By John Christopher Nelson
I attended a residency in Dingle, Ireland, earlier this month. It was my first time outside of the country. Actually, I’d been to Mexico, but I grew up in San Diego and the journey to Rosarito didn’t require a passport. So I don’t count that. My official first time abroad included a visit with my peers to the Blasket Islands, located along the southwest coast of Ireland. They’re worth the effort for those who have never been and worth returning to for those who have. I haven’t seen anything as awe-inspiring in the States, and I’ve traveled around there a bit. The boat ride over, however, was harrowing. It’s not a long trip, but every moment counts for those given over to seasickness.
There is an abandoned village along the face of the largest island. Two of my peers and I ascended the hill beyond the village and discussed all number of things between our labored breaths. By then we had a few days of local pub use and were feeling easily winded. We discovered a crest fitting for a break where we laid in the grass, soaked in the sun, and looked into the Atlantic, endless in some directions, its waves sudsy against the edges of neighboring islands.
Off to the left, on a higher rise—the peak of the island—I spotted another structure and suggested we check it out.
About ten minutes further and we were standing at the height of the island, looking at the ruins of the only building nearby. The remains suggested it had been larger than the others back down at the base. There was an indentation in the ground to the side of the ruins. It wasn’t a dug out hole with rough edges or exposed dirt. It was a subtle groove into the earth carpeted with grass. The edge of the indentation was lined with rocks, and inside the pit were two flat stones upon which stood a pillar.
We made guesses at the nature of what we were looking at. Some sort of royalty or political entity in the village might have occupied the building.
We were told later that the grouping of stones could have been a runic circle, which were not entirely uncommon around that part of the world. The building might have been a Napoleonic era lookout tower, many of which would have lined the coast at one point in time.
That was fine, but there had been something about the unfamiliarity of what we had seen that had left us feeling eerie on our way back down the hill. The topic of conversation turned to the supernatural.
Maybe the stones were something we weren’t meant to see. Or, if we’d touched or moved them, we’d be possessed or the island would begin to shake with the unrest of troubled spirits.
These guesses were made in jest but led us to an overused, formulaic convention of ghost stories, one most people have heard some iteration of.
One version follows.
A young man is out on the town one evening on his own. He crosses paths with a young woman. His age. His type. He is surprised to see none of the other young men around even looking in her direction. She’s gorgeous and certainly worth talking to. The young man decides to take advantage of the failure in judgment of all the other men around him.
He approaches the young woman, engages her in conversation. They hit it off. She seems pleased that he is even talking to her, surprised even, which strikes him as odd. He’s never been great with women. He often feels compelled to approach them but decides not to, owing to a lack of confidence. The handful of times he’s mustered up the nerve to talk to a girl, he typically strikes out. He isn’t their type. He says something wrong.
He cannot believe his luck, but he tries not to get too excited about it. Better to keep cool and avoid the potential for disappointment.
The night goes well, and he offers to walk her home. She seems hesitant, but only for a moment. A look passes over her face, and after it’s gone she agrees to be escorted. He chooses to believe the look was nothing, and they walk away from the busier part of town. Eventually their steps transition them into a residential neighborhood.
There is not a break in conversation.
The chemistry, god, it’s seamless.
Much too soon, she tells him, “This is it.” The house they’ve arrived at is hers. He turns to walk her to the front door, but she stops him, keeps him standing with her at the sidewalk.
“I don’t want my mother to see. It might upset her.”
They kiss near a tree, out of sight of the windows or door. It’s as magical as any kiss he can imagine, much more than any kiss he’s experienced in the little practice he’s had. After their lips part, she keeps her eyes aligned with his, her smile creeping up as far.
They agree to see each other soon.
He asks her name. How have they gone the entire night without this formality? Had she avoided it earlier? He’s too full of piss and vinegar to remember.
“Vanessa,” she says.
She doesn’t ask his. He doesn’t think to notice and offers, “I’m Pete.”
They say goodbye.
He’s in his bedroom before he realizes he forgot to write down her telephone number. How will he contact her to ask her out on another date, to see this pursued further?
They’ll run into each other in town again. He hopes. She must have also realized their misstep by now and will surely be at the same place tomorrow or the next night, thinking the same thing.
But she does not show.
He gives it three nights. Nothing.
He decides it is worth the risk of upsetting Vanessa’s mother. He has to see her and has already wasted too much time leaving it to chance.
Pete gathers up his courage and walks back to the Vanessa’s house. He’s not sure if it is hers on the first pass. He knows, at a point, he has gone too far, walks back. He finally decides, “This is the house.”
He heads up the walkway and knocks at the door. What feels like too much time passes, but he imagines this is owed to nervousness or the general expectation of conflict or disappointment that has adrenaline flowing through him.
Finally the door opens, and it isn’t Vanessa. It’s her mother, which he should have expected. Did expect.
She seems aged more than by years. This woman is tired. The expression on her face does not give Pete the impression that she is upset. She appears confused.
He doesn’t know how much time has passed with him just staring at her in expectation.
She breaks the silence and asks, “Yes?”
“Hi. Yes. I, I was here to talk to Vanessa. If she is she home?”
