Oct. 31, 2011

Haunted Houses

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the door-way, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

There are more guests at table than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.

So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O'er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.

From "Haunted Houses" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public domain. (buy now)

Today is Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, the time of the wandering dead. It's also a time for the young and the not-so-young to dress in outlandish attire and go door to door begging for candy.

If you're looking for a scary story to read instead, there's no shortage of ghoulish material to choose from. Nearly anything by Poe (books by this author) or H.P. Lovecraft (books by this author) will fit the bill. Washington Irving (books by this author), in his collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819), gives us the tale of a scarecrowish and superstitious schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, whose very name conjures the image of someone leggy, lanky, and loose-jointed. Crane is chased through the midnight roads of Sleepy Hollow by the ghost of a Hessian soldier; not only is he a ghost, but he's also missing his head, which was blown off by a cannonball.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (books by this author) was always interested in sin and redemption, good and evil, truth and hypocrisy — in part due to the fact that his great-great-grandfather was one of the hanging judges in the Salem witch trials of 1692. His story Young Goodman Brown (1835) is set in Salem during the trials; his protagonist, a young Puritan newlywed, sets out at sunset on an errand that takes him through the woods, against the wishes of his bride, Faith. "The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward, with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil," Hawthorne writes. Along the way, Brown meets a mysterious man who resembles him, and witnesses Faith and the rest of his neighbors — whom he had thought to be righteous Christians — engaged in a witches' sabbath. He resists and the scene vanishes; the next day, his wife and neighbors behave as they always have, but his sense of community has vanished, and he lives in fear and suspicion of them to the end of his days. The story ends, "they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom."

Mark Twain (books by this author) wrote a quirky tale about the specter of a giant. A Ghost Story was published in 1870, and begins, "I took a large room, far up Broadway, in a huge old building whose upper stories had been wholly unoccupied for years, until I came. The place had long been given up to dust and cobwebs, to solitude and silence. I seemed groping among the tombs and invading the privacy of the dead, that first night I climbed up to my quarters. For the first time in my life a superstitious dread came over me; and as I turned a dark angle of the stairway and an invisible cobweb swung its lazy woof in my face and clung there, I shuddered as one who had encountered a phantom." The narrator encounters the spirit of the Cardiff Giant, one of the most famous hoaxes in American history. In 1868, a New York tobacconist by the name of George Hull ordered a block of gypsum carved into the likeness of a 10-foot man, and he had it buried on his brother-in-law's farm near Cardiff, New York. Workmen discovered this petrified giant about a year later, when the farmer hired them to dig a well. Hull and his partner in deception made a pretty penny off of exhibiting the Cardiff Giant, and P.T. Barnum offered them $60,000 for it. When they turned Barnum down, he had a plaster replica made, and claimed his was the real giant, and the Cardiff Giant was the fake. In Twain's story, the ghost demands to be reburied, and is discouraged to find that he has been haunting Barnum's fake all along.

If your taste runs more to poetry than prose, you may enjoy Hortense King Flexner's (books by this author) "All Soul's Night, 1917":

You heap the logs and try to fill
The little room with words and cheer,
But silent feet are on the hill,
Across the window veiled eyes peer.
The hosts of lovers, young in death,
Go seeking down the world to-night,
Remembering faces, warmth and breath —
And they shall seek till it is light.
Then let the white-flaked logs burn low,
Lest those who drift before the storm
See gladness on our hearth and know
There is no flame can make them warm.

Or Lizette Woodworth Reese's "All Hallows Night":
Two things I did on Hallows Night: —
Made my house April-clear;
Left open wide my door
To the ghosts of the year.

Then one came in. Across the room
It stood up long and fair —
The ghost that was myself —
And gave me stare for stare.

Or George Parsons Lathrop, whose "Incantation" begins:
When the leaves, by thousands thinned,
A thousand times have whirled in the wind,
And the moon, with hollow cheek,
Staring from her hollow height,
Consolation seems to seek
From the dim, reechoing night;
And the fog-streaks dead and white
Lie like ghosts of lost delight
O'er highest earth and lowest sky;
Then, Autumn, work thy witchery!

Today is the birthday of John Keats (books by this author), who was born in London in 1795. His father, a livery-stable manager, died when Keats was eight years old. The boy didn't receive much formal education, but he discovered literature as a teenager, becoming first a voracious reader and then an aspiring poet. In 1817, he devoted himself to poetry. In 1818, he tended to his brother, who was dying of tuberculosis; Keats contracted the disease himself, and became increasingly ill in 1819, although he produced poetry of remarkable quality during that year, some of the best poetry of the Romantic movement. Keats died in Rome early in 1821, at the age of 25. He had wanted his gravestone to read simply, "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water," but his two closest friends, Joseph Severn and Charles Brown, took the opportunity to lash out at some of the poet's critics. They added the following to his marker: "This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone."

The Lincoln Highway was dedicated on this date in 1913. It was the first automobile road to traverse the entire continental United States. The man behind the plan was Carl Fisher; no stranger to automobile-friendly surfaces, he had recently enjoyed great acclaim as a result of his Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which hosted the new Indianapolis 500 race on its brick-paved track. He envisioned a gravel road that would run from coast to coast, from California to New York. He called it the Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway, and the price tag was reasonable even by 1912 standards: $10 million. Fisher planned to fund his project by soliciting contributions from automakers, but Henry Ford refused to get on board. He believed that the people should pay for the public roads, and the public would never get used to the idea of paying for roads if there was a hint that the business community would do it for them. It was Henry Joy, the president of the Packard Motor Company, who came up with the idea of calling it the Lincoln Highway and asking Congress for the money. Formally dedicated in 1913, and running from New York City's Times Square to San Francisco's Lincoln Park, it was the first national memorial to Abraham Lincoln, predating Washington, D.C.'s Lincoln Memorial by nine years.

Today is the birthday of journalist and essayist Susan Orlean (1955) (books by this author). She has published eight books of nonfiction, including Saturday Night (1990), The Orchid Thief (1998), The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup (2001), and her most recent, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, which was just released in September. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she studied literature and history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and wrote some poetry, but she soon became intrigued with the idea of nonfiction after reading "slice of life" stories in Life magazine. She decided that she wanted to write "long stories about interesting things, rather than news stories about short-lived events." She got a job writing for a small monthly magazine in Portland. From there she moved on to Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, then The Boston Phoenix and The Boston Globe. She was hired as a staff writer for The New Yorker in 1992. She's also an animal enthusiast, and her menagerie includes chickens, turkeys, ducks, guinea fowl, cattle, cats, and a dog. She divides her time between New York and Los Angeles.

In her introduction to The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, she wrote: "I really believed that anything at all was worth writing about if you cared about it enough, and that the best and only necessary justification for writing any particular story was that I cared about it. The challenge was to write these stories in a way that got other people as interested in them as I was."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show