Something Good #70: My Ghost Stories
Back when portable computers were still a novelty, my dad gave me his used Toshiba Libretto 50 CT. This was, for the time, an astonishing little device. Originally designed for the Japanese market, the Librettos were tiny but fully-functional computers. Mine, which I think was made in 1996 or so (although I didn’t get my hands on it until years later) actually ran Windows 95! It was a small miracle for a machine the rough size of an iPad Mini.
The marquee feature was its pointing device, a velvety nub situated on the bezel to the right of the screen; you’d use your thumb to apply pressure in whichever direction to move the mouse pointer, the buttons located on the other side of the screen, on the lid of the device. It was a cool design.
But who remembers the Libretto today? Who will speak for it?
I do. I will! The Libretto was my companion for many years; I travelled the world with it, started my journalism career on it, corresponded with friends and girlfriends and family members via its ultra-low-speed dial-up modem.
Last week I decided to go looking for my old travelling companion. I went pillaging through the boxes in my office until, under a bunch of mildewed old costumes (a silver lamé spacesuit, a medieval breastplate), I found the Libretto, scuffed and dusty but miraculously still twinned with its power adapter.
I plugged it in and… darn it… the thing came to life, after lord knows how many years. The sight of that familiar Windows 95 loading screen was startling after so long, as was the tiny desktop with all its familiar icons. It all seemed intact, even if for some reason, all of the built-in games had had the first letters of their title lopped off: Olitaire, Reecell, Earts1.
What was even more interesting, though, were the documents I found on the little laptop: some assorted early arts articles and film reviews, but also two short stories I had written decades earlier and which I had long thought lost. One of them had even won me a prize!
I re-read them with anxiety and fascination, taking photos of each screen of text as there was literally no other way for me to get the data off the computer, this being an artifact of the pre-WiFi era. And boy, did I cringe the entire way.
Look. I was young, I was dumb, deeply insecure about my status as a writer, and I sure as heck wasn’t afraid to show my influences on my sleeve. The first story, “The Harlequin” (yeesh) was written under the clear influence of stories like Vladimir Nabokov’s “A Visit to a Museum” and various other pieces from Alberto Manguel’s Dark Waters collection of spooky, surrealistic, fantastic fiction: Julio Cortazer, Italo Calvino, etc. It’s about a guy who goes for a walk in a mysterious city and sees a bunch of dreamlike, effed-up stuff happen, all while reliving an argument he had with his girlfriend. Not all the ideas in it are terrible, but the writing is stiff and mannered, with no sense of humour at all, written before decades of filing copy on deadline had loosened me up a bit.
The second, the prizewinning story2, I remembered better. I think—or rather I thought at the time—that the idea for it first began to germinate when I came across a postcard of a 1937 painting called “Letter Ghost” by Paul Klee in a museum gift shop. But it was inspired by many things, some of which I realized at the time, but others I can only see clearly now, from a distance of more than 20 years.
If you wade through the thicket of my overwritten prose, you find that it’s about an unnamed protagonist left in shock by the death of an important friend, a mentor, a photographer named Jonah. “Jonah was one of those people, who, if you meet them at the right point in your life, can be like religion,” I wrote. “People who, upon getting to know them, make it seem obvious what is important and what isn’t. These people are generally outgrown, or they do something disillusioning. In some cases, I’m sure, they end up as cult leaders or dictators.”
This is all pretty true to my own experience: in my teens and early 20s I was really attracted to strong personalities, typically brilliant weirdos around whom groups of lonely brainy teens would coalesce and commune over art, drugs, etc. Eventually the person would lose interest and wander off, leaving behind a lot of hurt feelings. To a one, every one of these people that I can remember ended up becoming wildly successful in their fields or losing their minds. At the time, I was consciously processing all of this and would have been very aware of it.
The narrator and this Jonah, who is a photographer of minor renown, have an agreement, made one night as a joke. The first one of them to die will contact the other from beyond the grave, somehow.
Much later, after a “long, stupid, pointless” illness, Jonah dies. The narrator, grief-ridden and feeling abandoned, busies himself with sifting through the detritus of his friend’s life, sorting through his old negatives, writing his eulogy for a photography journal, etc.
