I discovered I had an intolerance to gluten, the recipes evolved to include different ingredients and techniques.

I’d love to share those recipes with my readers, and, because the last thing cyberspace needs is another food blog, I want to write about other things too—books, the art of writing, and becoming a novelist.  This blog is for readers, writers, and eaters—in short, anyone who has a passion for food and books.

I’ll be looking for guest bloggers, so let me know if you’re interested. 

Stay tuned, and let’s have some fun together . . .

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