NPR’s Ailsa Chang talks to Kevin Brockmeier about The Ghost Variations, a collection of 100 ghost stories that ponder what haunts us in this life and what might make us linger in the next.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: I can’t resist a ghost story. I mean, they usually beat me up, but when I hear someone tell me a ghost story, I can’t turn away. And what I expect to hear is something terrible, like a picture that doesn’t leave my head when I’m trying to fall asleep and makes me pull the covers over my head when I’m alone in the dark. Well, that’s not exactly the effect of Kevin Brockmeier’s new compilation of 100 ghost stories. It’s called “The Ghost Variations,” and it offers a very different take on what it means to be haunted – stories of a woman trying to forget a man, a ghost with a poor sense of direction, and a medium dealing with the dead and the dead can communicate with missing animals. Kevin Brockmeier is now joining us.
KEVIN BROCKMEIER: Thank you for having me, Ailsa. I appreciate it.
CHANG: Well, we’re happy to have you. So I have to ask you about conventional ghosts first. I know your book isn’t all about that, but I want to start there. Do you think ghosts actually exist? And by that I mean spirits of the dead.
BROCKMEIER: I would have liked to have had an encounter that would have convinced me that the spirits of the dead exist. I did not. However, I remain an agnostic. And I am waiting for my life to offer me such an experience.
CHANG: Well, what do you think attracts people so much to ghost stories? Why are ghost stories so irresistible?
BROCKMEIER: Well, traditional ghost stories – I think people just like to experience the coldness of encountering creatures that we are, but not us. And part of that feeling, I think, is embedded in these ghost stories as well. Although very few of them aim to calm you down, many of them try to present us with creatures that could represent us as we might one day exist.
CHANG: That’s so interesting because I noticed that a lot of these stories in your book don’t even contain a spirit in the traditional sense, like the story “His Femininity”. It’s about this scientist who realizes that he has a man’s mind but a woman’s soul. That’s only an example. However, many of these stories are more about someone haunted by an unfulfilled wish or memory. So I wanted to ask you what is a ghost for you after all?
BROCKMEIER: Well, you are right that some of these stories are very sideways ghost stories or tangential ghost stories. I came across something Thomas Carlyle said about Samuel Johnson. And Samuel Johnson spent his life hoping to see a ghost and was disappointed that he never did. And what Carlyle suggested was that Samuel Johnson see people around him everywhere he turned. And if you think of a ghost as a creature that doesn’t belong here, but briefly takes on physical form before disappearing again, that’s how you would define a human being. We seem to be materially out of non-being for a short time and then we vanish back into non-being.
CHANG: Yeah. So I’m curious. Does any of these pieces in this compilation of 100 stories have a personal backstory for you?
BROCKMEIER: Absolutely, yes. Many of them are inevitably about my own worries. One of them is story # 84, called “A Second True Story”. And it’s partly about a little boy who finds a German shepherd in his front yard and immediately feels connected to that dog. But it’s a stray. He can’t keep it. It broke his heart and he has to let go of it. And that is indeed an actual experience I had when I was around 5 years old with an actual dog appearing in the front yard.
The imagination in the story is that every being on earth has a soul, but not its own, and that if you happen to meet the creature who owns the soul that is yours, it will be passed on to you and be you offered the gift of an afterlife. In this story, the little boy who basically am I owns the German Shepherd’s soul. When the German Shepherd trots away, she trots away with the gift of an afterlife. And the boy is on his way into his own life. And maybe one day he will meet the person who owns his soul, and maybe he won’t.
CHANG: I love that. Well, I want to ask you how it was for you, having gathered so much time over all these stories, all these mediations about hauntedness and the gap between this world and the next ponder death?
BROCKMEIER: You know, that’s not so different from how I already occupy my days.
CHANG: Oh, honey (laughter).
BROCKMEIER: There was an earlier book …
CHANG: What do you mean?
BROCKMEIER: My best-known earlier book is called “The Brief History of the Dead”. And much of the story takes place in a realm of the dead that has not yet been forgotten. So the idea is that when you die, as long as you still remember someone who is still alive, you linger in that kind of in-between space of an afterlife. And after you’ve been forgotten by the living, move on to what’s next.
CHANG: And what about death that catches you so powerfully?
BROCKMEIER: Well, you know, two things. One is that I’m just something – I don’t even know the word for it – like something more serious than a hypochondriac.
BROCKMEIER: I am always convinced that I am on the verge of death. And I think a lot of my motivation to write comes from doing exactly that. I’d better finish this book before I die. That is often my thought.
CHANG: Oh, my goodness.
BROCKMEIER: But apart from that, the idea of death as a landscape for fantasy or as a kind of playground on which fantasy can be staged is also very attractive to me.
CHANG: Well, you know what kind of afterlife do you ultimately envision? I mean, did you have one in mind?
BROCKMEIER: Well, I’m an agnostic again. But I think what I believe in – what I imagine is an infinity of afterlife. You know, when this book has 100 different terms about the afterlife, I feel like that’s just beginning to tap the well. Probably my idea – I would never say that this is the afterlife as I actually envision that it is going to unfold. But I often think that in the course of eternity everyone will have the opportunity to be everyone else and that one day you will know what it is like to be me because you will be me. And one day I’ll know what it’s like to be you because I’ll be you. But as for my actual metaphysics, I think what I actually believe in is the idea of some greater unknown.
CHANG: I love that idea. Kevin Brockmeier’s new book is called “The Ghost Variations”.
Thank you for joining us today.
BROCKMEIER: Absolutely. Thanks for talking to me.
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