And then, a month later, a letter comes. It’s addressed in Jonah’s familiar, slanted handwriting. The narrator tears it open eagerly. But there’s nothing inside; the envelope is empty. It feels like a cruel joke from beyond the grave.
Over the following days and weeks (we’re never sure how long), more such letters show up in his mailbox. The narrator opens them all eagerly, desperate for something, anything, from his dead friend. He analyzes the postmarks, the ink, the insides of the envelopes, searching for a clue. But they are all empty. Eventually they start arriving in sackloads; his apartment overflows with them.
They stubbornly resist any attempt to unlock any meaning or message. Finally, the narrator flies into a rage, destroys the envelopes, burns everything he owns that has anything to do with Jonah. The next morning, a single envelope arrives in the mail; he throws it away unopened.
And that is the last letter he ever receives.
There’s the outline there of a a nice-enough story about grief and loss, I think, if you can get over my stiff prose (“sullen and lachrymose as ever…” “the letters came unabated…”).
But what was I actually writing about, besides some stray feelings I’d had about the end of a friendship?
As a matter of fact, I was writing about something very real—an actual event, and one that had really scarred me. I just somehow had no idea at the time.
Scrolling through the old story on the old, worn Libretto computer, it all seems so obvious to me now. And it explains why for many more years after “Letter Ghost,” I never even tried to write anything like a short story again.
Three or four years before, my best friend had attempted suicide. This was both completely out of the blue and, in retrospect, completely inevitable, if I only could have read the clues at the time (I couldn’t, of course. And he is fine now.)
I had no idea how to handle it, emotionally, so I pretty much locked everything away, unwilling to confront, let alone process, all the messy emotions that came in its week. Grief and sadness, sure, but also no small amount of anger, I think even some misplaced contempt, which I felt deeply guilty and ashamed about.
Two days later, while I was still reeling and numb, a letter arrived for me.
It was from my friend. He had written it as a farewell. Mailing it to me was one of what he had assumed to be his last acts. Of course, there was no way to recall a letter already in the mail once his suicide attempt hadn’t succeeded.
Of course, I read it. I remember very vividly doing so in the dining room of my parents’ house. I don’t think I can describe what that felt like.
I can’t describe what was in it, either. It might as well have been an empty envelope, for all I blocked it out.
I think I threw it away. Either way, I put it completely out of my mind.
At least, I thought I did.
This week’s #nojacketsrequired comes from reader Julia H, who says, “My daughter is 7 and can't seem to eat breakfast without reading a book, so the jackets have to stay on for now, sadly.” To which I say: fair enough! As always, please send your unjacketeds to me directly at email@example.com, and not via replying to this email, as the attachments always get lost.
Movie update: You Can Live Forever will be playing around the world over the next month or so. We’ll be at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, the Seattle Queer Film Festival, LesGaiCineMad in Madrid (Sarah and I will be there!), Cheriés-Chéris in Paris… lots more, and some of the above don’t have dates yet, so stay tuned and/or follow our Instagram for more details as they are detailed.
I want to end this newsletter by acknowledging the tragic and utter devastating death of Mi’kmaw filmmaker Jeff Barnaby, director of films like Rhymes for Young Ghouls and the recent Indigenous zombie movie Blood Quantum. Jeff and I shared producers for several projects, and he was a friend. When I was working on The VICE Guide to Film, I knew we had to interview him for our episode on the new wave of Indigenous cinema, and he was awesome. I’m hoping there’s some way I can share it soon.
In his art, in interviews, on Twitter, he was fierce and outspoken and completely unafraid to call it like he saw it—admirably fearless. But in private, he was remarkably supportive and sweet.
He was only getting started.
Every month I’ll send you Something Good. Before I go, I do have one ghost encounter of my own to relate—a geometric spectral visitation. One afternoon, while I was sitting out a migraine in my dimly-lit bedroom, a transparent cube neatly sliced itself out of the air above my bed and rushed toward my head, evaporating on impact.
I never suffered a migraine again. If you like what you read here, please tell a friend or subscribe below.
With a couple of days’ contemplation I’m pretty sure I renamed them myself in some bored attempt to be “funny.”
A Christmas story writing contest at a Canadian bookstore in Paris; I think I got second prize or something. Demoted for not being a Christmas story. Fair enough TBH!