I grew up surrounding myself with ghosts. As a child, my favorite books were the “True” Ghost Story series from Sterling Publishing and the many occult-themed titles by Daniel Cohen (after whom Tammy Cohen is named). I especially loved the creepy realistic covers by Lisa Falkenstern. Real Ghosts, Ghostly Terrors, The World's Most Famous Ghosts, Phone Call from a Ghost, and so on. I read and re-read the stories, committed them to memory, and re-told them for my friends: stories about the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, and Borley Rectory the most haunted house in England, and poltergeists like the Bell Witch and the Great Amherst Mystery. Bits of each of these stories found their way into Smithy.
The Borley Rectory haunting directly inspired the book, so it provides much of the grist for the Trevor Hall haunting. The investigation of Borley Rectory was led by psychical researcher Harry Price (after whom Dr. Preis-Herald is named), who loved the spotlight and courted his share of controversy. The Borley investigation was his most notorious. Mysterious bells echoed through the house, a levitating brick was captured on film, and phantom messages addressed to Marianne (Foyster, the lady of the house) appeared on the walls. A later appraisal for the Society for Psychical Research written by Eric Dingwall, K.M. Goldney, and Trevor Hall (the inspiration behind the name of the mansion in Smithy, because Eric Dingwall is a silly name for a house) determined that most of the phenomena was due to natural causes and the rest had been faked by Price and Foyster. Nevertheless, the legend persists.
The legend of Trevor Hall is my own invention, but the name of its purported ghost, Imogene Rockwell, derives from Imogen Swinhoe, formerly the lady of Cheltenham Manor and now popularly believed to be the Woman in Black who haunts it, and from the Museum of Illustration in Newport, RI, which houses a collection of Norman Rockwell’s artwork. I say “purported” because the identity of the ghost is deliberately obscured.
Outside of celebrity ghosts like Abraham Lincoln or Marilyn Monroe, most spirits tend to be anonymous. So often, ghost stories are generalized and based more on urban legends than actual fact. A woman in black haunts an English manor (maybe she was a nun, or maybe a widow). The spirit of a murdered person haunts a certain house (Murdered how? When? Who was it? Are there really no crime reports or other records to back this up?) Or the opposite situation occurs: instead of too few details, too many conflicting details exist about a ghost's origins.
A prime example is the Lady in Blue, a spirit haunting the Moss Beach Distillery in Half-Moon Bay, CA. “Unsolved Mysteries” once did a feature on the ghost, presenting three totally different potential backstories and three totally different identities. Was the lady an unnamed flapper stabbed outside a speakeasy by a jealous lover? Was she Alma Reed, the paramour of a well-known composer, who drowned herself in the bay because they couldn’t be together? Or was she Mary Ellen Morley, a young mother killed in a car accident near the present location of the distillery? Some evidence supports the life and death of a woman named Mary Ellen Morley, so because her name is on an obituary and a gravestone, her name is most often attributed to the ghost, even though she may not be the true Lady in Blue.
Here is the episode for your own enjoyment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ls_QcE_d4S4
I encountered a similar situation when I visited the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, KY last year. One story says the resident Blue Lady is the ghost of a disconsolate wife who threw herself down an elevator shaft when she learned her estranged husband had been killed in an accident while on his way to reconcile with her. Another story claims the ghost was a newlywed bride who killed herself when she discovered her new husband’s infidelity. Who is the real Blue Lady?
(Notice how many ghosts are nameless women reduced to the color of their attire? A departure from form is the Gray Man of Pawley’s Island, SC.)
Even ghosts that have an identity may not have facts on their side. In the excellent Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, Colin Dickey debunks several cherished ghost stories. The Myrtles Plantation in South Carolina is said to be haunted by the spirit of Chloe, a slave woman who was mutilated by her master for eavesdropping; as revenge, Chloe poisoned her master's children. Dickey researched the records of Myrtles Plantation and found no slave named Chloe had ever lived there. Furthermore, the children who were supposedly poisoned actually died of fever in another city. So the legend appears to be a bust. But just because the Myrtles isn't haunted by a slave named Chloe doesn't mean it isn't haunted by a ghost at all. Something spectral may very well be happening in South Carolina, and witnesses invented a legend to account for what they experienced.
Dickey doesn't merely bust ghostly backstories; he probes the reasons why society needs ghosts and why it needs its ghosts to adhere to certain norms. Where do these ghostly legends come from, especially if there's no historical foundation for them? What cultural or psychological functions do such tales serve? I had already begun writing Smithy with the intent of exploring the factors involved in the evolution of a ghost story when Ghostland debuted. I thought it offered some wonderful insights.
Smithy is not merely a ghost story, it's also my phenomenological study of ghosts. What are ghosts? How would you identify a ghost? Why do we tell their stories, and why do we tell the particular stories that we do? How would people (e.g., square academics) respond to the possibility of a ghost in their lives?
The best fictional example of a ghost, in my opinion, is “The Empty House” by Algernon Blackwood. It's not a dramatic, Hollywood-ready ghost story. In fact, nothing much happens in it. A pair of amateur investigators visit the titular untenanted domicile on the anniversary of a murder. They experience strange noises and doors slamming as the events of the past are reenacted. No ghosts materialize or interact with our heroes, but by the time they leave the house, they are badly shaken all the same by the eerieness of what they've witnessed. What makes that story memorable is that it plays out the way I imagine a real haunting would. The stories Cohen wrote about weren't like Poltergeist or The Conjuring (even though the latter is supposed to be based on a true story). Real ghosts are more subtle. Real ghosts are just strange enough to make you uneasy, yet insubstantial enough to make you doubt your sanity.
I hope that Smithy reflects the realism of a haunting and all the possibilities it entails