Monthly Archives: February 2017

Primed for Possession: A Haunting in Saskatchewan

Finding some old letters recall a curious episode from long ago:

In June 1979 a dozen poets, playwrights, essayists and fiction writers gathered at the Fort San conference centre in the Qu’Appelle Valley north of Regina, one of many writers’ retreats conducted there and elsewhere in the province over the decades. Each came to Fort San to work intensively for a week or a month on a manuscript. We shared close quarters, however, in the dorm of a former tuberculosis sanitarium, and became well acquainted at meal times and most evenings in the common room, where not so long ago homesteaders who had lived in sod shacks came to die from lung disease. Stories had circulated for years among the writers and others attending events at the centre: rumours of hauntings and possessions, nightmares and hallucinations; stories full of emotional intensity suited to the overheated expectations we writers had brought with us.

Healthily sceptical, I observed from a distance as the writers one by one became caught up in the psycho-drama. I doubted the explanations they grasped at for what they experienced, but I knew their experiences were real. Writing home to my wife each evening, I began to describe these hauntings or possessions as they played out in front of me. Afterward, on my periodic return to the prairies, I was sometimes asked what happened that time at Fort San. Rumours had gone round, but everyone wished they knew more. Only recently, while preparing for her own writing retreat in Saskatchewan, my wife turned up a packet of the letters I wrote her that June. I’ve removed unrelated personal parts of the letters, but apart from a minimum of punctuation, this is what I wrote at the time.



Echo Valley Centre, Fort San

27.5.79 – It was beastly hot today, so the institute serves roast beast potatoes & turnips. I suppose it’ll be the same story every day. The San itself is on a big park across the road from the lake and tucked under the hills which lead up to the prairie. It’s a resort area, but here on the site there are no disturbances. We’re sharing the huge institution with Alcoholics Anonymous & Prison Reform, minimum security group. Where they are I don’t know, it’s a big place. …

Who’s here: Lorna Uher & Pat Lane. Brenda Riches. Dave Carpenter, Edna Alford, Byrna Barclay, Kate Bitney, some others to come from Saskatoon, Lois Simmie & Gertrude Story I think. Anyway, it was low-key until Pat & Lorna discovered their choice rooms are next to the common area, so there was a general exodus upstairs where it is hotter, but quieter. Actually, it can’t be much hotter than it is down here, and I bet they can still hear a little of the conversation, even though they’re upstairs. Now, you’re going to think from this that I’m a really sloppy writer and there’s not much hope for me. But tomorrow, tomorrow. … Of course, there’s some cynicism about coming here to produce great poems, or to write by committee, but hell, what goes on in my room while I’m writing here is private. I can make it great if I damn well decide to and damn well work hard enough & am damn lucky. I’ll finish this letter tomorrow morning before mailing it, and enclose the key to the mail box. I’d appreciate your sending on anything that looks remotely interesting.

June 3 – They’ve been trying to scare themselves to death this evening over this ghost Lorna felt in Patrick’s room. They set up a little Ouija board on a table and with Kate & Lorna & Gertrude touching it ‘discovered’ the spirit was a woman who killed herself there (poison) because her lover left her. Trouble was the damn spirit can’t spell, so they established her fist language was Cree and developed the whole story by asking questions to which it could answer by circling to say yes & standing still to say no. It seems the spirit only appears to women and wants to give Gertrude a message but won’t frighten her. The ghost has a sense of humor though: it won’t mind if Gertrude wears her white underwear, and the only word it spelled out of a bunch of letters was t-i-t. I still hear the glass circling on the table. Wonder what’s up. For a bunch of intelligent people, you know – well, maybe I’d better not be disrespectful to ol’ BKAKSRFQP.

All right now – eight o’clock tomorrow morning – all have your ghost poems ready.

June 5 – Yesterday afternoon Henry had a shrouded figure lean over him during a 6-minute sleep and ask him if he was comfortable. Then between 2 – 4 a.m. he couldn’t sleep (nor could Lois & Edna upstairs) & he ended up snoozing on two chairs in the common room. Apparently, the A.A.’s next door often end up two to a bed because of the ghosts in their building. Could this develop into an epidemic?

Me? I worked till 2 last night, & all I heard was the rumbling of the hot water pipes under my radiator. Still, as a subject of conversation, this junk still beats the food.

