Halloween Haunts: Setting the Record Straight–The Horror Writer as Truth-Seeker by David Sakmyster
Sometimes horror writers have big egos. It goes with the territory: we are entrusted with the godlike power to instill fear, to make mere mortals quake with terror, or at the very least, be too afraid to sleep without the light on. It’s a noble profession stretching back to ancient days of bedtime tales by firelight while real terrors prowled around in the night. But sometimes, as a writer you find yourself faced with a greater calling. A chance to couple your talents with all those skills you’ve learned at conferences, classes and organizations like the HWA, to promote and publicize the fruits of your work in support of a different sort of venture.
This year, like every year around Halloween time since 1999, I like to go back to the scene of the crime – the one place in the world where I can actually say I experienced a ghost sighting. It’s a place that would consume a year of my life, thrusting me headlong into manic and obsessive research culminating in the uncovering of a great secret and righting a 100-year-old misconstruction.
At an overnight stay at the Belhurst Castle, a landmark hotel and restaurant in upstate New York, I saw an apparition. I won’t go into all the details, but this eerie woman in white made an impression. Apart from the sheer fright and ensuing sleeplessness I experienced, I also sensed something more – longing, sadness and tragedy all rolled into one. And in the next few weeks, as I learned more about the history of the castle, I found that people have been seeing this ghost for over a hundred years (along with many other supernatural events and sightings). There was even a legend about her – a fanciful yarn about doom-struck lovers fleeing from Spanish mercenaries, all the way across the ocean; they settled here for a time until they were found out, and the woman (an opera singer) tragically met her end in the tunnels beneath the hills as they tried to escape. Of course, they say her spirit still roams the grounds, seeking her lost lover.
However, this being the only sighting I’ve had in my otherwise-skeptical existence, and me being a writer of supernatural tales, I felt something stronger at work. I felt that the story everyone related about this opera singer didn’t feel right. And more, I wondered if perhaps the ghost had appeared to me for another reason; that maybe, like they say of many of those who refuse to move on, she had unfinished business here and needed some help from the living. And maybe (ego stirring), I was just the guy to do it.
Fast forward a year. A year of traveling back and forth 50 miles to my house. Many, many hours sifting through old land deeds, cemetery records, ship manifests, building permits and land grants, microfilm and newspaper articles… Interviewing workers and previous owners of the castle, learning that the land had a mysterious mansion on the property before the castle, one owned by a bitter and reclusive hermit, and before that the property had been a sacred Indian burial ground (of course). But then I turned my focus to the eccentric woman who had built the castle in 1888 and lived there until her death. Everything I discovered ultimately found its way into a book I felt I had to write. A book setting the record straight, an unraveling of this great mystery, revealing the former romanticized story to be a stark embellishment, a confused mixture of various half-truths. I believe that because I was a writer drawn to the supernatural and because I had the ability and the time (thanks to an obsessive and unhealthy lack of sleep), I was able to reveal who might really be haunting the castle. Sometimes, especially on these return visits, I believe I was meant to do this, to clear up the error so that the hundreds of thousands of people who visit annually can find out who it was that really loved the castle and made it her own – and who wishes to remain there at least in some way, if only in the minds of those who come to visit.
They’re selling the book now in the castle’s gift shop, and I’ve given many talks there and in the town, written follow-ups and done interviews. The word is getting out. And maybe, because I haven’t seen her since, I did what she wanted and she can be at peace, her story told.
At least, that’s what I like to tell myself. That way I can feel I didn’t completely waste a year where I could have been writing more fiction or watching a lot more TV. And every once in a while, when I go to an old house or pass an ancient graveyard, especially around Halloween, I wonder – what other secrets are out there, and are there other restless souls hoping for someone to make their stories known?
If so, maybe you’re the ones to write them. Stay open to the possibilities.
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Dave Sakmyster is offering copies of four books: The Belhurst Story, Twilight of the Fifth Sun, Crescent Lake, and The Writers of the Future, Vol. 22, which features one of his short horror stories. To enter post a comment in the section below or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and put HH CONTEST ENTRY in the header. Winners will be chosen at random and notified by e-mail.
DAVID SAKMYSTER’S stories, screenplays and novels cross a range of genres and include the supernatural thriller Blindspots, the horrifying Crescent Lake, the historical epic, Silver and Gold, and The Morpheus Initiative – a series about psychic archaeologists (including The Pharos Objective, The Mongol Objective and The Cydonia Objective). With author Steven Savile, he’s co-writing a thrilling series about near death experiences called The Lazarus Initiative, and his screenplay, Nightwatchers, has just been optioned. His website is http://www.sakmyster.com.