Now she looks upset. She must not have realized he was here for her daughter. She thought he was a solicitor. He runs through several responses to some of the things he anticipates she might say next.
“I’m sorry,” she says after a longer pause than the first. “Is this a joke?”
“I, I just. A few nights ago I met your daughter in town and we got along really well. I just thought—”
“You need to leave,” she says. Before he can begin to respond, she shuts the door and the deadbolt turns.
He is defeated, crestfallen. He stands at the door. Should he knock again, persist, try to better explain his position? He would like to think this would do something, but he knows it won’t. The mother must be very strict, which would explain the hesitation on Vanessa’s face the other night.
He turns to leave.
Pete continues to return to the spot where he and Vanessa met. Still, she does not show. More nights pass. The thought of Vanessa possesses his every moment. She was too good to be true. He ought to have known it. But why? Was it just the mother? Was that the only reason she had disappeared? Why couldn’t she return here to try to see him outside of her house, away from her mother? She had obviously been allowed out that once. So what? Or maybe she had simply been humoring him. That kind of thing happens, but if that was what she had done, Pete wanted to know.
He is so overcome with all of this that he decides it is worth whatever conflict might occur between him and the mother to go back and try again.
This time he knows the house when he sees it. He marches to the door and knocks purposefully. He cannot discern the validity of his own confidence but tries not to think about it too much.
There is no delay this time. The mother answers, already angry.
“I told you—”
“I know, but your daughter is incredible. I can’t stop thinking about her. I just, if I could.” But he stops. What did he intend to say? If he could just what? “Could I please talk to Vanessa, just for a second?”
The mother is incensed, cannot contain her incredulous rage. “What is wrong with you? Vanessa has been dead for twenty years!”
This shouldn’t be unfamiliar. It’s likely most readers anticipated the ending a ways before I got to it, because most have heard some version of this story before. I remember a telling in one of the three Alvin Schwartz Scary Stories anthologies, all of which haunted my dreams and inspired me as a boy. The twist ending—at that time not so played out and thus thoroughly effective and surprising—of The Sixth Sense is also a turn on this convention. The film The Others basically reversed the perspective of the narrative to read, “We’ve been dead this whole time.” It’s a simple formula, which is why it’s been retold for years.
Back on the Blasket Islands, my friends and I made a joke about descending the hill to ask one of the faculty about the tower and being told something along the lines of, “The Blasket Tower and Rune Stone? Those have been missing for five hundred years!”
Different versions of this joke continued for the remainder of our time in Ireland, some of them especially absurd (in response to the nearly 360 degree view of the Atlantic Ocean, “The Atlantic Ocean has been dry for centuries!”).
Why the appeal with this particular convention, beyond its familiarity and ease?
We live in a society that, while it might suggest otherwise, loves to look its gift horses directly in the mouth. Nothing is certain anymore.
There is so much knowledge at the ready, via the Internet, but we cannot be sure how much of it is accurate. In a sense, the issue of online dating and not truly knowing who is at the other end is reminiscent of Pete’s experience: meeting a dream girl only to later discover she was an illusion, a phantom.
It’s in our nature to want proof, verification, certainty. Yet, this struggle to attain security is something that can drive a person to madness because it is something we are unable to truly achieve.
Even in real life, all a person can go on is the word of the other. The idea of a haunting that frightens the person who experiences it alone is the questioning of one’s senses, the notion of truth. Pete would no doubt be troubled by the revelation at the end of this story for a number of reasons. Shock, confusion, disbelief, fear of encountering a ghost face-to-face.
Could Pete ever again trust his own sense of surroundings? If Vanessa was a ghost but he had no idea, what is to say that every person Pete meets isn’t an illusion? Where does the ability to trust one’s eyes begin or end?
What makes a good ghost story is the ability to convince the audience of, “Just maybe.” It isn’t necessary for the reader to believe in their hearts that such a thing could happen. But maybe it could. They do not need to subscribe to a belief in the supernatural. Another human tendency is to search for the logical explanation.
Pete could have been confused about the address or perhaps he could be suffering from mental illness, which puts an entirely different spin on the story. The young woman could have been lying to Pete about her identity. (Wait, did Pete actually see Vanessa enter the home they stopped in front of?) This returns to the inherent human fear of being able to trust.
The most appealing part of a ghost story is how it relates to trust. We trust the person telling the story to provide us with the facts. We fear a situation in which we cannot trust others and, as such, cannot trust ourselves or our sense of the world around us.
As an example of the futility of trust and how it can alter things, the story could end an entirely different way with the addition of a few more lines.
Pete turns to leave, the door shut in his face once more. His world has been shattered. What is he to make of this?
The girl of his dreams is not real. He met a ghost. How can he continue on with his life? This will change everything for Pete.
Inside the house, Vanessa’s mother walks back into the kitchen where Vanessa is studying.
Vanessa asks, “Who was that?”
“Oh.” Vanessa frowns and turns back to her work. She is saddened that Pete still has not called on her.
John Christopher Nelson was raised on a ranch in San Diego and has moved twenty-eight times since. He studied American Literature at UCLA and is currently earning an MFA from Stonecoast at USM.
Image Source: “Great Blasket Island,” Cargoking (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported)