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.