Sunday, September 4, 2011

THE LOVELIEST DEAD: The Story Behind the Book

Most people I know love a good ghost story, and I think that extends to people I don’t know, as well. The ghost story seems to be universal. Whether or not you believe in spirits of the dead, a good ghost story told in the right setting can make you jumpy, give you gooseflesh and make the darkness a menacing thing even if it’s in a familiar room. I know people who don’t like other kinds of horror fiction or movies who enjoy a good ghost story. I’m not sure precisely what it is about them that is so effective for so many, but ghost stories seem to chill us in ways that no other horror subgenre can.

The first horror movie I ever saw was a ghost story. William Castle’s 13 Ghosts showed me that being scared could be fun. I couldn’t have been older than five when my cousin, who was a couple of years older than I and lived next door, rushed over to get me. “You gotta see this thing on TV!” he said, barely able to contain himself. “It’s got ghosts and a haunted house and a hidden treasure and — just c’mon!” He practically dragged me to his house. I sat down in front of his TV, watched for a while, and my little skull nearly exploded all over my aunt’s furniture. There was a guy on TV wearing special glasses that allowed him to see ghosts — What a great idea! Where can I get some? — and he was in his basement watching ghostly, floating skeletons burst into flame! And later, his son puts on the glasses and watches a headless man try to tame a lion — a ghost lion! I mean, how cool is that?

Some of the most terrifying horror fiction and movies have been ghost stories. Among my favorites are Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, which became Robert Wise’s brilliant less-is-more 1963 film The Haunting (I like to pretend that the 1999 movie never happened), Richard Matheson’s novel Hell House and the 1973 film adaptation, John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House, Stephen King’s novel The Shining, and the 1982 hit Poltergeist. These books and movies are only a few examples, but they are capable of making me actually feel physically cold, the kind of cold that requires a blanket. They're all haunted house tales, the most common and popular kind of ghost story, although ghosts can pop up anywhere in fiction and film.

For years, I’d been wanting to use in my writing an experience I had in the early 1990s, but I hadn’t figured out how. Sometime in 2005, it occurred to me that in more than 20 years of writing horror novels, I’d never written a ghost story, and I decided to remedy that by drawing on that experience. The result was The Loveliest Dead.

I was hired to write a book called In A Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting. A version of that later became a re-enacted docudrama on the Discovery Channel called A Haunting in Connecticut, and still later, a 2009 movie called The Haunting in Connecticut. It was the story of a family, Al and Carmen Snedeker and their children, who moved into a former funeral home allegedly infested with demons with a fondness for anal rape. How did they know the house was infested with demons? They asked the experts — “demonologist” Ed Warren and his “clairvoyant” wife Lorraine. I took the job because I was familiar with the Warrens. As a boy, I used to read of their adventures in the National Enquirer and found them spooky and entertaining, and they were involved with The Amityville Horror. I thought it would be fun to meet them and work on their book.

In their role as paranormal experts, the Warrens relied heavily on their Catholic faith and the teachings of Christianity to back up all of their conclusions and claims and were rather pious about it. But off the job, they were quite different. He was loud and foul-mouthed and became enraged if any of his claims were questioned, no matter how delicately, and she was gossipy, catty and took any disbelief in their work as a personal attack and responded accordingly. When I had trouble getting the stories of the individual family members to mesh, I asked Ed for advice. He said, “They’re crazy. All the people who come to us are crazy. Just use what you can and make the rest up. You write scary books, right? That’s why we hired you. Just make it up and make it scary.” They claimed to have video tape of some of the supernatural incidents that happened in the former funeral home in Connecticut and told me about it at length, repeatedly promising to provide me with a copy. But I never saw the tape because they claimed they couldn’t find it. They’d been doing this for more than 30 years, they allegedly had video evidence of actual supernatural activity — and they misplaced it. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Ed and Lorraine gave me a tour of the "occult museum” attached to their house, but they wouldn’t do it until after dark because ... well, it’s scarier after dark. The museum is at the end of a long, dark, narrow passageway, a room filled with alleged artifacts from cases they’d worked on, things like possessed dolls and objects supposedly used in Satanic rituals. Ed was my tour guide and his spiel was as accomplished as that of any veteran carny. The whole thing was designed to frighten, just like a good ghost story told around a campfire. Ed and Lorraine and I were in the same business — scaring people. The difference was that I happily admitted that my stories were fictional while they did everything they could to convince people theirs were accurate accounts of things that had actually happened when they knew perfectly well they were not. In short, they were rank frauds and they exploited troubled families in the course of their work.

