The Things that Haunt This Writer - by Pamela Beason
It’s Halloween month, and my neighbors are already going all out with creepy decorations. One house that I routinely walk by features giant spiders and signs like “Rest in Pieces” accompanied by skeletal hands reaching up out of the soil. I’ve often wondered if these displays haunt little kids at bedtime.
A few years ago during the month of October, as I was doing the weekly shopping for my cats at their favorite pet food store, I noticed an older man perched on a bench outside the door. He clutched a paper coffee cup as he rocked back and forth, muttering, “The witching hour is coming…the witching hour is coming!”
He didn’t look like he lived on the streets or was in the throes of psychosis. I wondered if he was inspired by the idea of Halloween approaching, or if he felt he needed to sound the warning about the witching hour on a daily basis. The idea clearly haunted him.
I believe most adults are haunted by something. That something might be the ghost of a deceased or missing person, but it also might be an old grievance, a regret, or even a horrible event that happened to perfect strangers. And I believe writers are the most haunted of all. Some of us write to exorcise those demons; others write to share them with readers.
I spend a lot of time on the trails of the North Cascades. These are normally the places where I am most happy. So it was especially haunting to me to learn about the murders of nature lovers Susanna Stodden and Mary Cooper in 2006 on a hiking trail, and then, two years later, the killing of another hiker, Pamela Almli, by a negligent 14-year-old hunter.
Many years have passed, but I think about all three of these women whenever I hike. I finally wrote a novel that includes a combination of these two horrific events, in addition to another subject that is close to my heart, taking teens into the wilderness to teach them how to live without electronic devices. I fictionalized all this, of course, to produce my fourth Sam Westin mystery, Backcountry, in which Sam steps in as a replacement for her murdered friend to lead a group of troubled teens in a wilderness therapy program.
Writing and publishing Backcountry did not truly exorcise the demons that haunt me, because nothing has changed since these two cases occurred. The killer of Susanna and Mary is still unidentified, and it’s still legal in Washington State for 14-year-olds to hunt with only other teens for companions.
When I visited southeastern Arizona in 2019, I learned that in 2011, a jaguar was sighted in in the clumps of mountains known as the “sky islands.” Jaguars once roamed all over the area, moving back and forth between northern Mexico and American Southwest. Humans have hunted them to near extinction now, but most Arizonans were excited to discover that at least one still existed in the state. He was affectionately dubbed “El Jefe” (the chief or the boss), and Native Americans revived ancient ceremonies honoring jaguars.
Unfortunately, that cat’s beautiful skin was discovered for sale online only a few years afterwards. That horrific ending definitely haunted me. And then it was doubly haunting to me to see the wall along the Mexican border. A wall that no jaguar could get over, a wall that now separates so many wild animals from their natural migration routes, from mates, water, and food. I tried to exorcise those haunting thoughts in Borderland, my fifth Sam Westin novel.
Writers, especially mystery writers, often cannot let go of tragic or outrageous events. For us, they are fodder for stories.
I like to think that Susanna, Mary, Pamela, and even El Jefe would be pleased that I’m trying to tell their stories and keep their memories alive. And if their ghosts come to visit me at “the witching hour” on Halloween, I’ll be happy to spend time with them.
May the things that haunt you also inspire you to take whatever action is right for you to make the world a better, kinder, more beautiful place.