“We tried to make them happy,” the wife said, stroking her husband’s back.
Before the plague, most of the ghost hunter’s business had been expelling long-forgotten ghosts from valuable residential and commercial property. A few times, he had coaxed grandma or grandpa out of their old place, but he’d never met grief this fresh and raw. The husband’s quiet shuddering made him feel queasy and awkward. Queasy because on one hand, he was taking this man’s children away, which clearly the man did not want. Awkward because the ghost hunter felt he had to console the couple, and people had never been his strong suit. He took the wife’s hand in his cold grip and assured her, in his best TV voice, that their children would be happy in heaven.
—from “Six Flags” (Unstuck #1)
Meghan McCarron’s fiction has appeared on Tor.com and in Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and several anthologies including Best American Fantasy.
Interview by Janalyn Guo
UNSTUCK: In "Six Flags," the ghost hunter takes on odd jobs to make do when his ghost hunting services are no longer demanded: as tent repairer, handyman, and medium. What sorts of odd jobs have you had in your lifetime? What uncommon skills have you acquired?
MEGHAN MCCARRON: The two oddest jobs I’ve had were action movie researcher and typist for an experimental philosopher. Right after I moved to Los Angeles, I was hired for a brief Research Assistant gig by a writer updating his academic book about the action genre. For three weeks, I went to the Academy Library every day and read their files on The Hulk and Die Hard 4 and Hellboy and any other films that had come out since the book first appeared. Basically, this means I have read every print review of these films as well as the trades’ coverage of their production process. Embarrassingly enough, I can no longer remember why I read all of this information or what I did with it, but I am intimately familiar with the plot details of movies I have never seen.
A few years later I moved to New York, and while I searched for actual jobs, I went to the Carroll Gardens sublet of an experimental philosopher who had terrible carpal tunnel and typed for him. I learned a great deal about how one goes about revising a journal paper, as well as the intense world of academic debates on philosophy blogs. He actually is married to Alina Simone. In the opening of her book, she describes how miserable and falling-down their Brooklyn apartment was that summer—it was surreal to read someone’s perspective on a situation I also happened into by chance, and had nearly forgotten about.
UNSTUCK: Did you switch back and forth between transcription (and research) and being more involved with the shaping of these thinkers’ ideas (giving feedback, etc.)?
MEGHAN MCCARRON: Ha! No, I was a straight-up transcriber. I asked a bunch of questions about experimental philosophy, because that shit is interesting, but as far as everyone was concerned, I was some random girl typist. It was, in retrospect, a very Girls-like moment. I was well-educated, and intellectual, and working on a novel, but I was making ends meet doing jobs women had been doing traditionally for a long time, because that’s all I could find. It was depressing, but I was grateful for the money paying my rent.
UNSTUCK: Are you familiar with the author David Ohle? I think, for a time, he worked as Burroughs’s dream transcriber, sort of jotting down Burroughs’s dreams at his moment of waking. If you got to choose any person, living or dead, who would you want to dream-transcribe for?
MEGHAN MCCARRON: My first thought was “Barack Obama,” because that dude has to be having some seriously weird dreams right now, you know? Lots of drones. But I think my vote would have to be for Virginia Woolf, because her use of dream logic is always so lucid—I bet her dreams would make really interesting connections, instead of the stereotypical mishmash most of us end up with.
UNSTUCK: I’m curious about the research you did before/while writing this piece, as far as ghost hunting and the ritual around that goes.
MEGHAN MCCARRON: Actually, a lot of the research I used was from a previous story, also about a haunting, called “Swift, Brutal Retaliation,” which was recently published on Tor.com. For both of these pieces, I poked around online forums and watched videos to get a sense of how our culture conceives of ghost hunting, but I also made a lot up, honestly. Burning sage and scattering salt are perhaps authentic, but the ghost treats and the angel of death were my own insertions. I hope that my inventions didn’t invite a smiting, divine or ghostly.
UNSTUCK: What do you imagine ghost treats taste like?
MEGHAN MCCARRON: I never really considered the taste of ghost treats! I imagined that their pleasure would be rooted in the fact that they’re the only things ghosts can eat, period. Who wouldn’t miss the pleasure of chewing and tasting and swallowing? That said, if I think about what that taste might be, I imagine something sweet and vanilla-y.
UNSTUCK: Mmm—the vanilla sounds comforting. What did you discover about how our culture conceives of ghost hunting?
MEGHAN MCCARRON: The one interesting, but in a way disappointing, thing is that very little of it is magical. It’s all about having the right kind of technology.
One of my favorite things about the history of photography is how quickly ectoplasm photos showed up—and how crappy they were! A similar logic—we have captured this with technology, which is conflated with it being “scientific”—is a big part of the ghost hunting scene. And just the fact that people now go on ghost hunts says a great deal about the conception of hauntings. That we need to track ghosts down to begin with, and then perhaps exterminate them, is a sad thought on one hand. On the other, who wants to be haunted? Nobody.
UNSTUCK: I really enjoy “Six Flags” for all the ways in which the child ghosts demolish these adults’ possessions. In the story, the adults find peace when they retreat to the wilderness with no belongings only to grow “soft and pale” again when they return to their houses. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on “stuff” and how our accumulation of it affects our humanness.
