Archive for February, 2013

Meyers HardwareMy hubs has a thing for hardware stores. I used to refer to it as the “Oooooh needle-nose pliers” reaction. He can happily wander the aisles of both neighborhood hardware places and big chain stores for hours on end, ogling LED light bulbs and snow blowers and charcoal grills. I, on the other hand, could easily accomplish most of my hardware store shopping within the first five minutes after I enter the place.

For me, it’s restaurant supply stores. We used to live not far from an Ace Mart in San Antonio and I found I could never just pop in and out. I had to stroll down each aisle, studying the really cool restaurant tools and fixtures that seemed amazingly cheap compared with what you paid at the upscale gourmet stores.

The problem always came when I started thinking I needed to buy some of these things. Storage containers, for example. I love the square plastic ones with the measurements on the side, the kind that I always picture marinating a pot roast in. And the Asian bamboo steamers and wire spider strainers. And the Mexican cast iron fajita pans with wooden coasters. And the shakers and syrup dispensers and creamers and miniature teapots. I always want them, and I always have to make myself stop and think carefully. Do I really need these things? Will I really use them? Yes that’s a really cute shaker, but am I actually going to put together that wonderful all-purpose BBQ rub or am I just kidding myself?

We all have stores like these, I think. For some people it’s shoes. For others, it’s books. An unfortunate few lose control at chocolatiers. If you’re shopping by yourself, these “trigger stores” can result in disaster. You arrive at your house with five pairs of shoes and an empty bank account. What you need in this case is a judgmental friend or relative, someone who’ll say “You already have three pairs of silver sandals. And those aren’t even pretty ones.” In extreme cases, you need someone who’ll just grab your arm and pull you away from those glass candy cases, muttering “Come on, we’re late.”

This is what the hubs and I provide for one another. I’m the one tapping my toe in impatience in the electrical aisle of the hardware store, reminding him we already have a bountiful supply of LED bulbs and we really don’t need another extension cord. He’s the one peering over my shoulder at the restaurant supply store, shaking his head at the bento box (“What would you do with it anyway?”). Between the two of us, we’ve probably saved thousands.

But I still want a square plastic food container.

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Haunted Places

Medium WellMy new ghost story trilogy (the first, Medium Well is now available from Berkley InterMix at Amazon and Barnes and Noble) takes place in a very spooky place: the King William District of San Antonio. San Antonio itself is full of places that are supposed to be haunted—I mean, the Alamo is in the center of downtown SA. The Menger Hotel is right across the street from the Alamo and boasts several well-known ghosts, including Teddy Roosevelt (who recruited the Rough Riders there during the Spanish American War). The Spanish Governors Palace has a haunted fountain. The Majestic Theatre has some performance-loving ghosts. And that’s just downtown.

But there are other haunted places that aren’t what you’d expect. For a couple of years, the hubs and I stayed at a motel in Nebraska on the way home from Iowa after Christmas. It was really large, with an indoor pool and a convention center, yet it usually seemed more than half empty, although that could have been the time of year. I’d head down to the lobby for a cup of coffee in the morning since I always wake up before the hubs does, and I’d frequently get the creeps. Something about it—above and beyond the fact that most of the lights had been turned out—made me feel uneasy. Then one day I was stumbling around the Internet, looking for something else, and I found that motel listed under Haunted Hotels. I was sort of shocked, but not exactly.

Some of this is expectation, of course. I’ve wandered around the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, which was the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, and it’s predictably spooky. But the management at the Stanley really wants you to feel that way—they even do ghost tours. So it’s not surprising that you feel a bit of a creep when you go inside.

To me, what’s scarier is the place you didn’t expect to feel creepy at all. The historic building that suddenly has you looking over your shoulder. The boutique hotel where you discover you don’t really want to check out the lower story after all. The small town main street that makes you want to keep driving. Are these places haunted? Who knows? They’re certainly haunting you!

That’s what happens to my hero in Medium Well. He’s an experienced real estate salesman who’s never had a problem selling a historic home—that’s his specialty. But now all of a sudden, he’s got a place that gives him the creeps, big time. Here’s a quick taste:


He nodded toward a door on the far wall. “Did you check in there?”

“Not yet. Maybe it’s the kitchen.”

Danny took hold of the doorknob and turned. “Locked.”

“Why would they lock the kitchen? I don’t know if we have a key. Maybe the front door key works here, too.” She started toward him.

Danny rattled the knob again. “Probably just stuck. I don’t see a keyhole.” After a moment, he put his shoulder against the door and pushed, gritting his teeth at the thought of his recently cleaned Hugo Boss jacket. The door opened with a tooth-jarring creak.

He stood in the doorway staring at another filthy room. A utility sink stood against one wall, an ancient wood-burning stove on the other. “At least it’s got plumbing. Not all these places do.”

Biddy peeped in the door over his shoulder. “Do you think the stove is worth anything? Maybe it’s an antique.”

He glanced at the stove—black metal with a steel top, covered with a half inch of filth. It looked like it weighed a ton. “Could be valuable. Assuming you could actually get it out of here. You’d have to use a crane or something.”

