The Ghost & the Summer of ’91

By Matt Holgate, author of ‘The Dim Realm’ and ‘Unforgotten’

As an author of fantasy and horror, people assume that makes me an automatic believer in the supernatural. Ghosts, hauntings, the occult – you name it. I admit that I find it all highly interesting stuff, intriguing beyond doubt, a breathtakingly liberating way to tell stories. But I am highly skeptical of it all.

It would be an overwhelmingly awesome thing to see that life, as rich and full of wonder as it is, doesn’t simply end at the drop of a hat. Life does not need the tragedy of death to make it meaningful. The wax does not need to melt from our wings. It would be nice to know that the loved ones who have passed on before me were, if not now residing in the traditional ‘better place’ envisioned for us, then at least they are somewhere on a new adventure. To say that I am convinced this is so, however, is another matter. Hope for the best, plan for the worst, I guess I’d say. (In this case, morbidly.)

Partly, that’s just how I’m wired. It’s also in part growing up in family that was overall very religious on both sides – although not my parents themselves, even if they occasionally tried to act like it – and seeing firsthand what I see as the flaws inherent in the church’s explanations of why things are the way they are. I don’t begrudge others their faith, but that does not mean I share it. At the crux of it, I am simply not someone who takes things on faith, at least not the existential types of things.

So you might ask, knowing this about the real Matt Holgate, not the fantasy/horror author Matt Holgate, how could he possibly have a ghost story?

Well, I do have a ghost story. At least I think I do. But just the one.

* * *

Our tale takes place in August of 1991, a hot, humid evening, not unlike the kind Neil Diamond would sing about. Or so my Dad said back in those days. (Not that I listened to anything he said back then, Heaven forbid.) But it was certainly hot enough, thick enough, so much so that you could feel the night pulse. Like it had a yearning of its own, some sordid character in a tale wishing you well, but with an ulterior motive. The breeze that came as darkness fell was a cool reprieve that you could not get enough of.

So where do we start? Beginning and endings are both so hard.

I was twenty years old that summer, between my first and second years of University in my hometown of Sudbury, Ontario, back when I was still supremely confident that the world was my oyster, yet I had neither the clue nor the motivation to make anything happen. I did not rush because, hey, we had forever, right?

There are only two people in this tale. My name you know. The other person we’ll call ‘the girl’ and not attach a name for what will become obvious reasons. There is another name you will hear, another member of our triangle, so to speak, but for now, we are only concerned with the living.

As it is with so many stories from back then (especially, might I add, in Sudbury) a few of us had gathered at a mutual friend’s place for drinks that night. The barley sandwich of choice was Northern Ale, back when the world was only just coming around to local Beer Stores opening on Sundays. You had to watch your supplies, since while you could still buy Northern on Sundays, you could only do so by standing in a long line outside the brewery across town. It was a hard habit to break. So there was no excessive inebriation, no crazy partying. In fact, by 11:00 o’clock, everyone but the girl and I had left or gone to bed.

The two of us were sitting on a couch, having just met that night, and while we were both playing it restrained, we were soon flirting pretty intently. She was a very attractive young woman, and a lot of it had to do with the fact that she was confident, did not try too hard, and it showed. The long black hair down past her waist didn’t hurt, either, no, but I was just old enough then to have a glimmer of understanding that the first part mattered, too.

“I won’t tell fibs if you won’t,” I remember her telling me. So I won’t with you, reader.

The living room was very 70s – which was not so long ago back then – and I only mean that in a good way. It was a very comfortable place. A living room meant for living in. Big, deep couches. About a million throw pillows and half as many afghan blankets. Some hand stitched, some as old as God. The carpet was shag, and it felt like every colour in the room was an offset of gold, bronze or rust. Even the browns had richness. Most of the ornaments were moons and stars with antiquated, eccentric faces in them, the kind that look so cool but, like the turn of the tide, can suddenly look so very creepy in a moment’s notice. The sun becomes a little too hearty, where you don’t trust what’s behind that gleam in his eye, and the moon is suddenly a sallow-faced crescent with eyes a little too sly. (If you’ve read my books, and know of the Pale Gentlemen, this type of imagery has stuck with me since reading ‘Winken, Blinken and Nodd’ in those old children’s Readers Digest books that were coming out when Elvis was still alive.) The parents of our mutual friend who lived here were former hippies at a time when that merely meant figuring out what to do in your forties, wondering what would become of the world now that KISS had removed their makeup. There was even a velvet painting and a lava lamp, I kid you not.