In the case of In A Dark Place, Ed and Lorraine Warren exploited the Snedekers, a family dealing with some serious problems like drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, domestic abuse — but they were a family who wanted to be exploited. They welcomed it! Everyone involved was eager to make a book deal, and then, with luck, a movie deal. While I was with them in Connecticut, Carmen Snedeker — who was running an illegal interstate lottery operation that she was afraid I would reveal in the book — repeatedly asked me how much I thought they could make from a movie deal. The Snedekers needed help, but not the kind the Warrens were offering. After the experience, I talked with another horror writer who’d been hired to write a book for the Warrens and his experience mirrored mine. So did his conclusions.

If you’d like to know more about my experience with the Warrens, you can read this interview at Damned Connecticut and listen to this MP3 of my interview on the Monster Talk podcast for the whole story. In A Dark Place has been out of print for a long time, but for the last two years, it has appeared on the list of the most requested out-of-print books. Used copies of the hardcover and paperback editions sell for anywhere from one to three hundred dollars. If you find a copy for less than that, grab it!

When I began writing The Loveliest Dead, I didn’t know much about how the story would turn out, but I knew it would include a married pair of aging paranormal “experts.”

After the sudden death of one of their two sons, the Kellars move into the big old house Jenna inherited from her father. There’s a rusty, vine-covered swing set in the back yard. Who are the mysterious children who play on it at night? Their son Miles claims that when he’s in bed in the dark, a man rises up out of his bedroom floor and threatens him. And what’s down in the basement? At first, Jenna is convinced they are being visited by the spirit of their dead son, but it begins to look like something else occupies the house with them. Out of desperation, they call on Arthur and Mavis Bingham, professional paranormal investigators whose work in the field is chronicled in tabloid newspapers and popular books. But Lily Rourke, a woman living in another town with a psychic talent she does not especially enjoy having, is experiencing premonitions about the Kellars, and she tries her best to get to them and help them. The truth behind what’s going on in the Kellar house is not only horrifying, but it puts the Kellars in grave danger — especially their children.

Here are some excerpts from a few reviews of The Loveliest Dead:

"Ray Garton's The Loveliest Dead eases the reader into what is easily the most mature, heartfelt, and unflinchingly disturbing novel of his career. The unspeakable horror that lies at the center of Dead's mosaic-like mystery is the darkest nightmare of every parent, only in Garton's hands, the revelation of this nightmare is only the beginning. A powerful, terrifying, unforgettable achievement. Ray Garton is back, and he will shake your soul's foundation with this one."--Bram Stoker Award-winning Author Gary A. Braunbeck

"There's a lot of The Shining in the opening chapters, yet where King's novel reached for high operatic horror, Garton keeps his terror up close and personal. You never feel like you're in one of those grand Addam's family-style haunted houses. This is the kind of house you probably live in, and that makes the terror all that more real. There's a lot of The Amityville Horror, with ghost-busters, psychics, and mediums crawling out of the woodwork to investigate these goings on. There's even a bit of Shirley Jackson thrown in, and yet with all this mixing and matching of style, the work is unmistakably individual. The Loveliest Dead has the feel of something you'd read in the newspapers, maybe a tabloid, but definitely a plausible sounding tabloid. So take a walk with Ray Garton through one of the creepiest haunted houses you're ever going to visit. He treats his readers with respect; he treats his characters with respect; in short, Ray Garton is a writer to respect." -- Steve Vernon, Horror World

"Garton shows a sure hand in stringing readers along, delivering scenes to elicit goosebumps at just the right moments. ... I’m a sucker for haunted house stories, and Garton’s — mixing The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist and Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door — is a good one. It hooks from the start." — Bookgasm

"Garton proves his masterful writing skills yet again with an exquisitely put together story that squeezes the heebie jeebies out of you!" — Mystery Galore

The Loveliest Dead is now available for Kindle, Nook, in paperback, and as an audiobook.  If you enjoy the book, I hope you'll post a review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your blog or website.  To learn about my other work and keep up with new releases, visit my website at RayGartonOnline.