September 13, 2015

Yes, really, a haunted castle . . .

This week I'm getting ready for two wonderful Canadian fall literary festivals — Thin Air in Winnipeg and Wordfest in Calgary. I'll be talking to kids at both about my new book, Seven Dead Pirates.

Kids love to hear where you got your ideas. As Seven Dead Pirates is a ghost story, I have decided to tell them the true story of — cue creepy organ music — my night in a haunted castle.

It happened long ago when I was backpacking in Europe with my friend Gloria and staying in youth hostels. Most hostels at the time were neglected historical buildings, converted as spartanly as possible into bleak-but-cheap accommodations.  My friend Gloria and I searched them out as we hitchhiked around northern Ireland.

One evening at dusk, we were dropped at a castle-turned-hostel. It was located in remote countryside. A sign on the door directed us down the road to the caretaker, a surprised-looking woman (late March was early for hostelers) who grabbed her keys and walked us back to the castle. Amazingly, I still have a photo, taken the next day.

The caretaker led us into the Great Hall — empty except for an enormous walk-in fireplace with a laminated card on the mantle. It said "Castle History." As there was no electricity, we read it by . . . er . . . gaslight? Yes, gaslight. It lit an area less than an arm's length from the source. Huddling together, Gloria and I read that the castle had had a long, tragic history of violent deaths, bizarre sightings and eerie sounds which had naturally (unnaturally?) earned it a reputation for being haunted. The card concluded with a suspiciously cheerful attempt to reassure would-be guests. Unusual sights and sounds, it said, were "probably just due to the bats in the tower."

"Well then," said the caretaker. "I'm off! Here are your candles. Ta ra!" And she was gone.

In that moment, Gloria and I understood two things: (1) we were alone in a haunted castle (at least, we hoped we were alone), and (2) we had no choice but to stay overnight. Eventually, we crept up the stairs with our candlesticks and found our way to a room containing a dozen empty bunkbeds. Claiming the two closest to the door, we slunk into our sleeping bags. And then, like your favourite hackneyed gothic movie in which things can only get worse . . . they did. A clap of thunder shook the stone walls. Gloria and I looked each other in the eye, as best we could by candlelight. Really? Was this literally going to be a Dark and Stormy Night in a Haunted Castle?

In fact . . . yes. It was. Cue sound effects. Thunder crashed. Lightning flashed. Rain lashed. Winds shrieked. We did not, I am now sorry to say, see or hear a ghost. But the main point is this — we must have believed that there could be ghosts. Because neither of us slept. At. All.

And I will tell the kids when they ask in Winnipeg and Calgary that although I did not meet a ghost that night, I did learn what it felt like to be afraid of a ghost.

And yes, I put that fear in my novel.

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