MEGHAN MCCARRON: I think there are two levels to this answer. Story-wise, all this focus on stuff made sense because “stuff” is a great fictional shorthand for stability. I imagined the adult characters taking refuge in their houses and things after the loss of their children, and the child ghosts resenting all the objects insulating their parents from the horror the children had suffered.
I have a way more complicated relationship with stuff. As I mentioned before, I’ve spent my twenties moving around a great deal, which also has meant acquiring and then leaving behind a great deal of stuff. Of everything I’ve acquired and abandoned, I have two regrets: that I lost my awesome tiger sweater in the back of a cab during SXSW, and that my old issues of One Story and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet got lost when I was shipping my books from Brooklyn to Austin. Everything else, I don’t miss at all. Despite the fact that it’s really annoying to buy a bed three times in four years, I am glad for this semi-nomadism.
I do think there’s one worthwhile category of stuff that I think of as “tools.” Unfortunately, since I like to cook, I can justify all sorts of ridiculous shit as “tools.” How can I make a bundt cake if I don’t have a bundt cake pan, hello?
We accumulate stuff at our peril. I’m currently trying to figure out when it makes sense to accumulate things, and how much philosophy I can actually wedge into my sensibilities, which after all were formed in our hyper-consumerist society. Short of running off to found my West Texas eco-commune (McCarronland), I have no hope of escaping that mindset, so I guess I have to resign myself to a certain number of “justified” purchases that turn out to be bundt cake pans.
UNSTUCK: I liked the line: “Modern ghosts, especially, had to be lured through objects.” Can you elaborate on this idea?
MEGHAN MCCARRON: Our culture has fairly weak ties to religion and ritual. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—religion and ritual can be imprisoning forces. But that empty space also means that we don’t have as many ways of mediating between ourselves and our surroundings. One of our few remaining rituals, it could be argued, is the accumulation of objects that indicate status, reinforce preferences, provide pleasure, and create safety. I had difficulty imagining how else one might cross the boundary between the living and the dead—few things tie us to our environment like objects.
UNSTUCK: So what does a place like Six Flags mean in the world of objects (simulated environments)?
MEGHAN MCCARRON: The freaky thing about being a child in our culture is that you have a very innocent, but also very defenseless, relationship to some of our most commercially focused environments. Six Flags is a world made entirely of commodities. But the kids don’t know that! They don’t dole out the money—their parents do. They just get to indulge in the cheap thrills. I think the child ghosts are, outside of their obvious pain and anger, also very bored, and Six Flags is the most exciting place they can think of, and also a place that always requires an adult gatekeeper/escort, even if he’s also a ghost hunter.
UNSTUCK: In “Six Flags,” it seems that both the adults and children are sort of frozen in their development. And the one character that does go through an astounding change is the ghost hunter. He begins to enter the world of the living whereas he was so removed before. Could you speak a little bit about his transformation—why is it now, post-plague, that the ghost hunter has his time?
MEGHAN MCCARRON: I imagine that as a culture we are, if anything, under-haunted. The ghost hunter thought he understood how death and the afterlife worked, but his position between worlds was a sanitized one. He transforms, in my imagination, because he has to confront “raw” death and his own inability to negotiate that rawness.
I couldn’t imagine that the death of most of the world’s children would lead to much “growth” on the part of their parents. And the children have been robbed of their future, so what’s the point of changing for them? But the ghost hunter, since he occupied a space between the anger of the children and the grief of their parents, had room to move. I’m not sure if he made the right moves, but he did have a journey to make.
UNSTUCK: I once went to a talk by the poet Cole Swensen (I think she was working on a collection of ekphrasis poems about ghosts—ghosts as ekphrastic objects?) in which she mentioned that during the Victorian era, people usually saw ghosts that they knew; the ghosts that came to them were familiar. But in the modern age, our ghosts, the ones that visit us, tend to be strangers. Might this have something to do with our “under-hauntedness?”
MEGHAN MCCARRON: Wow, I love that idea both of ghosts as ekphrastic objects and of the evolution of our ideas of ghosts from Victorian times onward. This interview is making me want to do research on Victorian spiritualism. I’ve read stuff that rubs against it or makes glancing reference, but haven’t dug much into the topic proper. (Though for a great novel on the end of that era, check out Jeffrey Ford’s Girl in the Glass.)
I think that evolution definitely touches on the idea of under-haunting. It’s fascinating that we rarely as a culture talk about being haunted by people we know. It’s a conversation that still happens on a private level, often with comforting overtones. “Oh, I felt my grandma watching over me.” But our haunting stories are often about evils from the past that need to be put to rest, or tragic forgotten ghosts from a more romantic era. I suppose you could argue that Beloved breaks that mold, but it’s set in the past, which weirdly encompasses the assumption that back then you could be haunted by your own child.
I can’t imagine that we actually experience less grief than people in the past, but certainly we’ve tried our damnedest to mute and bury death, to the extent that it’s difficult to imagine a close relation coming back from the grave, messy and angry and not happily at rest at all. Though perhaps now ghosts aren’t extreme enough a reaction against our sanitized death industrial complex, and now narratively we need to have rotting, vicious zombies instead. I have to admit: I find ghosts fascinating, but I’m terrified of zombies.
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Janalyn Guo is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She received her MFA in fiction from Brown University and lives in Austin, where she is at work on a novel. Her fiction can be found at Tarpaulin Sky, the New Yinzer, and Digital Hamper.