FRIGHT TIME

The mail brought a brown envelope from an unknown name in New Jersey. I opened it up and out popped a book cover (just the paper cover) that was a little familiar: Fright Time was the headline, showing a boy and girl, faces somewhat scared, underground using a flashlight to light their way. Under the title were the names of three long stories (length of novellas) contained in the book: The White Phantom, Nightmare Neighbors, and Camp Fear.

I wrote The White Phantom. Long ago, circa 1993 or 1994.

A letter accompanying the book cover informed me that the writer, a young man in his 20s, was a huge fan of scary stories, and that one of his favorite stories when he was a child was The White Phantom. Recently, he reread the story and still loved it.

The footprints were big. Real big.

I noticed them right away because it rained last night. They were animal  prints in the hard mud, the biggest I’ve ever seen.

This is crazy, I thought. If I didn’t know better I could swear some gigantic animal had stood here last night and looked down at our house!

The young man asked me what was the inspiration behind the story. I stared at that sweet question and thought: I don’t know. I barely remember the story.

So I did what any forgetful author does, who gave away the last copy of her book ages ago: opened up Amazon, found the book, took a look inside, and found the above quotes. Also rediscovered the heroes, a plucky boy and girl (aren’t they always plucky?) named Andy Baker and Jenny Humphreys, a/k/a Shades on account of her sunglasses.

I was pretty sure the White Phantom was a gigantic dog (who else do I write about?), maybe inspired by The Hound of the Baskervilles (now that’s a scary story!), and I thought I remembered that it had something to do with the villages that had been destroyed to create an enormous reservoir in the valley below. At the time I was living in Woodstock, above the Ashokan Reservoir that feeds water to New York City, and villages were destroyed to create that Reservoir, just as villages were destroyed to create the nearby Quabbin that sends water to Boston.

But I was wrong.

“It’s a spirit,” she whispered. “A spirit that takes the shape of an enormous white dog. A monster. It protects the Indian burial grounds on the hills above the ridge. Years ago the Seneca Indians lived in this valley. They buried their dead in the hills right above us. The White Phantom protects the Indians who are buried there.”

I wrote about Indian burial grounds? Did I even know at that time that a more proper name was Native American? What on earth provoked me to write about that? Here I am, just four days away from leaving to South Dakota for our winter meeting to plan the summer’s Native American retreat, and I discover that some 26 years ago I wrote a story for young children about an enormous phantom dog that protects native burial grounds.

You can say it’s a cliché. You can wonder how deeply I delved into what burial grounds and ancestors mean to Native Americans. I wonder, too, because I no longer have the book and don’t remember what I wrote. Still, I believe in karma, not coincidences.

“Go figure,” Bernie liked to say. That was his favorite name for God: Go figure.

I was very moved by the letter that related to something from long ago. Back then, a close friend of mine and a very fine writer had been approached to write long mystery/fright stories for a series of books aimed at young teenage boys, around 12 years of age. He wrote one, submitted it to editor Rochelle Larkin, who didn’t like it and suggested revisions. He refused.

“The thing writers have to do to make a buck,” he muttered to me on the phone. “Want to give it a shot?”

“I hate scary stories, I won’t read them,” I told him. “And I won’t get within two blocks of a horror movie, otherwise I can’t sleep the entire week.”

Maybe I  couldn’t read them, but I could write them. I needed the money, so I spoke to Rochelle, she explained what she wanted, and I sat down and wrote a novella-length story. She loved it, published it, then published about two or three more. I got so good at writing them I could finish one up in 3 weeks.

I finally stopped a couple of years later when I began to write Bearing Witness for Bernie. Speaking of fright stories!

Over the years, every once in a long while I get a letter from a young reader telling me how much he liked the story, and I’m moved. Not because of what it says about me, but because of what it says about readers and how we are all different and need different things.

My writer friend loved Japanese and Chinese-style stories, wrote accordingly, and rarely published. I was passionate about good writing. But many boys have read my Fright Time stories and written to tell me how much they loved them. And now a young man in his 20s reread what he loved as an adolescent and wrote:

“I was blown away by the plot and also by how much I felt I got to learn about Andy and Shades in just a short amount of pages. The imagery and detail also added to the suspense. Thank you for writing this story, it was (and still is) one of my favorite short stories. I would be honored if you could autograph the enclosed picture.”

The picture he sent was the cover I found in the envelope.