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'The Ghost Variations': A Different Take On What It Means To Be Haunted

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: I cannot resist a ghost story. I mean, they usually freak me out, but when I hear that someone is about to tell me a ghost story, I can't turn away. And what I expect to hear is something chilling, like an image that won't leave my head as I'm trying to fall asleep, making me want to pull the covers over my head as I lie there alone in the dark. Well, that is 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 who can communicate with dead and missing animals. Kevin Brockmeier joins us now.


KEVIN BROCKMEIER: Thank you for having me, Ailsa. I appreciate it.

CHANG: Well, we appreciate having you. So I first do need to ask you about conventional ghosts. I know that's not what your book is about entirely, but I want to start there. I mean, do you believe ghosts actually exist? And by that, I mean spirits of dead people.

BROCKMEIER: I would love desperately to have had some kind of encounter that would convince me that the spirits of the dead exist. I haven't. I remain an agnostic, however. And, you know, I'm waiting for my life to offer me an experience such as that.

CHANG: Well, what do you think draws people to ghost stories so much? Like, why are ghost stories so irresistible?

BROCKMEIER: Well, traditional ghost stories - I think people just like to experience the chill of encountering creatures who are us but not us. And part of that feeling, I think, is also embedded in these ghost stories. Even though very few of them aim to chill you, many of them seek to present us with creatures who might represent ourselves as we might someday exist.

CHANG: That's so interesting because I did notice that many of these stories in your book don't even contain a ghost in the traditional sense per se, like the story called "His Womanhood." It's about this scientist who realizes he has the mind of a man but the soul of a woman. That's just one example. But many of these stories are more about someone being haunted by an unfulfilled desire or by a memory. So I wanted to ask you, what ultimately is a ghost to you?

BROCKMEIER: Well, you're right that some of these stories are very much sideways ghost stories or tangential ghost stories. I came across something that 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 is that Samuel Johnson saw human beings all around him, everywhere he turned. And if you think of a ghost as a creature who doesn't belong here but briefly takes on corporeal form before vanishing again, then that is very much how you would define a human being. We appear into being out of non-being for a short time materially, and then we disappear back into non-being.

CHANG: Yeah. So I'm curious. Do any of these pieces in this compilation of 100 stories - do any of them have a personal backstory for you?

BROCKMEIER: Absolutely they do, yes. Many of them are about my own preoccupations, inevitably. One is story No. 84, which is called "A Second True Story." And it is in part about a little boy who finds a sheepdog standing in his front yard and feels an immediate bond with this dog. But it's a stray. He's not allowed to keep it. He's heartbroken by this, and he has to let it go. And that is, in fact, an actual experience I had when I was about 5 years old with an actual dog who appeared in the front yard.

The conceit in the story is that every being on Earth possesses a soul but not his or her own and that if by chance you meet the creature who possesses the soul that belongs to you, it will be transmitted to you, and you'll be offered the gift of an afterlife. In this story, the little boy, who is basically me, possesses the soul of the sheepdog. When the sheepdog goes trotting away, she goes trotting away with the gift of an afterlife. And the boy sets off into his own life. And maybe someday he will meet the person who possesses his soul, and maybe he won't.

CHANG: I love that. Well, I want to ask you, after collecting all of these stories, all these mediations on hauntings and the divide between this world and the next, what was it like for you to spend so much time contemplating death?

BROCKMEIER: You know, that is not so different from how I already occupy my days.


CHANG: Oh, dear (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 but not yet forgotten. So the idea is that when you die, as long as you're still remembered by somebody who's still alive, you'll linger in this sort of between space of an afterlife. And then after you've been forgotten by the living, you'll move on to whatever comes next.

CHANG: And what is it about death that captures you so powerfully?

BROCKMEIER: Well, you know, two things. One is that I'm just something of - I don't even know the word for it - like, something graver than a hypochondriac.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BROCKMEIER: I'm always convinced that I'm just about to die. And I think a lot of my motivation for writing emerges from exactly that preoccupation. I'd better get this book finished before I die. That's often my thought.

CHANG: Oh, my goodness.


BROCKMEIER: But aside from that, the idea of death as a landscape for fantasy or a sort of playground in which to enact fantasy is one that's also very appealing to me.

CHANG: Well, then, you know, what kind of afterlife do you envision for yourself ultimately? I mean, have you envisioned one?

BROCKMEIER: Well, I'm an agnostic, again. But I guess what I believe in - what I envision is an infinitude of afterlives. You know, if this book contains 100 different notions about the afterlife, I feel as if that's only beginning to tap the well. However, probably my idea - I would never say that this is the afterlife as I actually imagine it will unfold. But I often think that everybody over the course of eternity will have the opportunity to be everybody else and that someday you will know what it's like to be me because you'll be me. And someday I'll know what it's like to be you because I'll be you. But as for my actual metaphysics, I think that 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 so much for joining us today.

BROCKMEIER: Absolutely. Thank you for talking with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF IHF'S "DEPARTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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