So we were chatting on a writing forum about “hooks”–the things you’re supposed to have that make the reader keep reading–and about hooks that were clearly over the top and existed just as an attention grab, and somebody tossed out “It was the day my grandmother exploded” as an example and then I was off and running and I haven’t got any idea what this is at all, so don’t get attached (and don’t tell me I said that about Digger!) because I think this is probably just weird flash fiction and not the start of a messed up urban fantasy.
It was the day my grandmother exploded. Also the day of her eighteenth wedding.
Mom always said she’d get into trouble, carrying on with men like she did, but Gran liked men and men liked Gran. Problem was that she was a staunch Catholic and did not hold with foolin’ around outside of marriage, so she dragged each one to the altar, sometimes a couple of times each. (She wasn’t so good about divorcing them, but our parish priest had a soft spot for Gran and generally fudged the paperwork.)
The husbands were generally pretty good-natured about it–Gran being well-endowed in the charm department–but the last fellow was a small-time hit-man from Pittsburgh and it turned out his business associates weren’t so good natured. I wouldn’t think you could wire a bomb to a wedding cake, but mysterious are the ways of The Lord. Or the mob, anyhow.
The explosion was so loud it shorted out Uncle Willy’s hearing aid and he kept saying “What? What? Is it the militias?” while bits of Gran, hit-man, wedding cake, and a discount wedding singer rained through the VFW dance hall. I turned to run, and that’s when I saw the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life.
She was short and well put together and had dark hair and a diamond stud in her ear. More importantly, she was not a relative.
My heart leapt. I won’t swear that wasn’t the adrenaline.
We took shelter under a table together.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Jack, short for Jacqueline, never Jackie. I believe I am passionately in love with you, although it could be that things are blowing up, and I’m not good at telling the difference.”
“What is going on?!” she yelled.
I looked over my shoulder. The table full of presents erupted in a sheet of flame.
“They’ve booby-trapped the presents,” I said.
(I should have known. The table had been nearly full, and nobody sends that many presents to an eighteenth wedding. The family had been pretty well tapped out by the time Gran hit double digits.)
Uncle Willy grabbed my shoulder and shouted something about ‘them’ coming through the windows, which wasn’t likely because there weren’t any windows. The VFW was the local shelter in case of tornados or nuclear war. It was built out of cinderblocks and civic paranoia.
The beautiful girl looked around wildly. “Who’s doing this?”
“The mob, I think,” I said.
“The militias!” said Uncle Willy.
“How do we get out of here?”
“I’m not sure…”
“They’ve come with their ammo and their canned goods!”
“There must be a way out!”
“Well, we got in here somehow…”
“Years of canned goods,” Willy clarified. “They have to have enough canned goods each to survive a thousand days of darkness when the Antichrist comes.”
“Oh, is he here too?” I asked vaguely. Another present blew up, embedding a full set of wedding silver two inches into the top of our table.
“They think he is,” said Willy darkly. “They carry specially blessed bullets to shoot him and bring about the Rapture.”
“I always wondered how that worked…”
“Can you shoot the Antichrist?” asked the beautiful girl, sounding a trifle hysterical. I hoped she hadn’t come in with the wedding singer. That would be awkward.
“Only in the forehead,” said Willy. “Between the sixes. That’s what they say, anyway.”
“How do you know so much about militias, Uncle Willy?”
“I dated a woman. But she wanted to bring the canned goods to bed with her, and I drew the line. I respect your survivalism, I said, but I do not believe the love between a man and a woman and a half-ton of French-cut green beans is a wholesome love. And I stood by that.” He nodded firmly.
“You gotta draw the line somewhere,” I said.
“This is not normal,” said the beautiful girl, putting her head in her hands.
“Well, no,” I said. “It’s my family.”
She looked up at me with narrowed eyes. She was wearing a little bit of purple eyeshadow and there was a smudge on her cheek.
“I’m the normal one,” I said, and then the long fuse on the presents finally hit the end. A waffle-iron rose from the table, soaring like a stamped metal bird, and struck the light fixture. I put my arms around the new love of my life and the sparks rained down around us.
Mom eventually overturned the table to discover me with my head in Amanda’s hair (her name was Amanda.) Uncle Willy was composing a letter to the editor on the back of an envelope. She sent them both out to wait for the police, along with the other two dozen guests, and we went to the grim task of scraping up Gran and shoving most of her into Mom’s enormous handbag.
It wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted to do on a first date, and I did get Amanda’s number, so it all worked out for the best.
“Is this Gran or wedding singer?” I asked, holding up a squishy bit on the end of a dustpan.
“Is it wiggling?”
It was not. I dropped it again.
Sirens blared outside the hall. Mom shoved her handbag into my arms and said “Go. I’ll deal with them.”
I went. The handbag was fake alligator and weighed a ton, even without a dead maternal relation in it.
The VFW had a back door, and fortunately there were neither mobsters nor militias around it. I could have probably dealt with the mobsters, but I have never been tested against blessed bullets or cans of French-cut green beans, and I wasn’t in the mood to find out.
It was a short walk around the block, across the high school’s lawn, and onto our street. The handbag thumped against my ribs and I elbowed it. “Settle down in there.” It settled.
The house was unlocked and it is possible that a burglar might have been able to walk in, although I won’t swear to his mental state if he tried to walk out again. I opened the folding doors to the laundry nook, dumped the clothes from the washer into the dryer, and then emptied the handbag into the washer. Chapstick, three paperback romances, a set of keys and a water bottle fell out.
I shook the handbag, and Gran slid out with a wet thwuck! and landed in the washer. I closed the lid, started the water, and set a bulk bucket of detergent on top of it, then went to get more weight.
Two cinderblocks and an unabridged dictionary later, the lid was locked down tight. It still rattled occasionally when something slapped the underside, but it didn’t come loose. I started the dryer so we’d have clean towels afterward.
I wanted to call Amanda, but there was a lot of eldritch howling coming from the washing machine, and anyway, calling thirty minutes after our first meeting might come off as needy. We’d sort of been making out under the table, admittedly, but that was probably-going-to-die petting, and I wasn’t sure if that counted.
I hoped she’d want to talk to me again. We’d have the best meet-cute story ever. On the other hand, Uncle Willy and the exploding wedding cake. Also, she might know the wedding singer.
I did feel bad about the wedding singer. The hit-man had obviously made some bad life choices, but the singer’s only bad choice had been coming to Gran’s wedding. We’d have to see if he had any next of kin.
I decided to text Amanda, under the pretext of finding out if she’d gotten home okay.
About an hour went by, and the howling stopped. So did the thumping. Then Mom came home, looking tired.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“It’s fine,” she said. “A couple of eager deputies, but then Sheriff Eli showed up, and he soothed it all over.” (The family had an understanding with Sheriff Eli.)
“That’s good.” Amanda still hadn’t replied. Maybe her phone wasn’t charged. Maybe I was overthinking this.
“How is she?” asked Mom, pulling open the liquor cabinet.
“She hasn’t answered my text. I don’t want to send another one and look all desperate.”
“I mean your grandmother.”
“Oh. Done howling.”
Mom went over and knocked on the lid. There was a pause, then a knock in reply.
Mom did the first part of shave-and-a-haircut. The response came immediately.
“Good enough.” She stacked up the cinderblocks and the dictionary beside the washer and opened the lid.
“Did you have to use the washer?” asked Gran, standing up. “You know I hate that thing that sticks up in the middle. My back gets so cramped.”
“It’s easier to clean,” I said. “And there was a lot of your hit man in there with you.”
Gran sighed and dabbed her eyes. “Poor boy. He was just looking for a second chance.”
“He was sixty-seven. He told us he’d capped a guy last month.”
“He liked to keep his hand in.”
My phone buzzed. Home ok u?
It pained me that someone so beautiful could not type the word “you.” Still, love was patient, love was kind, love could overlook poor grammatical choices. Got home fine, I replied. Pretty wild day, huh?
“Put that thing down and help your grandmother,” ordered Mom.
I sighed. There are disadvantages to living at home after your first century. Everyone treats you like a kid. I helped Gran down from the washer.
“The dryer is a front-loader,” she said. “I can climb right out.”
“We have to pour all your water in by hand and scrub it down afterward, Gran. We can just set the washer to heavy load and it takes care of itself.”
“In my day, we had cauldrons for this sort of thing.”
“In your day, people lived in hide huts and prayed to the Mother of Serpents.”
“Nothing wrong with the Mother of Serpents, Jack. Could do with a bit more of it. Better neighbors than the Baptists, anyway. None of this parking-you-in on Wednesday nights. It was shameful what that nasty little Patrick man did to her, even if he was a saint.” (This was a sore spot with Gran, and had been for years. You can spot us on St. Patrick’s Day because no one in the family is wearing green.)
My pocket buzzed again. I handed Gran a bathrobe, made my excuses, and went to go see what sort of movies Amanda liked.
So MCA Hogarth and I were chatting about free time, and I said I believed in the ancient legends and then she drew us looking at a Free Time and then I drew another Free Time and then she drew a Deadline and then made the class Deadline Slayer and then since we were apparently making character classes anyway…
So we’re driving home from the Con Monday listening to podcasts, and one did a show on ghost stories. There were about five, as I recall, three of which were ridiculous, one of which was so-so, and one of which made me go “…huh. Okay, I could give you that one.”
(For the record, I don’t have much opinion on ghosts, which is maybe a little surprising, since I have so many opinions on so many other things. (I more or less want to pitch every ghost hunter show out the window while screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs, but it’s not the same thing.) I have strong opinions about gray aliens, conspiracies, and every form of cryptozoology but especially Bigfoot. But ghosts I am somewhat agnostic on, unless I am having a grim fit of skepticism when I attempt to disbelieve in the entire world.)
