Hmmm - so I've just finished apologizing for / explaining the fact that we had only two columns to give you for 1988 (though we'll eventually find a third - the missing November issue), and here we are - only one column for the entire year of '89!

Well, it's like this . . .

First, as of January 1989 we officially reverted to a bimonthly schedule. Occasionally there would be fewer, but from now until our magical resurrection online in '97 there would never be more than six newsletters per year.

Second, at the end of 1988 we had put together some of our favorite columns into a small book, called "A Turn of the Wheel", which we sold only at the store. It's a collector's item now, and essentially featured expanded versions of previous columns. Now, of course, with this archive, the tales that appeared in that book are all online, and in many cases have been expanded even further.

Anyway, we were all excited about our brief little foray into the world of self publishing, and so I devoted not one but two columns in '89 to shamelessly plugging the thing - January / February '89 and July / August '89, though in the latter I also snuck a plug in for the band brother Mike and I were in. We were and are called The Last and were about to tour the country that August.

As for the remaining four columns of 1989, they ended up turning into a pair of two-parters. The first pair, March / April and May / June, dealt with the mythic properties once attached to trees and flowers, respectively. The two columns were subsequently combined and put online May 2001.

The final two appeared at the end of the year.

Now, I get my ideas from a variety of places: from books, conversations, the internet, etc., but my favorite tales of all are usually those that come from personal experience. Not to say that I've had very much in the way of otherworldly encounters myself, but on occasion, in my travels, I've stumbled onto some great stories quite by accident.

In the Summer of '89 I'd gone up to Northern California with my wife (I was married then) and some friends to go rafting along the American River. It was, of course, tremendous fun, I did indeed fall into the water during one treacherous bit of rapids, all in all we had a good time.

Afterwards, before making the long trek back to the South Bay, we stopped at a quaint little Inn. It was there that the following tale came to me.

Now, by September we were firmly locked into that bimonthly publishing schedule, which had been in effect all year, and yet for some reason I had thought there was going to be a separate November issue. This served my purposes well, as I needed to tell this story just so, and it was simply too long to fit into one issue!

Thus was born one of our only (if not the only) two part folklore columns. It worked - the haunted aspect was perfect for our September / October (Halloween) issue, and the Americana that positively drips from this tale made its conclusion perfectly appropriate for our November Thanksgiving issue. With that in mind, I did not attempt to truncate the tale into unreadability, but let the words flow and breathe, and when I ran out of room (just as I revealed that the basement had been turned into a jail) I simply said "Continued next issue".

Naturally, Mom subsequently decreed there would be no November issue.

Oh brother.

Now, I had no choice - I was in the middle of the tale, I had to finish it next issue, even if the story had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas.

Or did it? I thought, and thought, and the image of Dickens came unbidden into my head. It was thus that I was able to in some way justify the tale's inclusion in our Holiday Issue, though in so doing I would perpetuate the myth that the telling of ghost stories at Christmas was at least by implication an ancient British tradition, a myth I would thankfully later debunk in the November / December 1993 column . . .

What a strange thing it is, writing a column like this! As I set down these words it is still July, the Summer sun blazes down upon us through impossibly long days, and when darkness finally descends it brings with it a midsummer moon so bright it reminds one of some extraterrestrial streetlight, glowing in otherworldly glory.

On such nights the Fair Folk would emerge from their homes beneath the hills, and abandon themselves to strange revels beyond the sight or ken of mortals. Midsummer Night is a favorite gathering time for witches, and a popular time for human festivals, as well. There is a special magic in the air at midsummer . . .

And yet as you read these words it will be Autumn - a time for reaping what was sown, for bracing oneself against the first cold winds, for the sweet smell of burning leaves and resurrected fireplaces, a time of pumpkins and golden trees.

What then can I say to you - what commerce can there be between us? We stand at different points in time, linked ever-so-tenuously for this one moment by this strange immediacy known to those who have a love for the printed page. For this moment I from the fires of Midsummer am one with you cloaked in Autumn's leaves - and so perhaps I shall find a use for this magic and hold out to you a small sampling of the Summer that is now (for you) but a memory.

The Gold Country Ghost


Were one to find oneself dropped unceremoniously into the middle of Sacramento, it would look much the same as Los Angeles. Souped-up cars vie for space along "cruising" avenues, the same chains of discount stores and fast food vendors are everywhere.

If, however, one were to hop onto a convenient freeway (yep, they have those too) and head Due East, a very different world would soon reveal itself. Slowly the terrain would rise and fall like waves of grain, forming ever larger hills sporting fewer and fewer signs of human interference, and soon the road itself would narrow, as if acknowledging its lesser power here in a world as yet not made over by humankind, and tall trees would gradually take control of the surroundings, and finally one would find oneself in the middle of a forest primeval, driving through mountains and trees and a terrain of towering heights and perilous depths, bathed all the while by the warm California summer sun so that all glowed with a . . . golden light.

You would have just entered Gold Country.

It is an eerie thing, to return now to the roots of "Anglo" California, to that land that so inflamed the greed of a Nation that we felt impelled, against the wishes of politicians such as Abraham Lincoln, to take the land by force. Once ten thousand souls fought and cursed and drank and died and occasionally struck it rich in these quiet hills - now it is almost as if the Gold Rush had never happened, as only a skeletal remnant of that robust population remains.

More often than not, those who tarry here tend to the past, to the artifacts and still standing buildings that bear mute testimony to those wild years. What do they see, one wonders, these descendants of the Forty Niners? Do the walls and headstones and rocks remember those Glory Days? Do the few remaining mansions of old, now converted to stores and Bed & Breakfast Inns, remember?