(There is a lot about that time I sometimes feel nostalgic for, when technology was early enough that you were barely past screaming at the night to prove you were more than a lonely island in the dark, before it made our world so very, very small, a comfortable shoe that I am young enough to wear but old enough to know it will never quite fit right, always a little too snug. And, full disclosure, I own lava lamps to this day because they are cool.)

Back to the action. It was just the two of us, the girl and I. Yes, we were hitting it off. We were certainly sitting too close to pretend otherwise, her legs eventually draped over mine, but on this night, this was all about comfort. Taking your time. Everything was clicking. I remember that she was nineteen years to my vaunted twenty, the tail end of being young, like you are looking over a cliff, but it’s easier to hold hands before jumping, hoping there’s water below.

It was late but still not too late, probably not even midnight, and here this story could have gone off on its merry way with nary a care.

However, there was an interesting little room off to the side of the living room. It had no door, was simply an offshoot, like it had once been a bedroom, but was now an office or reading room. Unlike the shag in the living room, its floor was hardwood, back in the day when parquet was the ‘in’ thing and floating floors pretty much sounded like something out of science fiction.

The room was littered with shelves, albums, and old National Geographic magazines. Maybe some eight tracks, I’m not sure. There was a small antique desk and lots of knitting paraphernalia. As a young man, I could not help but chuckle that it felt like our friend’s parents fought over who owned this room, its own tiny War of the Roses, whereas now I realize it was a place where they could both sit comfortably with one another.

The girl and I felt a little like rummaging, our first step towards seeing what sort of trouble we could get into.

“I won’t tell fibs if you won’t,” I remember her saying again.

So what next, you might ask?

Among the plethora of books, paraphernalia and trinkets, there sat an Ouija board.

You know the type. Wood surface. Numbers, the alphabet, YES, NO, HELLO, GOODBYE, all inscribed upon it. The planchette that was shaped like a heart but was built with a hole in the middle, so that spectral answers could peer up out like some captive from a well. (No Lassie to save little Timmy this time!) Heck, I have learned that you can buy Ouija boards in all manners of stores, including kids’ toy stores and game shops. Gruesome fun for the whole family! My family were fun, free love sorts of partiers from that era, but I don’t recall ma and pa whipping out the old spirit summoning talismans and shakers before brunch, but hey, ‘When in Rome…’

And the girl, as I might have mentioned, was quite pretty.

So there we were. Like kids, we were laying on our stomachs on the floor, as if working on a puzzle or homework in the den, feet kicking lazily in the air, only it was the Ouija board that was between us. Staring into each other’s eyes in a way that I’m not going to pretend was romantic but there was certainly a connection. As I said, we hadn’t ended up drinking much – and hadn’t smoked anything – but we were in one of those grooves where the night was going so unexpectedly right. We were in our right minds.

“Is there anyone here with us?” we asked the board, fingers on the planchette.

Ooooh, spooky, right? I will admit that the girl was giggling. If I was, too, I assure you, it was quite a manly giggle. And virile. Did I mention virile?

A fairly long pause, and then … the planchette moved beneath our fingers.

YES

Someone was here with us.

Could it have been a trick? Could she have been playing at a game to set the mood? To test my resolve? Could it have been subliminal pressure on both our parts to create something out of nothing? Playing ourselves for fools in a mad subconscious delusion with no one to blame for ourselves? All certainly possible. I cannot rule any of it out, nor would I. But it certainly did not feel like it then, and even with the benefit of subsequent years, I do not recollect feeling that way now. Perhaps that’s because I’m not much more than a big kid to this day.

Nevertheless, I did not move it. I don’t think she did, either. Your impressions of this tale will all depend on what you think of that. Our fingers were not pressed hard upon the planchette. And, in full disclosure, I am such an interior monologue-ing control freak of my own actions, I don’t think I could delude myself so easily. I like to be in control of myself. Again, not impossible that this could be overridden in the moment, but that is not what I think.

