Secrets of the Ouija board

Are Ouija boards dangerous? A comprehensive article traces its history, and the answers aren’t quite conclusive.

ouija 1

A Ouija board is a game that allows users to attempt to contact the spirit world. The board consists of letters and numbers. The player asks a question, and using a pointer, the spirit world will supposedly guide the pointer to letters that spell out an answer. Simple enough, right? Not really.

AlwaysMine_finalOuija boards have a bad reputation. Many consider them a gateway to evil. If this latest news report is to be believed, three young Americans in Mexico fell into convulsions after using a Ouija board (the local priest refused to perform an exorcism because none were parishioners). I used a Ouija board as an element in my horror story Always Mine, and from reader response, it struck a nerve.

But what’s the truth behind this game?

This long Smithsonian article breaks down the history of the Ouija board. It turns out that Ouija boards are a uniquely American creation. In the mid 1800s, a wave of spiritualism swept the US. People believed they could contact the spirit world, which would deliver messages. This belief dovetailed neatly with organized religion, which more or less sanctioned this practice.

Then, in the late 1800s, a canny investor caught wind of a “talking board” and formed a company to manufacture these boards.

Among the interesting facts about the Ouija board:

–The name Ouija supposedly came from the board itself.

–The US patent office approved its patent after the board revealed the patent official’s first name (proof that it worked).

–It quickly became a best-seller, marketed as both a way to contact spirits, predict the future, and as wholesome family fun. Even Norman Rockwell got into the act.

ouija

But there was a dark side to it as well:

–One company head died after falling from a factory building, which he built based on advice from the Ouija board.

–In 1930, two women killed another based on the advice from a Ouija board.

And a quirky side:

–Writers have claimed that their works were written via Ouija board. One poet, James Merrill, won a major award for a poem that was “magnified” by his Ouija board.

So why have Ouija board become linked to evil?

Blame The Exorcist. Since that 1973 groundbreaking horror movie (which was supposedly inspired by actual events), Ouija boards lost any wholesome status they enjoyed. Following the phenomenal success of The Exorcist, Ouija boards have been denounced by religious groups and have become a staple for horror writers (guilty as charged). Interestingly, the board is still a hot seller.

The Smithsonian article delves in to the “why” of the Ouija board. In the simplest of terms, scientists believe Ouija boards tap into our unconscious mind. We may think we are talking to spirits, and in a sense, we are: our own.

But is this all there is to it? Maybe not. Check out these supposedly true scary stories of Ouija board freakiness.

To be honest, I’m not as concerned with how Ouija boards work. Don’t get me wrong: I love science. But when it comes to something like Ouija boards, I’d prefer to keep that element of scary suspense alive.

Read this book: Dark Matter

This moody haunted tale takes its time, but delivers a solid scare.

Dark-Matter-jacket-200x315While writing my latest supernatural work I wanted a good ghost story to read. A google search brought me to a Guardian review of Michelle Paver’s novel Dark Matter. After a few false starts I got to reading it. The woman knows how create a chilling world.

The plot: In 1937 pre-war London, bored clerk Jack Miller signs up to a months-long Arctic expedition run by rich guys Gus, Algie and Hugo. But the isolated expedition site turns out to be haunted. Jack must battle loneliness and isolation as he struggles to survive both the elements and the supernatural force.

First, the positives.

Setting: The setting of Dark Matter is great. She describes the landscape beautifully, and the particulars of the mission confidently, transporting me to the Arctic. It’s obvious that Paver has done her research.

Foreshadowing: Several of the earlier scenes involve Eriksson, a grizzled Norwegian ship captain. His demeanor alone lets us know that nothing good will come from this expedition. And, as in many great horror tales, the neophytes don’t listen to the veteran’s advice.

Mood: Paver is a wordsmith, and she uses her words to spin a claustrophobic, isolated mood. Her writing is deceptively simple. Her language and descriptions are straightforward and powerful.

Jack Miller: he’s the main character of Dark Matter, and the story is told from his point of view. While he’s not the most forthcoming narrator, he is likeable. We root for him, early on, even as he remains hidden from us.