June 6 – Curious & curiouser. Tonight Kate & Patrick took to the Ouija. Nothing much at first – too many spirits. Then they got in touch with one who could spell. Name of Tom, died at 66 in room 11 of T.B. Patrick asked, are you the one who spoke to me last night?  Yes. Are you the one who gives people a choking feeling? Yes (getting stronger & stronger). Why do you do this? Nothing. Do you do it to frighten people? No. Do you do this to show people how you felt, dying? Yes. Why: R-A-G-E- (glass whirling around the table now, slamming into the taped down letters. Patrick: Did you ask to see Gertrude? Yes. Why? It spelled out the letters fast, sounded to me like SEE HELL, but Patrick said it was She Knows – he felt it coming though him. Then Patrick said: Get off my chest Tom – forceful, then Patrick collapsed, choking. “All this rage went into me. The vibes coming through me were fucking insane.”

Now, after a breather, they’ve started again (just heard Kate yell “I knew it!”)

New development: it’s not our Gertrude he was asking for, but Gertrude his wife. They asked if she had died: yes. Did she die before you? The glass flew off the table, the whole thing broke up again. What next?

His wife died shortly after he did. She was here at the San but not in this building. They asked: How old was she when she died & the glass went berserk & spelled THEY DID IT. Who did it? DOC. Did Doctors do it? – YES. Then Patrick had to take another break. This is the weirdest for everyone involved.

When they started again it was a new spirit. Spelled her name – Alice – Said Tom went because he was mad. He is always mad. Said there are lots of spirits here. She is Tom’s friend. Then she left – just like that – Tom came back. Said his wife died of T.B. Then how did doctors kill her – EXPERIMENT. What kind of experiment? We are tired. Time exactly 1 hour (which Kate asked for at the beginning).

June 7 – I know this sounds weird. I didn’t believe a bit of it till last night when Patrick stopped breathing, and even there, he’d been working himself up for it. But the thing spelled so fast. Tome went away mad and Alice stepped in for him though she had nothing to tell us. And today it seems I’ll have to write about it too. (Maybe I didn’t tell you about that – people, like Edna, say they wish they could write about something else. Patrick showed the first poem he wrote here – unconsciously dictated stuff about ‘they’ occupying his room, into which he artificially interpolated a passage about his suicide attempt 2 year ago.)

June 10 – It’s been very quiet at nights since the séance. But Anne noticed the spirit in Henry’s room. He’d moved his bed away from a certain corner. Everybody – even I – felt something there, like an electromagnetic field. Tonight again at the Ouija. Anne & Kate, but very weak. Do you want Pat? Yes. He gets up there, strange doings. It’s Tom again. His message, repeated: FIND GERTRUDE. What can we do to find Gertrude? IT IS WHAT YOU KNOW BUT DON’T KNOW. Very confusing, new people here. It turns out: is it a place (where we can find Gertrude)? NO. Is it a state of mind? YES. Dream? NO (relief). Is it connected to a person? YES. Who? PAT. A break to think about it. They begin again. The glass spells GREECE 836. Did Pat know Gertrude in an earlier life in Greece in the year 836?: NO (relief). Spells: “Pat there and here.” Turns out Pat know Tom in Greece and her at Qu’Apelle. Was he a patient here? YES. What name did he go by in that life? DAVID. What year did he die? 1932. (I just heard Kate say out there: Triangle of course, because of the 3 places in Anne’s room where the spirit was felt). Earlier on, I forgot, it spelled: “We can’t go on.” (Unless you find Gertrude? YES.) Arghh. They just tried again. Is that Tom? No answer. Is that Alive? No answer. Who is that? E-N-D.

Can you believe it? Not unless you saw it.

I just went out and talked to you on the phone, five minutes after the séance. Thought I handled myself rather calmly. Actually, I don’t know whether I would have been impressed at all by tonight’s show if I hadn’t seen what went on the other night. But the things that are coming out – voices, apparitions, nightmares – are quite bizarre. Reg Sylvester stumbled in at 10:15 or so after a 12-hour drive from Edmonton. As soon as he went for his luggage, everyone went to bed. I feel I ought to go to work now, get as far along as I can. Maybe it’s more important to be fresh in the morning. Tomorrow should be a good working day. All the spirits are dispelled now.

June 11 – I’m sure the newcomers feel threatened by the weirdness around here. Anne C. complained at breakfast that she wants to get some work done so put the lid on it. Edna had a bad night last night – nightmares etc. – and says she’s on the point of leaving. I sat up with Reg till midnight last night because he’d been left on his own. He said it was all because of “that crazy goddam Irishman,” but he was spooked enough to have slept in his car because he didn’t want to go to his room in the dark. I’m glad none of this is happening to me, but it’s still making it difficult to concentrate on the very real problems I have with my manuscript. Anyway, it’s 9 a.m. Time to get started. Shut all that up.

This morning after ghost-talk at breakfast, Reg put up a picture of somebody dancing in a bag on a dark stage – rather ghostlike – and a notice saying that it’s a picture of the ghosts leaving this building this morning. He and Anne C. are intolerant, i.e. scared. Personally, I hope it works. I don’t like a) the way people feed their own imaginations on this stuff, and b) the implication that I’m a shallow person for not noticing a damn thing.