“Are you a ghost?” the girl asked. She was still giggling. I think she thought I had moved it. I think she wanted to hint that her pants weren’t coming off quite that easily, boy, but nice try. You haven’t won on the Price is Right, but here is your parting gift, thanks for playing.

In response to her question, the planchette moved away from its spot, a hovering Daddy Longlegs spider making a small circle, and then it repeated its last answer:

YES

We started to feel a little less confident in our aloofness, but we were still into this.

“What is your name?”

I cannot recall which of us asked the question, only that it was asked. But I do remember the answer:

SCHRYER

Each and every letter floated over, paused upon, then on the move again, until stopping on the ‘R’.

“Why are you here?” This was me asking.

ANGRY

“Angry at us?” This was the girl now. She was no longer worried about her pants. I don’t blame her.

YES

“Why?” she asked. If I had to sum it up, she sounded … offended. But we had both felt something change as soon as the name ‘Schryer’ has been spelled out so exactly. I am not saying the room changed temperature, our breath exhaling in frosty gusts with each word uttered, like in a movie. No, I think the change happened inside us. It no longer felt like a game. Our night had veered off course. Gilligan and the Skipper couldn’t have set it right.

There was no answer from the board at first.

“Schryer? Are you gone?” This was both of us, overlapping.

A long pause, pregnant and bloated, until:

NO

At this point, we stood up and backed away. The game was no longer fun. The house had not changed, maybe, but our perception of it had, like Schryer had spread out from the small office and invaded the rest. Infected it. The faces in paintings, the suns and stars, they were no longer so cheery. If anything, they were cheering for the other team. The shadows slanted too big, too long. Creaks from floors and drips from faucets were unobtrusive no more. They bounced off the walls. And all I could remember was

ANGRY

spelled out letter-by-letter, one-by-one. No time to even select HELLO, a pre-written word, but it had taken the time to spell out its anger.

I won’t pretend either of us was all that scared. As I wrote, this is not a horror movie clip. Nevertheless, we were creeped out well and good, beyond the point where it was remotely fun, if fun is exactly the right word in the first place. Using an Ouija board had not been some expected plan for the evening, something our imaginations could have built up in advance. No priming the pump so that our imaginations would run wild later. It had been an innocuous choice, totally spur of the moment. And yet …

And yet.

The “and yet” to this tale is that, from there, we did a lot of things you would scream at the kids in horror movies for doing, although none of it involved asking the supposed ghost of Schryer more questions.

Our friend’s house backed out onto a rather expensive private golf course. We snuck on and strolled the greens under the starlit sky. Enjoyed the cool breeze because the night was still so hot. We talked about nothing, everything, invigorated in a way unexpected. We did not even kiss for most of it. We got turned around, and instead of making a circle, we ended up on the other side of the course at the University I was studying at and she was about to begin attending.

We walked Ramsay Lake Road back to the docks, where we hung out by the lake, and finally we kissed by the beach. We didn’t even hitchhike, which was still reasonably socially acceptable back then because you really did feel like you knew everybody. They would stop for you even if your thumb wasn’t out.

Finally, we walked the short way back to our friend’s house from the docks. Why, the whole thing with Schryer? Not worth worrying about! Heck, it was kind of a little funny by then. Kind of.

We stole back into the house. It was dark – some enterprising parent had gotten up to turn off all the lights we’d left on – and the living room and everything inside it was back to feeling like it had when we hard first arrived. Comfortable. A place for living in.

Except for one thing.

I have read many anecdotes about getting a “certain feeling” when a ghost is near, or when something unnatural might happen. As a man now in his early forties and writing fiction, I am someone who researches his subject matter a lot. Nothing about Ouija boards all that much surprises me, and that includes the scientific, psychological, preternatural and other explanations, happenings and risks.

That little side office in the living room … there was still something wrong with it.

Thinking back on the initial communication with Schryer – or whatever you want to call it – it was just a snapshot, really. What in baseball or science you might call a ‘small sample size’. A moment in time. But, sometimes, that’s enough to form an impression. To know that something is, if not wrong, then not entirely right, either. That feeling – it lingers. It waits. I would go so far as to say it hungers.

