by K.M. Zahrt
It’s never too early to start getting ready for Halloween. Okay, okay. You’re right. Anytime before October is probably too early, but there’s no restrictions on ghost stories.
Michigan has a rich history and tradition of producing great writers and stories. A great place to look for them is at the local university press. Way back, ages and ages ago, in a different place (okay, the same place) in a different time (2011), when the world was old and decrepit and falling apart one floorboard at a time, there was published a book containing 12 Michigan ghosts — twelve eerie, looming, sometimes-helpful, and sometimes-jovial ghosts. Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them, edited by Keith Taylor & Laura Kasischke, was published by the Made in Michigan Writers Series at Wayne State University Press in 2011.
Ghost Writers is a fine collection of short stories from some of the most noteworthy authors to ever hold up the Mitten Map and point to their home. Speaking of the Mitten Map, in the introduction to the book, “Preface: Grim Reader,” the editors state: “We recognized a need to tell the [ghost] story and our own desire to listen to it. Then we realized something else. Many of the ghost stories we knew–either the ones told around campfires or those collected in volumes, whether intended for a popular audience or for an audience that considered itself literary–were centered on a particular place. A house, often an old house with a long family history. A park or field. A particular town. The ghosts either inhabited these places or were desperately trying to get back to them. And we lived in Michigan, so many of our ghostly references were entirely local” ( p.VII).
The first ghost story I remember being told fits the above description. I was sitting around a campfire in P.J. Hoffmaster State Park in Muskegon, Michigan. It went something like this:
Two men were chopping firewood in the nearby forest. Some of the logs were resisting their fate, so George, who took great pride in the strength of his large, steady hands, would hold the rebel logs upright and still, so Chip, who took great pride in his accuracy with an ax, could split them. Something went wrong. Did George slip? Did Chip miss? We’ll never know, but what we do know is that Chip chopped George’s hand clean off at the wrist. Blood gushed all over the woods as Chip tried to haul George to help. But poor George didn’t make it. He died somewhere out there in those woods. And that’s not all. The hand was never to be found. The locals believe that hand is still out there, haunted by George’s ghost.
At that point, the storyteller, or a previously recruited assistant, would run their hands up the back of the nearest kid, and hysterics would ensue. Classic. Here’s the eeriest picture of the woods at Hoffmaster State Park I could find:
I can see the hand scampering across that walkway in the dark, can’t you? I, like the editors above, can’t resist a good ghost story, so here’s what I propose: let’s write and read Michigan ghost stories in October. To get us started, let’s use a creative writing exercise that I’m going to call “First Sentence Forward.” I’ll give you a starting sentence, and you take it forward. We’ll use the first sentence from Nicholas Delbanco’s “Pier Road” from this collection:
Some years ago [insert name or names] bought a home in western Michigan, just north of the Indiana border.
Using this sentence, write a ghost story in 500 words or less and submit it to email@example.com, and we’ll enjoy them throughout October. To further give you some inspiration and wiggle room with your story, here’s the editors on ghosts: “The dictionary tells us that ghost can refer to anything of which there is only a hint, a suggestion, a vestige, a trace–the ghost of a smile… the ghost of a chance… the ghost pain felt in the limb after its amputation… But the Germanic geist is a cognate of the word guest” (p.IX).
Go forth and tell your ghost story. I’ll post my version of this First Sentence Forward on Michiganders Post next Friday.