It’s that time again. Time to celebrate that thin veil between life and death, the living and the dead, the dead and the undead, ghosts and witches, tricks and treats, and writers like Alexia Gordon, award-winning author of the marvelously scary Gethsemane Brown series.
In celebration of Halloween–one of the most popular holidays of the book-buying year–Career Authors sat down with Alexia to talk about the mysterious art of writing ghost stories.
1) You write the fabulous Gethsemane Brown mystery series, which features an African-American classical musician for a sleuth, a charming if snarky ghost for a sidekick, and the eerie Irish countryside for a setting. How did you come up with this wonderful set-up for a series?
I need to work on a decent origin story. Truth is, the idea for Gethsemane Brown popped into my head. As an only child and extreme introvert, I tend to live in my head. I make up stories to entertain myself. I daydream in glorious technicolor with coherent plots and detailed dialog and edits. (A benefit of being a writer is that, “I think of story ideas for my novels,” sounds less unstable than, “I make up people in my head.”) Once upon a time (the beginning to all the best stories), I made up a tale of an African American musician who got stranded in Ireland and played her violin at an open mic night at a pub to win enough money to pay for overnight lodging.
I love ghost stories—I grew up on a steady diet of ghost stories, classic horror films, and 80s slasher flicks in addition to mystery (with film noir and sci fi/fantasy thrown in for variety) –and have always wanted to write one. So, when one of my instructors in the creative writing program I’d enrolled in (The Writer’s Path, SMU, Dallas, TX) gave the class ten minutes, on the clock, to come up with a story idea, the old daydream married up with a ghost story (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, specifically). I still had time on the clock and my brain said, “What if there was a dead body?” because my brain is like that, it adds a dead body to everything. So, the stranded musician and the ghost formed a ménage with a murdered corpse and, voila, Murder in G Major was born.
2) What ghost stories inspire you?
I’m inspired by the ghost stories of M.R. (Montague Rhodes) James. James, a medieval scholar, antiquarian, and Cambridge and Eton College provost, treated friends and favored students by telling them ghost stories on Christmas Eve (ghost stories being far more traditional to the season than Hallmark movies). Often thought of as the father of the “modern” ghost story, James rejected Gothic ghost story trappings and set his tales in contemporary (for him), realistic settings. Most of his protagonists are academics engaged in mundane academic pursuits who discover some object that unleashes a malevolent supernatural entity. The protagonist, if he survives the supernatural encounter, is changed by the experience and comes through less naïve–and arrogant—than he was when he started. The mundane, realistic setting makes the supernatural seem more terrifying in contrast.
James was a master of suggestion. He hints at the horror of the creature threatening the protagonist, implies sheer terror rather than rely on graphic descriptions of gore to frighten the reader. He gives you just enough to let your imagination take over and fill in the details that fit your own personal version of the Boogeyman. (The awesomely creepy movie, The Babadook, is a modern story that does this well. Stephen King’s short story, “The Boogeyman,” is another example. As is the 2018 Netflix film, Malevolent.) For a long time, I had to read “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” with my back against a wall so nothing could sneak up on me.
Side note: M.R. James’s ghost stories are even better if you listen to them. They’re meant to be read aloud. I don’t know if James read them aloud or recited them from memory but his listeners, gathered in some ancient British academic edifice as eerie as any campfire, heard him speak the stories. Hearing the stories amps up the creep factor. I recommend David Suchet’s narration of “O Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad,” available on Audible.
3) What mystery writers inspire you?
Agatha Christie and Rex Stout are my biggest inspirations. I’m old school when it comes to mysteries—the plot, the puzzle, matters just as much as the characters. I like mysteries where the protagonists spend the bulk of the story investigating the mystery, not fighting demons from their past (unless they’re fighting actual, supernatural demons) and spending pages and pages of internal dialog ruminating on how messed up their lives are. Christie’s and Stout’s series sleuths have quirks and have their ups and downs but, for the most part, they’re functional people navigating life without an overload of emotional baggage or backstory trauma.
In other words, they’re average people faced with the extraordinary situation of a murder. The way ordinary people deal with the unexpected and unusual, especially if it’s dangerous (murders, natural and manmade disasters, mistaken identity, espionage, rampaging animals, etc.), is a theme that fascinates me (probably why I like Alfred Hitchcock films). As a primary care physician, I met too many real-life dysfunctional people whose lives were irreparably damaged by their real-life traumas to enjoy that in my fiction. And pausing to yell at the page, “Get some therapy!” tends to take me out of the story. Also, Christie’s and Stout’s series sleuths are contentedly unmarried and child-free, a state of being I relate to.
Carolyn Keene (rather, the many writers who wrote under that pseudonym) is another inspiration. Nancy Drew (at least in the pre-1980s books. The 80s books were soap opera-ish Sweet Valley High derivatives. Ick. ) was a plucky, intrepid, independent “girl detective.” I like stories where the girl protagonist relies on her own wits, intelligence, and bravery to solve the puzzle and save herself, her friends, and the day.
4) Is your house haunted? Have you ever met a ghost?
No, my house isn’t haunted. At least, I’m pretty sure those noises I keep hearing are squirrels scampering and black walnuts from the neighbor’s tree hitting my roof. I’ve never met a ghost but my mother’s parents had paranormal experiences. Once, Granddad became unexpectedly violently ill at work and had to go home. It turned out a family member had died about the time he became ill. On another occasion, he heard chains dragging. There were no actual chains anywhere around. He later learned a family member had died around the time he heard the chains.
My grandmother, mother and aunt returned home from an outing one day. Grandma tried to open the door to their house but it wouldn’t budge. Being a smart, practical woman, she took her daughters and moved away from the house, assuming a burglar was inside and had barred the door. (Unlike in the movies, they did not “go in there.”) They waited until Granddad came home with a shotgun. No one left the house in the meantime. When Granddad got home, they tried the door again—and it swung open with no trouble at all.
There was one other experience. Granddad, who absolutely believed in ghosts, or haints, was coming home from someplace late at night. He was walking past the woods when he saw something white coming at him through the trees. He didn’t stick around to investigate; he knew it was a ghost so he started running and didn’t stop until he was safely home. The next day he went back to the woods—and found a white shirt caught on some branches. So, not a ghost after all.
5) Do you dress up for Halloween? Do you dress up Agatha the Cat?
No, I don’t dress up. Nor do I dress up Agatha. I’m not into costume parties and since I’m child-free, I don’t have to do the candy thing. And I’m not entirely sure Agatha wouldn’t stab me in my sleep if I made her wear a costume. My idea of Halloween fun is turning out the lights and watching a scary movie, like a 1980s slasher flick (the original Halloween or Friday the 13th are favorites) or The Haunting (the 1963 version, the only version worth watching, as far as I’m concerned. I like it even better than the Shirley Jackson book. There, I said it.)
6) Trick or treat?
Treat. All the treats for me.
7) Why Ireland?
I set my series in Ireland because I’m fascinated by Ireland—the people, the scenery, the whiskey, the legends, the culture—and because I needed a place where a ghost would seem rare and unusual but not beyond the realm of possibility. I wanted my main character to seem out of place, not the ghost.
8) You’re a connoisseur of whiskey and hats, which is as it should be. What do you recommend for this time of year?
Hat-wise, I recommend Fleur de Paris hats. Fleur de Paris is a custom millinery shop in New Orleans’s French Quarter. Each hat is a work of art. And they’re made to last. The first hat I bought there, back in 1987, looks as good as the sixth, which I bought in 2018.
Thank you, Alexia Gordon! Thank you for your time, and your Gethsemane Brown series.
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