We just stood there, the girl and I, in the living room for a long stretch of moments. Watching. Waiting. Neither of us said a word for what was probably only a minute.

A clock ticked maddeningly loud. There was the faintest hint of light streaming in the windows, but mostly the only illumination came from the stove light from the kitchen around the corner. It was a fluorescent radiance that made everything appear unnatural, sterile. It hummed and rattled, made a little whine the way a mosquito would, and while it was a small thing, once it was in your ear, it stayed there.

But we were kids. And there was no terror hiding behind the couch or in the drapes. It’s a ghost story … at best. We moved on. Soon we were back on the couch (and the floor) having some incredible sex, in no doubt buoyed by everything that had transpired. The kind of sex where you literally struggle to keep quiet with others sleeping nearby, but at the same time, you have demons that need letting out. That dog has to be walked and the tail has to wag. It was a hot and humid night (I want to say ‘dark and stormy’ just for the effect, but alas …) the kind of night Neil Diamond might sing about. It was the first time in my life I can recall for sure that if I wasn’t going to sleep with a woman, she was damned well going to sleep with me, and I had very little choice in the matter. It is also the first time I can recollect an abandon that neither she nor I expected, where nothing was for show, just a clenching, grabbing need to keep going, to continue to feel the rush.

They (the royal, nebulous ‘They’, I suppose) like to say that, sometimes, there is no better sex than after (or during, it so happens) a funeral. The need to feel alive takes hold of you by the scruff of your neck and makes you bow down and worship, although I won’t go so far as saying it is celebrating life. Yet it is a reminder that you are alive against the stark discord that someone else is not. It does something to us that few other things do. Being in that moment means something vital. You have escaped the hunter. This time. I don’t think this was any different, albeit with young hormones and a dose of unsettling fright thrown in for good measure.

The light of dawn was returning to the sky by the time we were spent.

* * *

I’d like to say the girl and I kept seeing each other, but that would be a lie, and I’d like to keep this little tale on the straight and narrow, even the less-than-storybook parts. We’re so close to the finish line now. I won’t tell fibs if you won’t. Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies. Beginning and endings are both hard, and, sometimes, they happen back-to-back, moments in time that are gold and fleeting.

And yet …

Truth to tell, I haven’t used an Ouija board since. Twenty two years and counting. Almost have, but not quite. That’s nearly a quarter century of abstinence for someone who isn’t abstinent about much else, and who writes about fantasy, horror and the supernatural for a living. Maybe I just don’t want some answers badly enough, even when I think I do. And I’m not someone who has nightmares or deep based fears – I’ve only had one actual nightmare since I was a child, and although it was a doozy, that in itself is a blog post for another time – but that reticence on my part does intrigue me a little, especially as I strive to understand myself better as I get older.

Maybe I’m a little afraid that magic, even everyday magic, cannot be recreated, the same way you cannot make moments happen a second time. They cannot often be engineered, let alone re-engineered. That night with the girl with the long dark hair and the ghost we spoke to is a perfect example. The girl and I acted like we barely knew each other on subsequent brief meetings, and I’m not sure all of it was because we were stupid, prideful young idiots. Some things are just moments in time that are wonderful, inopportune and maddening. Some are tainted. Some are both.

So … was Schryer real? It’s a real family name, at any rate, although I did not know that at the time. I’ve never look it up either, not in Sudbury’s history, despite all my previous research for my books – written or still in planning – and despite how easy online research has made things. (Or, admittedly, despite often strolling down the garden path of online procrastination when I should be writing.) And even at this exact moment, while writing this post, I still have not checked, and I’m usually fastidious about such things. It is something I’ve put to bed, I guess, and I’m chalking it up as a long ago, once-upon-a-time hot August night in 1991. Moments in time – they are golden, but, like I said, they are fleeting. They, too, are ghosts.

I am skeptical that there’s something more out there. But I’m also skeptical that there’s nothing. “Once seen, forever unseen,” is something I like to quip in my books, but I do believe in those words. You can never go back.

And to this day, I can’t help but remember that while maybe the girl and I stepped away from the Ouija board, Schryer never said goodbye.

We just left it sitting there.

Waiting.

I will ask it no more questions. That way, I hope it will tell me no lies.