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Missing Chapter from APPARITION: Detective Grierson finding Matthew’s Body in the Barn (Happy Halloween!)

A policeman stands at the entrance of a huge old barn on 12th Line. He pushes on the old barn door, slowly opening inwards, and he peeks inside. Then he pushes it open some more, so that sunlight streams like rays of heaven into a dark wooden cathedral. He steps inside. He can see the boy standing, slouching forward against something along the far wall. It looks like something is sticking out of his back, and on the ground in front of him, the dirt floor is dark. The officer takes two steps in, stops, then steps back into the sunlight outside.
“The kid is in there. He’s dead. Call it in. Grierson too. And better tell the old man he’ll be coming in for questioning.” Then he turns, head down, and walks back into the barn.
Detective Dave Grierson arrives on the Telford property about 27 minutes after he gets the call. He parks his blue sedan on the long gravel driveway that leads from the road up to the Telford farmhouse, grabs a canvas bag from the car floor on the passenger side, and steps out. There are already three police cruisers and an ambulance parked ahead of him. He walks across a rough field to the right behind the house, towards the old abandoned barn. It’s one of those very faded forgotten buildings in the landscape that don’t catch your eye. There are two officers examining the exterior, two more inside, taking notes and pictures, and two paramedics standing by, waiting for their cue to take the body out. Grierson’s seen a couple of dozen or so murder scenes in his 20 years on the Grey County force. Mostly they’ve been the result of people getting on each other’s nerves. Also drinking, doing drugs and being stupid. But this Sorenson kid was an “A” student from one of the cleanest families in town. He knows the parents. They do fundraising every year for the Annual Police BBQ Picnic. He steps just inside the barn door and sees the victim, a dark-haired teenage boy, standing upright near the far wall. This is the oddest, most brutal murder he’s seen in years. This is going to be a very big deal in Grey County.
The barn is mostly empty, probably hasn’t been used in decades. He’d noticed a second outbuilding on the other side of the farmhouse, brown aluminum siding. That’s what the farmer uses for his tractor, other equipment. Not this one. He walks inside. There are a few broken and rusted pieces of antique-looking farm machinery, tools, and old hardware junk piled up in corners. Nothing out of the ordinary. No signs of vagrants. No recent garbage. No pop cans or beer bottles. Not a hang-out. No illicit business venue. Just a sad, abandoned piece of local history.
Grierson looks up, through the massive timbers and rafters, towards the roof. The grey boards are weathered and loose, a few missing. In the fragments of sunlight the air is filled with dust. He looks back down at the figure before him, propped up like a hunch-backed puppet standing, facing the back stall. Pinned there, it seems, by a pitchfork. “What the devil?” he mutters to himself.
Grierson walks in the direction of the boy’s body, eyes on the ground, scouring for footprints, markings, anything loose, anything odd. He walks a half-circle around the corpse. He’s guessing dead less than a day. He pulls a worn notepad from his bag, pulls a pen from his shirt pocket, and begins to write. Pitchfork entered abdomen at a near right angle, parallel to the floor. He digs into his bag and pulls out a small metal tape measure. The handle end of the pitchfork rests on a horizontal stall ledge about 44 inches above the ground, extending into the stall by about 13 inches, wedged tight between two vertical boards in the stall door, held in place by another horizontal beam inside the stall. The rusty prongs, now sticky and caked, protruding through the abdomen just below the rib cage and out the back by an inch or so, four of the five prongs clear through, one on the right scraping the body. It’s the rib cage resting on the pitchfork that’s kept him upright. Arms limp at sides. Blood running south from the puncture wounds, down the jeans, front and back, on the running shoes and the ground. Grierson stares at the young face. He watches a fly crawling across the lower lip, over the dried blood that spilt down his chin from his mouth.
No sign of defensive wounds. No sign of struggle. Was the penetration made before or after the pitchfork was wedged into place? Could he have been killed, then propped up in this position? And if afterwards, and the pitchfork wasn’t plunged into him, was he pushed into it? Facing it? Did he resist? And looking at the tips of the prongs, how much force to be run right through? Quite a bit of force he reckons. Quite a bit. Ridiculous, really. He continues to write, focusing on questions for the coroner. What’s under the fingernails, on the palms?
The legs are slightly bent at the knees and ankles, not taking the body’s weight. From a distance, it almost looks like he’s standing. Grierson pulls out a flashlight and takes a closer look at the straw floor around the feet. He brings the flashlight back behind the body and slowly circles the light onto the ground. He can see what looks like tracks in the straw and dust leading away and down the barn floor, the kind of trail that might be made by someone kicking up straw as they pace back and forth. He brings the flashlight back to the body. The running shoes are dusty, covered in dry streams of blood and bits of straw. Grierson stands close to the boy’s face now, bowed chin on chest, black hair hanging over the eyes, the buzz of flies in the air, and thinks. Matthew Sorenson. This was a decent kid. Then he nods to one of the paramedics, and they move in to begin the delicate task of freeing the body from the metal grip. He flips through a few pages of his notebook, looking for the Sorensons’ address. This part he hates.

