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Here Come the Ghosts Again

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I think the early signs of my interest in ghosts are the epilogues I’ve written to many of my novels — I love epilogues. They are a way to keep the dead alive. The first draft of the Epilogue to The World According to Garp was twice as long as any of the other chapters. As Garp writes: “An epilogue is more than a body count. An epilogue, in the disguise of wrapping up the past, is really a way of warning us about the future.” Think of the ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. That’s what some ghosts do; they warn us about our future.

Two chapters before the last chapter of In One Person, it was as if I couldn’t wait to write the Epilogue; the twelfth (of fourteen) chapters is titled “A World of Epilogues.” In that novel’s last chapter, Billy wakes up one morning to find his clothes — “neatly arranged, in the order I would put them on” — at the foot of his bed. The unseen ghost of Billy’s mom has laid out his clothes for him. “It was precisely the way my mother used to prepare my clothes for me when I was a little boy,” Billy tells us. “It happened only that one morning, but it was enough to make me remember when I had loved her — without reservation.” Ghosts don’t just warn us about the future; they remind us of what we’ve forgotten about the past.

There’s the moment in A Prayer for Owen Meany, after Owen has died, when Owen speaks through the Rev. Merrill, who has still not revealed himself as Johnny’s father. The Rev. Merrill has kept the baseball Owen Meany hit — the one that struck and killed Johnny’s mother. The baseball is in a drawer in his desk, in the vestry office. Here’s how Johnny puts it: “When the Rev. Mr. Merrill spoke, he spoke not with his own voice — he spoke in the ‘permanent scream’ of Owen Meany. It was Mr. Merrill’s mouth that formed the words, but it was Owen Meany’s voice that spoke to me. ‘LOOK IN THE THIRD DRAWER, RIGHT-HAND SIDE.’” As Johnny later tells us: “Owen promised me that God would tell me who my father was. I always suspected that Owen would tell me—he was always so much more interested in the story than I was. It’s no surprise to me that when God decided it was time to tell me who my father was, God chose to speak to me in Owen’s voice.”

And what can we make of Marion and Dorothy in Avenue of Mysteries? They are the ghosts, or the angels of death, who accompany the older Juan Diego on his journey to the Philippines. At times, they resemble the Virgin Mary and Our Lady of Guadalupe. But in the end, when Juan Diego is dying, we see Marion and Dorothy dressed in mourning, hooded and shrouded in black. They are praying in a church in Manila, just as we saw them praying in a church in Oaxaca, when Juan Diego was a young boy. Marion and Dorothy are mysterious in the way they choose not to reveal themselves.

All this is to say, I have a history of being interested in ghosts. And here come the ghosts again. In my new novel, my fifteenth, the ghosts are more prominent than before; the ghosts, or hints of ghosts, begin and end the novel. This is the first novel I’ve written that I would call “a ghost story.” I’m calling it Darkness as a Bride, from these lines in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

“If I must die,
I will encounter darkness as a bride,
And hug it in mine arms.”

Like A Widow for One Year, this novel is constructed as a play in three acts. I’m calling Act I “Early Signs.” I began writing Darkness as a Bride on New Year’s Eve — not a bad night to start a ghost story.