But it got me thinking about what constitutes a plausible ghost story. Not an “I totally believe in ghosts now!” story, but just…”I do not immediately roll my eyes and call you a lying liar that lies.” Obviously there’s some combination of factors that reads as “plausible” and some that immediately push it over into eye-rolling territory.
On a whim, I went over to one of the many send-us-your-real-ghost-story sites on the web, and this was very helpful, because it provided so many examples of implausible stories. You could run down the list muttering “Lying…deluded…hypnogogic hallucinations*…lying…dream…get the pipes checked…yeah, you inflicted that on yourself…hypnogogic hallucination…oh honey, you need a therapist in a big way.” (I am Judgy McJudgerson when it comes to ghost stories by anonymous posters. This is undoubtedly a character flaw.)
And I started working up a mental list of what I’d find plausible in a ghost story and what threw me out completely, and I’d be curious to hear yours. (If the answer is “Nothing, because ghosts aren’t real,” you are most likely right, but you won’t have much fun with this one.)
Frequently I found that what made something plausible was simply the narrator acting like a real person would act in those situations. Which may have some benefit for writing, somewhere down the road, or if I decide to make a living breaking into the lucrative world of telling ghost stories for no profit whatsoever.
An Incomplete List Which Probably Only Applies To Me:
POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: Any story that begins with “I’ve always been sensitive to spirits…” establishes you as a probably unreliable narrator who is going to assume ghosts before checking the pipes for air bubbles. (Sorry, them’s the breaks.) It is possible to come back from this one, but unlikely. If you then go to talk about guardian angels, we are done.
DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: Ouija boards. The minute the Ouija boards make an appearance, I check out mentally.
PLAUSIBLE: Trying to fix the supposed ghostly phenomena. “The cupboards kept swinging open, so we got new latches. The doors kept coming open so we replaced the hinges.” Even if it doesn’t help, I appreciate that you tried like a sensible person.
DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: Dripping blood. Yawn.
PLAUSIBLE: Banal hauntings. The really implausible ones are always big and dramatic. Something like “Bobby-pins kept showing up all over the house, which was weird because none of us used bobby-pins,” strikes me as a better detail.
DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: Unexplained phenomenon that I happen to know the explanation for. One ghost story I read had someone trying to blame a fairy ring on ghosts, and talking about seeing spiders of a species they didn’t know. Get a field-guide, people!
PLAUSIBLE: The ones that seem to be more “the world is stuck in a loop” than “something is purposeful here.” Like the Lutheran Ladies Bible Study met every Wednesday at eight for forty years in this room, so now that it’s been re-purposed for apartments, at 8 pm on Wednesday, the room suddenly smells like coffee. I’m surprisingly okay with that.
POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: Murder victims. Honestly, the minute you discover that somebody was murdered in the house, I get twice as skeptical. It’s a little too pat and ties things up too neatly. Real life doesn’t make for cohesive plotlines.
DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: “I woke up and felt like something was in the room with me.” This is the classic sleep paralysis intruder phenomenon, and can be filed under “brains are weird.” Also, “I felt like something was sitting on my chest and I couldn’t breathe,” aka the Hag. Brains do this, no ghosts required, and seeing it attributed to ghosts irks me.
POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: “And then I found an old photo album, and there was a picture of the ghost!” This is very likely a deal-breaker, since I’ll assume you saw the photos first and filled in the rest mentally, and anyway, it’s a little too horror-movie perfect. I’d be much more likely to accept “I found a photo album and there were photos of people. No, I couldn’t pick out the ghost. Photography from that era was primitive at best and anyway “zippy blur at around ankle level” doesn’t photograph well.”
PLAUSIBLE: Lack of malice. I have a much easier time believing in ghosts that aren’t vengeful, just, y’know, there. This is not to say that a ghost can’t get angry over something the homeowners are doing, but broadly non-malicious, just doin’ their own thing–that works much better for me than “I AM GHOST-DAR, DESTROYER OF TENANTS.” (Will also accept “There are X number of ghosts in the house for some reason, but only one has an attitude problem.)
POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: “I was scared, so I kept doing the exact same thing I was doing and didn’t take any precautions whatsoever.” Look, people do dumb things hoping that life will get better, but I am much more impressed when someone decides to sleep in a different room or put a brick in front of the door to keep it swinging closed.
DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: “I’m a professional ghost hunter…” ‘Nuff said.
*The intense hallucinations/waking dream experienced when falling asleep. Hypnopompic hallucinations occur when you’re waking up. I get those, incidentally, if I’m having a sleep paralysis episode, and they are as clear and vivid as real life, so I don’t blame people for thinking there’s weird stuff happening.