“We Were So Intense” : reading my former self in decades-old letters

We grew up together at the edge of a small city between the foothills and prairie. We wrestled on the neighborhood’s front lawns; built forts from cinder blocks and plywood; dug caves and tunnels in the field that would become the new school grounds; rode our bikes to the airport, to our lean-to in the willow-bush north of town, to the library on 12th Avenue; played with jackknives, bows and arrows, air guns; shared comic books and girl-friends; wrote sci-fi and horror stories to fill summer afternoons; went to dances at community halls and in church basements. Then he moved to another city five hundred miles away. Though we visited back and forth at long intervals, our friendship became one on paper. Envelopes with five-cent and then six-cent stamps criss-crossed the prairies, some with postage-due stamps affixed, because we had so much to say. I was becoming a writer, and those letters played the role of a journal for me. Memory is unreliable, words are feeble, but here is evidence of the person I once was, and how I began to turn into the person I am now.

We grew up, graduated or flunked out, found jobs and wives. The thing we dreaded, “adult repsonsibility,” overtook us. I moved away and wrote books. He moved from job to job, town to town, always moving with him a shoe box full of my letters. But letter-writing culture was dying. Inevitably, we lost touch with one another.

Decades later came the Internet, and eventually we found each other. There were tentative email greetings, and soon envelopes began arriving in the mail again. “I kept all those old letters of yours,” Rob reported. “I thought you were a genius and I could sell them to the archives. Would you like to have them back?”

They arrive in bundles, five or six at a time, as Rob finishes rereading them. The pages smell of mould, the cramped, tiny hand-writing fills every space. I begin reading warily, unsure I will like the person I put some effort into leaving behind – that callow, poorly educated kid who, at eighteen and against all evidence, believed in his future as a writer. Not that I was blind. I saw (or said I did) how mediocre were the poems and novels I had written. Give it five years, I thought, five years and I’ll be great.

The chronicle begins in the summer before university, introducing two recurrent themes: the transition from childhood, and the sleep-walking society so lacking in curiosity and ambition.

Don’t ever work night shift! … If I get any sleep I have to sleep right through the life going on outside. (Many people I know do that, and they’re working days!!!)

In short order, though, I turn to the subject that will darken many pages in the letters to follow:

exegeses of poems I would later consign to the flames in my first apartment with a fireplace.

Rob must have been a good friend indeed to keep writing me back, as he must have done, or the flood from my ballpoint would have ceased. His letters must have gone up in flames along with my earliest poems, but I do recall one fictional vignette, in which a ragged, foot-sore poet with my name visits his old friend, now the head of a publishing company, with a new manuscript. “Sorry,” publisher Rob called across his enormous desk, “our computer analysis states categorically that your poems are rubbish. Come back when you’ve written a novel, and make it spicy.”

I replied with fanciful, adjective-laden notes for my “Life and Works.”

This virile and vital young man who died tragically at the age of 48 is remembered as one of our nation’s most average men of letters. Although his early idylls indicate a great idealism and almost a cult of youthful irresponsibility, it appears from all available evidence that his boyhood was exceedingly normal … As an adult, he was basically anti-social, clinging most closely to lifelong friendships made as a child in the then-wild terrain of Western Canada. As he degenerated with age, he lost these friendships and became addicted to several dozen drugs in an attempt to escape society and his own failure as a poet, novelist, dramatist, atheist and communist agitator. He died on February 23, 1996, from a severe case of rejectionus maximus.

This I followed with a parallel sketch of Rob as a business tycoon who had “resigned himself to a nice safe little job, with a nice little wife and nice, polite children, and a house with a mortgage.” Yet the friendship, and the letters, continued. We saw each other a few times a year, one of us hitch-hiking or catching a ride to the other’s city on long weekends that seemed too brief. Sometimes, my letters raced Rob back to Regina.

This afternoon you said I am very different in person from in my letters. The thing is I have been contracting this year, withdrawing into myself since many of my last year friends went to school elsewhere and I came to see all the friendly sociable things people do as a pointless waste of time. I have refused to engage in any idle conversations, which is the way new friendships are made, so I have been without close friends and thus am rusty in the banal pleasantries and quick wit of your crowd.

And without transition, I begin summarizing the plot of my new novel, followed by a lengthy series of quotations from Shelley’s Defense of Poetry and reports on my own stumbling attempts.

I don’t expect to survive on publications, especially since I have no plans of publishing – at least in the next five years or so. … I wrote 32 poems in July and 28 in August (all in the first half of the month), and only 14 this month. Yet I feel like I am writing better than ever before (but I’m not, it’s just an illusion, because there are no real standout poems now).