Isaak: Jack befriends one of the huskies, a playful pup named Isaak. I’m not an animal person (I once had a hermit crab that disappeared), but the dog gives the story some much-needed humanity. Animals are powerful in fiction; I learned that in my story Always Mine. My hero Danny has one loyal companion, his dog Rocky, who plays a key role in keeping Danny sane and safe. Their relationship led to some of the strongest feedback from readers. I can see why now. At some points I was more worried for Isaak than Jack.

And the negatives.

The story doesn’t kick in until well over 100 pages. Dark Matter is only a 250 page book. Much of the first 100 pages is setting up the story. I was tempted to put it down for good several times. But once it gets going it’s on fire.

Jack Miller, the hero, is underwritten. The most glaring omission: there’s no mention of any kind of sexual/romantic aspect to his character, inner or outer. Jack is in his mid 20s. There would be some small reference to that aspect of himself, or lack of. Paver previously wrote children’s books. She seemed hesitant to write a fully formed adult.

Perspective: A major flaw is how Dark Matter is told. It’s first person — Jack’s journal entries. But he’s an unreliable narrator, not just about the events but also his own self. I would have loved to see the wider story. We do get a glimpse of it when Jack reads the journal of one of his companions, and what we see is a starkly different version of Jack. I wonder what this story would have been like if written in the 3rd person.

Dark Matter is a flawed book, and I was torn for a while as to whether it warranted a recommendation. In the end, despite these flaws, Paver succeeded in crafting a haunting, disturbed world. Hopefully she will embrace adult fiction more fully.

Interview with Indie Author Kevin Singer

This woman knows a thing or two about writing compelling characters. Dev, the lead in Madhuri Blaylock’s book The Girl (The Sanctum), is a teenage half angel/half demon powerhouse. Recently Madhuri interviewed me about my story Always Mine. It was a great experience. Check out the interview, and check out Madhuri’s book too.

MadhuriWrites

Back in January the book club at 9th & Coles Tavern in downtown Jersey City read THE GIRL and invited me to attend their discussion session. It was loads of fun hanging with Greg and the gang and was where I met fellow author and neighbor, Kevin Singer.

He’s very cool and it was fun talking about my book with another writer so when I had the chance this past March, I returned the favor and picked up his book “Always Mine”. It’s a little gem of a story and if you have a chance, I highly recommend snagging a copy and getting lost in its pages. You won’t regret it.

AlwaysMine_final

After reading “Always Mine”, I thought it would be fun to interview Kevin and see what goes on in his writer’s mind. Here’s what I discovered about Mister Singer:

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’ve been in love…

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On writing: race and the universal

I write about outsiders, mainly — characters who, in one way or another, are cut off from humanity at large, often in ways that aren’t obvious.

Take Danny, for instance, in my supernatural story Always Mine. He’s 15, plays for his high school lacrosse team, and he fits in well enough at school. He’s a good looking white suburban kid. Nothing wrong with his life, right? No, except that his mother is physically abusive and depressive, and his father is deployed to Iraq during the height of the conflict. He is alienated in ways that are hidden, even to himself. That makes it easy for him to fall for Tina, the new girl next door, who uses her Ouija board for not-so-good purposes.

As with Danny, many of my protagonists have been white (and male), in part because that has been my experience, so it’s easy to climb into that skin. But I enjoy writing heroes who are neither of those. Take Randy Velazquez. He’s the star of my book The Last Conquistador. His Hispanic heritage is vital to the story, but for him, it’s just a mundane fact of his life. He doesn’t strongly identify with it, and he doesn’t have the time for it to be an issue, between trying to track down his pregnant runaway girlfriend and dodging a creepy demon.

And a story I’m working on now centers around a 14-year-old Chinese-American girl, Mina. Her ethnic background is secondary to the story. So how do I, as a white guy, approach writing Hispanic or Native American or Asian or African-American characters? Simple, actually. I write them as human beings. My philosophy in writing any character is to get to their common human essence first, and then go from there.