The great lore and history of the place stands just out of reach - very real and yet incredibly remote, and one finds oneself wishing the walls could speak.

And sometimes they do . . .

My wife and I had spent the day rafting on the American River. We had passed the very spot where gold was first discovered, getting thoroughly soaked in the process, and were now desirous of food and rest. We chanced upon an old mansion that was now known as the Vineyard House, and settled down to enjoy a magnificent meal. A waitress three tables over was carrying on a rather animated conversation with a couple, and the occasional word would drift over as occasional words are wont to do.

Only this time, one of those words was "Seance".

Now, most of you know me through this column well enough to correctly imagine my reaction. The Vineyard House had been standing since around 1850 - if any place deserved to be haunted . . . you get the idea. Needless to say I immediately set to work unraveling the tale.

The house was built by Robert and Louise Chalmers. They had made their money, as had so many others, not by digging for gold but by selling goods to the tens of thousands of prospectors that swarmed over the mountains in those days. It took a long time to build, and was completed in 1878.

At this point in time Robert Chalmers began to lose it, as the expression goes. He began to speak only in whispers, and suffered premonitions to the point that he would check out every freshly dug grave to see if it would fit him. He eventually became a raving lunatic, and died chained by his wife to a wall in the basement of his mansion, having starved himself to death in the belief that she was trying to poison him.

Immediately the crops began to fail, and the business dealings turned sour, and by 1890 Louise Chalmers was only a renter at the estate she once ruled. The basement had been turned into a jail to provide additional income.

Among the prisoners who thus now joined her in "residence" were a schoolteacher who had murdered one of his students, and a common highwayman. Both were to leave the house only to be hanged - the teacher reportedly reciting poetry as he ascended the scaffold to his doom . . .

Louise had hit bottom. Only a few years before she had presided over the emerging social elite of the Mother Lode country - throwing many a party at the Vineyard House (which boasted a ninety foot ballroom, among other things). The Chalmers had been honored for the wines they produced, her husband had once been among the governing elite of California, and indeed Ulysses S. Grant had once made a speech from the very steps of the house!

All that was gone by the turn of the century. Decay had come to the Vineyard House, decay that announced itself with every creak of every abandoned door, with every crash of some neglected shutter . . . No abundance of crops now kept the chill Northern California wind from having its mournful way with the all too still interiors of the nearly deserted domicile.

Such was the state of things when Louise Chalmers died, alone, in 1900. The house was now put up for sale in earnest, and sold again and again. For some reason, no one seemed to want it for very long. There were reports of unaccountable noises, of things that could not quite be explained . . .

One of the last people to try to inhabit the site as a private dwelling abruptly packed and left in the middle of the night, and refused to his dying day to discuss what he had seen in the accursed place.

So it was that the former home of California Gold Country Society was turned into an Inn in 1956. It seemed reasonable to expect that, with the influx of groups of loud, noisy, alive people, things would settle down a bit.

It did not particularly reassure the new owner to find a cache of old coffins hidden under the front porch of the mansion.

Nevertheless, the Vineyard House has been owned and operated as an Inn for the past 33 years, with hardly a mishap. It just goes to show you that spirits seem to be at their best in areas of relative solitude . . . in the cold . . . in the dark . . .

There may be a few of you new to these pages who are wondering what exactly is going on! Indeed, I myself had to question the validity of allowing a Halloween-style ghost story to overlap into our Christmas issue. After all, what does a ghost story have to do with the Yuletide season?



"A Christmas Carol", in addition to its perennial position as Christmas story non-pareil, is also probably the earliest ghost story most of you will be able to recall. Christmas was, for Dickens, chiefly an excuse allowing him to bring a new tale of the supernatural into the Victorian world.

For many years he continued this practice, expanding his hobby to accommodate an entire magazine devoted to the collecting and publishing of ghost stories! We all look back with fondness at Cratchet, Fezziwig, and little Tiny Tim, but I believe Mr. Dickens' fondest memories were reserved for the grim, animated shroud that foretold Christmas Yet to Come, and perhaps the horrifying visage of Jacob Marley, dead seven years and as ghastly a chain rattler as ever there was . . .

No, the true Victorian Christmas celebration was never thought complete without a gathering around the fire some dark holiday night, revelers all still with eyes wide and trained upon the story teller, whose solemn task it was to scare the living daylights out of one and all . . .

And so I feel somewhat justified in my little tale, as if perhaps - what's that? You don't feel quite satisfied with my story? You think perhaps there was more to it than I've let on?

Balderdash! Stuff and nonsense! What sort of things do you expect could possibly happen in an old house with a history like that?

Of course, there WAS the matter of the doorknob that was seen to turn of its own volition - with no one on the other side. Then there were the several reports of invisible footsteps loudly ascending the main staircase . . .

Come to think of it, guests over the years have reported such things as the sounds of chains rattling, skirts rustling, and heavy breathing.

But don't take my word for it - the Vineyard House is in the middle of some of the most beautiful country in California, and seems a great place to stay. Of course, you may not want to dine directly under the chandelier in the Dining Room - two weeks before we visited the house it had come crashing down without warning - fortunately only onto an empty table.

Of course, if you should decide to stay there, it would be prudent to be patient with late night revelers. One couple, angry at having their sleep disturbed, threw open their door and remonstrated with the three men whooping it up outside to "take it somewhere else".

At which point the three men slowly faded from sight . . .

Happy Holidays!