Want to Buy a Haunted House?

I’ve always felt that old houses give off emotions, and I’ve been especially aware of it when house-hunting. I know that sounds like basic psychological projecting, but I like to call it intuition.

I think emotions can linger in the air and penetrate walls like cigarette smoke. Most of the time I feel nothing in particular, or nothing that I can name, but every once in a while, there’s a sadness or fear or anger or happiness. Then there’s the whole issue of ghosts. I don’t normally worry about whether the house actually has a ghost, at least not during daylight hours.

Haunted house 2

There’s a beautiful old property with boarded up windows and a real estate ‘for sale’ sign only about 5 minutes away from our farmhouse in Grey County. I’ve been inside a few times, because it used to be a restaurant. In fact, it used to be three or four different restaurants over the last dozen years alone. None survived for very long.

I don’t think the problem was ever the food or service.  At least, that’s not what one of the servers in the second last restaurant establishment told us as she waited on our table. She said that everyone who worked there knew that the house is haunted. Specifically, there is a young phantom child, a girl, who hangs around on the second floor. Numerous patrons had seen her over the years.  She told us of a number of strange goings-on in the kitchen too. She even invited us to go take a wander in the empty rooms upstairs before we left, and we did. We didn’t actually see anybody up there but, well, I did have a funny feeling.

I wrote about this place in APPARITION. Morris Dyson tells Amelia about the house’s remarkable and rich history, including its time as a safe house on the Underground Railway for Africans escaping from slavery in the southern United States, and later, as a brothel serving the sailors passing through Owen Sound, a bustling port on the Great Lakes at the turn of the century.

The server also mentioned that the haunted history of the house was included in the legal description when the property last changed hands. Mark Weisleder is a Toronto real estate lawyer who writes a column in Toronto Star, and he had this to say about selling a haunted house: “My advice is that if you know about psychological defects in a property, disclose them and avoid unnecessary proceedings later. If as a buyer you are concerned, include a clause in your contract that the seller has no knowledge that the property is haunted and that no murders or suicides ever occurred on the property.” And if you buy a house that you later discover was known to be haunted, you can always sue. You might win your case.

So, will this house ever be a happy home again? With the big box stores moving ever further east along this stretch of highway leading out of Owen Sound, its future is more likely demolition for some big American store chain’s parking lot.  A sad end, when maybe all that ghost girl needs is a little human kindness.

Haunted People vs. Haunted Places

haunted_house_4_by_fairiegoodmother-d5d3x91I’ve often wondered why, in Western culture, ghosts mainly haunt places, specific places that have some kind of connection to them when they were alive. But in Eastern culture – Japan, for instance (where they are equally if not even more fond of ghost stories!) – ghosts tend to target and haunt specific people.

Mr. Takahiro Hamano, a Japanese Television executive producer of an anthology series of ghost stories that ran on NHK, their public TV network, explained to me that ghosts in Japanese folklore usually pick on a person who wronged them or was responsible for their deaths. Once a ghost has a grudge, the person they have a grudge against can run, but they can’t hide. The ghost will catch up with them, even if they have to track them down in a Holiday Inn hotel room a thousand miles away. Ghosts can do that in Japan.

But in our culture, ghost stories are more likely to focus on a very specific location. It’s almost as if the ghost “lives” in a particular spot, a woods, a graveyard, a shack, and most likely of all, a big old house. Our ghosts tend to be house-bound, and can’t leave it even if they wanted to. They’re shut-ins. The good news here is that, often, if you run out the front door and down the road, the ghost may not follow you past the front gate. If you hitch a bus out of town, chances are that you are totally out of danger. But if you choose to spend the night, well, then you’re just asking for trouble.

Sometimes, the “haunted house” genre goes so far that it’s as if the house itself is haunted, as if the house is the ghost. It’s alive, well, in the way a ghost is ‘alive’.  A good example is in the classic ghost story film “The Haunting” (the original and not the crappy remake) where the very walls seem to breathe and buckle and bang in the dead of night.

And how often do those classic ghost stories end with the haunted house burning down? As if the house itself is cursed and the very building has to be destroyed in order to exorcise the evil spirits: The House of Usher, The Haunting, The Changeling – haunted houses always seem to end up in ashes.

I’ll be honest. I’m not a big fan of contemporary movies about ghosts. I don’t like gratuitous gore, torture, and sexualized violence, and I don’t enjoy being frightened so badly that I can’t sleep at night. (That already happens to me too often.) I did appreciate The Blair Witch Project, though I wouldn’t want to watch its sequel. And I’ve avoided all the usual poltergeist horror movies with fixed cameras etc. I’m just too chicken. But if you have a ghost story to recommend that’s thoughtful and not just disturbing – I mean apart from The Sixth Sense or The Others, which were great – please let me know!!!

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