But there seems to be a lot of reluctance to do this, especially in the world of movies and television. Too often nonwhite actors play roles that can only be played by nonwhite actors. It’s rare that you get a Will Smith in I Am Legend. That’s a shame for all of us, because it limits all of our imaginations.

A fellow Jersey City writer, Madhuri Blaylock, wrote a great novel titled The Sanctum: Book One: The Girl. It’s a paranormal thriller that follows Dev, a half angel/half demon teenage girl who is kick-ass. Dev, in a matter-of-factly way, is African American. Blaylock scored a hit with Dev because she wrote her from a place of universal experience. There is no preaching or educating, just entertaining. In a lot of ways, Dev reminded me of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games in that she was 100% relatable. You do not have to be female, black or a teenager to follow Dev as she fights the forces of the Sanctum. Plus, her love interest Wyatt is white; it’s about time we’re moving past the point of interracial relationships being any kind of issue. I highly recommend checking out this thrilling book.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe there’s a place–even a need–for stories unique to gender, culture, age, race, sexuality and religion. But there’s also a need for people who are any or all of the above to be universally relatable. None of those qualities should matter all that much in our day-to-day lives. As writers we can make it so, at least in our fictional worlds.

Fictional faces brought to “life”

One artist is translating writers’ descriptions of their fictional characters. The results are jarring.

For me, half the fun in reading a book is imagining it in my mind’s eye. Sometimes I get a clear image of the characters; other times the image is hazy as the action takes control. Either way, I’m engaged in creating this world in my own imagination with the blueprint that the writer provided.

Brian Joseph Davis has taken some of the best known — beloved and infamous — literary characters and created sketches of them using law-enforcement composite sketch software. He’s compiled the sketches, and the original descriptions, on his website The Composites.

Take Mr. Wednesday, one of the major characters in Neil Gaiman’s classic novel American Gods.

As described by Gaiman:

Shadow looked at the man in the seat next to him…He grinned a huge grin with no warmth in it at all…His hair was a reddish gray; his beard, little more than stubble, was grayish red. A craggy, square face with pale gray eyes…The man’s craggy smile did not change…There was something strange about his eyes, Shadow thought. One of them was a darker gray than the other…humorless grin…Wednesday’s glass eye… He was almost Shadow’s height, and Shadow was a big man.”

And as visualized by Davis?

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That’s not how I pictured Mr. Wednesday in my head. To me he was older, craggier, beefier.

There’s more on Davis’ website. Here’s Marla Singer, from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, as Palahniuk describes her:

My power animal is Marla…Black hair and pillowy French lips. Faker. Italian dark leather sofa lips…Marla stares up at me. Her eyes are brown. Her earlobes pucker around earring holes, no earrings…She actually felt alive. Her skin was clearing up…Marla never has any fat of her own, and her mom figures that familial collagen would be better than Marla ever having to use the cheap cow kind…Short matte black hair, big eyes the way they are in Japanese animation, skim milk thin, buttermilk sallow in her dress with a wallpaper pattern of dark roses…Her black hair whipping my face…The color of Marla’s brown eyes is like an animal that’s been heated in a furnace and dropped into cold water. They call that vulcanized or galvanized or tempered.

And here’s Davis’ image.

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My favorite of Davis’ images is the one that captures a different view of a classic character. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley describes the monster as:

Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing… but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

And here he is:

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With all the Hollywood depictions of the Monster as monstrous, it’s easy to forget that he was not created to be hideous.

As a reader and a writer, I’m not a fan of over-description. In my book The Last Conquistador, I tried to be sparse but concise in my descriptions of the characters. For instance, the protagonist Randy describes his wayward girlfriend Lise as “solid and shapely, like the kid sister of a truck stop waitress.” I wanted to seed a broad image in the reader’s mind.

In Always Mine, Danny, the young hero, meets the stepfather of Tina, the mysterious girl next door that he has a crush on. How do I describe Bob? Using just a few key images:

“He shook Danny’s hand rough and hard. He was meaty with a walrus mustache, and he glared as if Danny harbored bad intentions for his daughter.”

