Happy Medium, is being released by Berkley InterMix tomorrow, January 21), I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about being scared—how to do it and why. I’ve always had a weakness for ghost stories, both fiction and nonfiction, but I’d never really stopped to think what it was about those stories that really got to me. Why some of them gave me nightmares and some of them didn’t do much of anything.
I should start out by saying that explicit horror doesn’t do much except make me cringe. Texas Chainsaw Massacre never really appealed to me, nor did Scream or Halloween. It wasn’t that they weren’t scary (they definitely were). But it wasn’t the kind of scary I found enjoyable. Stabbing teenagers who had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time makes me sad rather than uneasy.
Contrast this with Silence Of the Lambs. Now you may remember SOL as being extremely violent, but in fact it isn’t. There’s one sequence that’s designed to demonstrate that Dr. Lecter really is just as dangerous as everyone said he was, but that’s it. With the exception of the ending, everything else works by innuendo. You feel that Clarice is constantly under threat, but that threat is never realized until she finally finds Buffalo Bill at the end of the movie. And it’s that constant unrealized threat that makes the movie feel so terrifying.
I think good ghost stories work with a similar dynamic. You’re always waiting for something scary to happen, but it never seems to come when you expect it. Moreover, written ghost stories can be considerably scarier than filmed ones because the action takes place in your head. There’s a moment in Shirley Jackson’s supremely terrifying Haunting of Hill House when two of the psychically sensitive guests are talking in their darkened bedroom. One of them remarks that the other’s hand, which she’s holding, is very cold tonight. Guest two replies that she isn’t holding her hand. And that’s the last sentence in the chapter, as I recall. Gotcha!
Lots of great ghost stories work just like that—did you really see something or didn’t you? What was that noise anyway? Did something just flit by that mirror? Even ghost stories that don’t take themselves entirely seriously can still give you the chills. I remember reading Jennifer Crusie’s ghost story Maybe This Time while I was using the treadmill in my basement. Yes, it was funny (hey, it’s Jennifer Crusie), but by the time I was halfway through the book, I was feeling very uneasy about being downstairs all by myself. You laugh, but it’s sort of nervous laughter.
So to some extent that’s what I tried to do in my Ramos Family Trilogy, Medium Well, Medium Rare, and Happy Medium. They’re not particularly violent (although there are a few deaths here and there—they’re ghost stories, after all), but, well, things happen. The heroes and heroines see and hear things that others don’t. They’re frightened frequently and threatened occasionally. But everything works out in the end.
Hey, they may be ghost stories, but they’re still romances!
Here’s the blurb for Happy Medium:
Love is good for the soul… unless it’s one that you’re trying to exorcise.
Ray Ramos has a problem–the King William District mansion he and his business partner purchased for a fast renovation needs more work than expected. Ray could use a quick infusion of cash. Enter Emma Shea, assistant to Gabrielle DeVere, the star of American Medium. Gabrielle is looking for San Antonio houses to use for her televised séances, and Ray’s fixer upper seems to fit.
When Gabrielle does a sample séance, Ray and Emma become the target of a touchy ghost with no respect for boundaries. After Ray learns his family has a special affinity for ghosts, the two decide to investigate the haunted house. It doesn’t hurt that Emma is immediately attracted to the laconic Ray or that Ray is intrigued by the buttoned-down beauty who seems determined to hide her considerable assets behind sober business suits. But can the two of them fight off a vengeful succubus bound to the house while getting a lot closer than either of them planned?
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And here’s a bit of the scary:
“Join hands everyone,” Gabrielle intoned in her most resonant medium voice.
Ramos gave her a piercing look, then took hold of her hand, extending his other hand across the table to Emma.
Gabrielle’s fingers were faintly damp, but Ramos’s were dry and hard. His calluses rubbed against Emma’s palm. For a moment she felt something like a mild electric shock tingle through her fingers. She pulled her hand away, staring.
Ramos stared back, his eyes wide.
“Take his hand, Emma.” Gabrielle frowned. “We need to get on with this.”
Emma extended her hand again, touching her fingers cautiously against Ramos’s palm. Nothing. Maybe she’d imagined the whole thing. Probably she’d imagined the whole thing.
Gabrielle raised her head, gazing up into the dim shadows overhead. “Is there anyone here? We call on you to come forth.”
Across from Emma, Ramos rolled his eyes. He had that sour look again. Just hold on a little longer, and we’ll be out of your way.
“Come forth,” Gabrielle whispered.
Ramos looked at her, then shook his head slightly.
And the candles went out.
Emma’s head shot up, and she turned toward the fireplace. There hadn’t been any flickering, any feeling of a breeze. One moment the candles had been burning, and now they weren’t. She gaped at Ramos, who was gaping back at her, his forehead furrowing. Somewhere overhead a door slammed.
At the head of the table, Gabrielle seemed not to notice. “Spirit forces, we call to you,” she crooned.
Something touched the back of Emma’s neck, a quick brush, so light she wasn’t sure she’d felt it. Then it came again, more definite this time, fingertips along the edge of her shoulder. She whipped her head to the right, but she couldn’t see anything in the gathering darkness.
Ramos’s hand jerked against hers. She turned back to him, but he was watching Gabrielle.
No, not Gabrielle. Beyond Gabrielle, toward the fireplace. The mantle glowed dimly in the twilight, as if there were lights beneath it. Then, one by one, the votive candles thumped to the hearthstone in front of the fireplace, bouncing lightly. Another door slammed upstairs.