He walked across the dusty floor, stepping over the occasional piece of trash, then ran his fingers across the scalloped edge at the top corner of the stove.

And suddenly his hand was on fire.

Electric sparks seemed to flow up from his fingertips to his shoulder. The surface of his palm throbbed with heat, as if the stove were flaming. “What the hell?” Danny gasped, snatching his hand away.

His shoulders ached, his back, his neck. Danny grabbed hold of his burning hand and the sparks flowed to the other side of his body. “Jesus Christ!”

“Mr. Ramos?” Beside him, Biddy frowned. “What’s wrong?”

“Christ!” He shook both hands, trying to cool them. Slowly, the heat began to recede.

“Don’t touch the stove,” he gasped. “It’s got some kind of electric charge or something.”

“The stove?” She gave him an incredulous glance, reaching her hand toward the stove top.

“Biddy, no!” Danny grabbed for her, missing her hand, so that his palm landed on the burner again.

His hand rested upon cool metal.

Biddy stared at him with real concern. “Mr. Ramos? It’s okay, really. There’s nothing here. I don’t feel anything.”

Danny took a deep breath, willing himself not to snatch his hand away again. The stove top felt cold. There were no electric sparks. “I must have touched something else. Something hot.”

“Up here?” She glanced around the room. “But it’s not hot here at all. I mean, actually it’s cold. I wish I’d brought a sweater.” She wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing her shoulders.

Danny stared around the room again. Dust. Trash. Two dirt-stained windows. He stared down at his hands, but they looked perfectly normal. No burned skin. Nothing.

His jaw clenched. Too much coffee. Too little sleep. Nothing freaky going on. “Anything else to see? Any other rooms?”

She shook her head, watching him with narrowed eyes. “Just the downstairs. The garage part.”

“Okay.” He blew out a breath. Time to head back to the real world. “Let’s go down there and check it out.”

He took the key from her fingers, feeling a quick brush of warmth as their hands touched, then shooed her out the front door, leaning back to lock it. His fingers still tingled slightly. He glanced down.

His hand was stained crimson, his fingers dripping blood.

Danny stood frozen in the doorway, staring. He didn’t feel any pain. How could he be bleeding?

“Mr. Ramos?” Biddy called to him from the bottom of the stairs. “Okay?”

He glanced down at her, then back at his hand again.

His clean, dry hand.


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Reviewers and book bloggers: Medium Well is now available for review on Net Galley!

Medium WellAs someone who just wrote three ghost stories (the first, Medium Well, will be released by Berkley InterMix on February 19), I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about being scared—how to do it and why. I’ve always had a weakness for ghost stories, both fiction and nonfiction, but I’d never really stopped to think what it was about those stories that really got to me. Why some of them gave me nightmares and some of them didn’t do much of anything.

I should start out by saying that explicit horror doesn’t do much except make me cringe. Texas Chainsaw Massacre never really appealed to me, nor did Scream or Halloween. It wasn’t that they weren’t scary (they definitely were). But it wasn’t the kind of scary I found enjoyable. Stabbing teenagers who had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time makes me sad rather than uneasy.

Contrast this with Silence Of the Lambs. Now you may remember SOL as being extremely violent, but in fact it isn’t. There’s one sequence that’s designed to demonstrate that Dr. Lecter really is just as dangerous as everyone said he was, but that’s it. With the exception of the ending, everything else works by innuendo. You feel that Clarice is constantly under threat, but that threat is never realized until she finally finds Buffalo Bill at the end of the movie. And it’s that constant unrealized threat that makes the movie feel so terrifying.

I think good ghost stories work with a similar dynamic. You’re always waiting for something scary to happen, but it never seems to come when you expect it. Moreover, written ghost stories can be considerably scarier than filmed ones because the action takes place in your head. There’s a moment in Shirley Jackson’s supremely terrifying Haunting of Hill House when two of the psychically sensitive guests are talking in their darkened bedroom. One of them remarks that the other’s hand, which she’s holding, is very cold tonight. Guest two replies that she isn’t holding her hand. And that’s the last sentence in the chapter, as I recall. Gotcha!

Lots of great ghost stories work just like that—did you really see something or didn’t you? What was that noise anyway? Did something just flit by that mirror? Even ghost stories that don’t take themselves entirely seriously can still give you the chills. I remember reading Jennifer Crusie’s ghost story Maybe This Time while I was using the treadmill in my basement. Yes, it was funny (hey, it’s Jennifer Crusie), but by the time I was halfway through the book, I was feeling very uneasy about being downstairs all by myself. You laugh, but it’s sort of nervous laughter.

So to some extent that’s what I tried to do in Medium Well, Medium Rare, and Happy Medium. They’re not particularly violent (although there are a few deaths here and there—they’re ghost stories, after all), but, well, things happen. The heroes and heroines see and hear things that others don’t. They’re frightened frequently and threatened occasionally. But everything works out in the end.

Hey, they may be ghost stories, but they’re still romances!

Check out my blog tour at http://www.megbenjamin.com/ for a chance to win a fifteen-dollar Amazon gift certificate!

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