While I prefer the less is more approach, after browsing through Davis’ website and comparing the writers’ words with the sketches produced, I have a greater appreciation for those writers who are meticulous in crafting their characters. It’s fascinating to see how writers shape the worlds we create in our minds.

When it’s dangerous to dream

Dreams in fiction are hard — but not impossible — to pull off.

Why? Two reasons. 1) most dreams are fragmented (to ourselves) and boring (to others), and 2) a book/TV show/movie is essentially a dream: the writer is asking the reader to suspend their disbelief. To add a dream within a dream is tricky, and risks pulling the reader from the main story.

But dreams can be effective. Let’s look at the movies.

Cover of "Inception"

Cover of Inception

Inception was a great film about lucid dreamscapes. The viewer was never sure where reality ended and dreams began, even after the movie ended. Some people hated the whole movie because of this, but for me it worked.

The Nightmare on Elm Street series wasn’t just a bunch of teen slasher flicks. It was also a clever way to exploit nightmares common to all of us. Even in our worst nightmares we know on some level they are just dreams. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, this was no longer true.

And on TV?

I can’t skip over the single worst use of dreams EVER: when the writers of mega-soap Dallas passed a whole season off as a dream. Horrible. Unbelievable.

Anyway…

Restless (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Restless (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer had an episode titled Restless. It’s almost entirely dream sequences. Each of the four main characters, Willow, Xander, Giles and Buffy, experiences dreams–surreal dreams–that convey character and information vital for future episodes. It was unorthodox storytelling, and it worked. 

In Doctor Who, the episode Amy’s Choice followed Amy, Rory and the Doctor as they are forced to distinguish between reality and a dream world. They face mortal danger in both realms, and must choose to “die” in the dream in order to awaken in reality.

These all worked because the dream was integral to the story being told.

What about shorter dreams? I’ve used them in my writing, and it’s challenging. In The Last Conquistador, the main character, Randy, is awakened from a dream, and I describe fragments of it:

“It’s too early to be awake, and it’s not the sun bleeding through my curtains that wakes me. It’s the scratching. At first I think it’s the dream, the one where I’m swimming in the clear Caribbean waters when a hand pulls me under, but it’s not. Scratching, slicing, screeching. It’s not a dream. It’s coming from my window.”

The dream for Randy is part of a break from the world as we know it; as the book progresses, he will “slip” between worlds. And, it’s a short, singular image that melds waking and sleep.

In Always Mine, the main character, Danny, is targeted by an evil spirit after using a Ouija board. The entry point for this evil spirit? Dreams. He eats away at Danny through his unconscious mind. Dreams were the gateway.

Writing dreams is a tricky proposition. It usually only works if it’s an integral part of the story.

Evil and the Ouija board

An underused trope of horror gets its due.

The Ouija board is basically just a game. You touch a pointer (or other object), and ask questions of the spirit world. The pointer will move between yes/no, or letters to give you an answer. Simple enough.

Except when you play with a Ouija board, you’re messing with the spirit world.

From a creative standpoint, there are tons of possibilities. But I’ve rarely seen it portrayed in TV, movies or in print. the 2007 movie Paranormal Activity used it to good and creepy effect. A recent episode of American Horror Story: Coven had one as well (they called it a spirit board), though it wasn’t nearly as consequential as it could have been.

Now there’s a new movie in production, called, simply enough, Ouija. It’s way too early to tell how this one will pan out; from the looks if it, it will be a typical teen horror flick. At least it’s a start.

My opinion?The more interpretations the better.

Always MineI’ve added my own Ouija board story to the canon. It’s called Always Mine, and it’s about Danny, a 15-year-old who has a crush on Tina, the new girl next door. She lures him into Ouija board play, and he quickly becomes the target of the spirit of a drowned Swedish sailor.

It was a fun story to write, and I attribute that to the Ouija board — a great prop and a cool gateway into tales of terror.