Boo! Do Ghosts Exist?
Oh, how I wish I believed in ghosts! It would make every kind of sense if I did. Aunt Dimity, the character whose name appears on every cover of every book I’ve ever written, has been dead for quite some time, yet she plays an active role in every story. When readers ask if I created Aunt Dimity after experiencing a close encounter of the ectoplasmic kind, I would love to smile mysteriously and reply with a confident: “Yes!”It would give me so many interesting things to talk about! I wouldn’t have to answer questions about contracts or royalties or the kind of computer I use or the way I structure my work schedule or any of a number of subjects that make me want to nod off, mid-sentence. If I believed in ghosts, I’d have a fund of tales that would keep everyone, including myself, awake! I could describe the chilling moment when I heard a child’s laughter echo dimly through an empty church at midnight. I could recall awakening abruptly in the darkness before dawn to find a misty apparition gazing hollow-eyed at me, mouthing words no earthly ear would ever hear.I could speak in lowered tones of the mad monks, the noble knights, and the lovelorn ladies who’ve crossed my path, leaving nothing in their wake but the faint creak of a floorboard and the sorrowful sigh of a lost soul. I could bewitch my listeners with spine-tingling tales about the otherworldly entities I’ve met along the way, but I couldn’t do so honestly because I’ve never met one.It’s not for want of trying. I’ve given ghosts plenty of opportunities to get in touch with me. I’ve slept in haunted B&Bs and strolled down haunted lanes. I’ve browsed in haunted bookshops and dined in haunted pubs. I’ve walked among fog-shrouded standing stones, quenched my thirst at mystical wells, and explored candlelit crypts without the comfort of a companion. I rarely pass a cemetery without popping in for a quick shufti, and it sometimes seems as if every castle I’ve ever visited has at least one resident ghost.I’ve gone out of my way to make myself available to ghosties and ghoulies and afterlife beasties, yet I’ve never—not once!—encountered anything or anyone I would deem even marginally otherworldly.
It’s possible, of course, that I’m impervious to ghosts. Perhaps they’ve been jumping up and down and cracking their spectral knuckles under my nose all along and I’ve simply failed to notice. I may be too prosaic to notice. When I hear a floorboard creak, I think: “Old houses creak.” When an icy breeze sends shivers down my spine, I think: “There’s a draft.” I don’t look for a supernatural explanation when a natural one will do.
Why, then, did I add a soupçon of the supernatural to my cozy mysteries? Well, the thing is, I didn’t. Not on purpose, anyway. I was as surprised as anyone when Aunt Dimity made her presence known to me in my first book. (And, yes, that sort of thing happens all the time. Characters constantly show up without an invitation, as if to demonstrate that they know the story much better than I do. Which they do.)
I’d had no intention of including a noncorporeal being in my cast of characters, but Aunt Dimity was so engaging, so articulate, and so abundantly alive that her unanticipated return from the dead didn’t bother me one whit. I was agog to know her better, regardless of the manner in which she chose to reveal herself. I was, and I continue to be, immensely grateful to her for gracing my books with her humor, her wisdom, and her kindness. She knew the story much better than I did.
I suspect that Aunt Dimity would recoil from the notion that she is a ghost. She’s never referred to herself as such, and she has nothing in common with the howling, chain-rattling, ill-mannered frights that populate so many ghostly tales. I’m certain that she regards herself as I regard her: as one of the many characters I’ve been privileged to meet in the stories that bear her name.
I may not believe in ghosts, but I believe with all my heart in Aunt Dimity.
Nancy Atherton is the bestselling author of twenty Aunt Dimity mysteries, including the latest installment, Aunt Dimity and the Summer King (Viking; On Sale: April 14, 2015). The first book in the series, Aunt Dimity’s Death, was voted “One of the Century’s 100 Favorite Mysteries” by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. She lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.