In this period my letters contained no news of our mutual friends or about anything that I was doing other than reading and writing. I was possessed.

I decided to add another page because it’s only 11 o’clock and I’d like to sort of break a record or something for a letter as long as Gone with the Wind.

Far from begging me to stop, Rob drew me out in his own letters, which elaborated his theories about science and, especially, religion. Of course, I responded sensitively.

You described two different facets of your ‘Christian’ beliefs which are really the same. First, you say we should believe in God even though we are fairly certain he (she, it?) does not exist because this faith gives us strength in the times when we need it most. Then you go on to say that when you needed faith, you found you couldn’t pray to an empty earless, belief … But no, no! you say. There’s something greater behind obeying God than fear of being zapped, something that tells you what is right or wrong. Ideally, I could hope you would say, “There are worse things in this world than burning for eternity – things like letting down your friends and family when they need you most and have faith in you.” This is exactly my point. Your assumption that disbelief in God implies a lack of moral standards is ridiculous.

At university, my few friends and I began writing and editing a quarterly magazine, and for the first time I encountered a real writer, W.O. Mitchell, who became for a time a mentor.

I spend a minimum of five or six hours a week with him – and this week I will finally get his thoughts on my notorious novel. With the opportunity to use the Studio theatre at the university here, I started to plan a “play” that I could produce myself for showing in the spring. But when I gave W.O. my preliminary ideas – which soon fell into detailed descriptions of the smell of varnish in a boat house and the northern lights and a man with grey side-burns who constantly touched them gingerly – when he read this he almost threatened me with physical violence if I made a play out of it. He convinced me – and it was not difficult – that my talent is for poetry and the novel.

Emotionally, I was opening up. Poems and stories kept stuffing the envelopes, but as failure and doubt emerge from the shadows and become near neighbours, my adolescent despair and social pessimism of my teenage years become tempered with a smidgen of sensitivity.

I hate to see you in the mood of your last letter, Rob. Disillusioned, even disgusted, that all you have before you is a $1200 debt, no degree, no work, and the responsibilities of manhood that none of us feels prepared for. It’s something we have to do alone. And for me the future is both terror and boundless confidence. What do you see there? … I can see that you have, and have had, tremendous aspirations. You want to do a hell of a lot with your life. And we all should be able to … I don’t even know what it is we’re going to change in the world, what destroy, what build, what abandon, what create. I think it means abandoning the religious justification for life and finding a meaning in the world itself. But people are replacing religion with ideologies and nationalism. They believe in those abstractions in the same way they believed in God. And they have as little to do with flesh and blood. So I don’t know where our generation is going to take the world. The radicals and hippies share the illusion that it is going to be the age of Aquarius once the old order is swept away. Harmony and understanding, peace and euphoria. Social concern to wipe away hunger and suffering. I believe in that illusion too. But the act of creating something involves as much suffering and despair and false starts as destruction does. We both know the despair of trying to create something of value in literature. Imagine trying to create a new world, a new way of life even for yourself – let alone trying to make sense for everyone, as many are … Purgatory poised between a nuclear hell – which for some irrational reason I don’t believe will come – and the limits of our creative potential.

Big thoughts, easy to smile at from a distance of decades. “Weren’t we intense!” Rob writes on a sticky note attached to one of the letters. Yes, it is easy to forget all the striving that went into whatever it is we valued more highly at the time than friendship. How intense we were!

When I saw you at Christmas you were less excited and carefree than usual … I understand the frustration and the sheer weight of life I think you’re feeling, but I hate psychology, and you’d probably be angry if I started telling you about yourself. I know we’ll always be friends, but I also know how fast people can change … Every time I get a letter I long to be there talking to you – but I’m not comfortable to talk to, am I?

When we get together again in 2016, fifty years after those earliest letters, our talk is comfortable enough. Our lives have taken different courses, but we soon feel at home in each other’s company. Rob lives in a big house in a small town; I’m the opposite – small house, big town. His second wife has brought him a large family and grandchildren he loves; I am still in love with the woman I met on the university literary magazine, who became a character in my letters as the sixties turned to the seventies. Rob and I spend an afternoon reminiscing about our childhood adventures, mourning the death of a friend neither of us had heard from in years. But the silence in the middle of our lives is a loss that can’t be repaired. We search each other’s face for the child we remember as if looking into a cloudy mirror. But we have missed too much. We weren’t there to see the other’s face acquire those lines, that cautious smile. The space between us is a lifetime of experience not shared. That letters from our youth together have survived is little short of a miracle, but the missing years cannot be miraculously restored. We’ll keep in touch, of course, the way people do. But the lost years will always be there, perhaps brooding poems.