I escaped my recent death by becoming a ghost in limbo land. In exchange for being undead I agreed to attend and perform haunting services upon request. I understood my obligations and signed the standard ten-year contract that requires two visitations a month and allows me four annual social calls to see my family, on compassionate grounds. This is a very workable arrangement with plenty of scope for unchecked mischief making. I keenly anticipated returning to surprise my old friends and teasing them with impunity.
“So,” I hear you say. “Surely residing in limbo can’t be that ghastly?”
Well, within twenty-four hours, I discovered why ghosts are characterised by a distinctive mournful wail. They’re bored to tears for most of the year. In my recent experience, being caught between one world and the next one isn’t all that exciting. It turns out that there’s a fine line between living in limbo and suffering in purgatory. We’re only visible at night and struggle to get a reaction during daylight hours unless we throw crockery around or rattle pots and pans.
Luckily, I had the good fortune to pass away three weeks before Halloween, and that’s the busiest time of the year for spirits. However, being new to all this, I was warned that I’d miss all the fun if I didn’t get organised and up to speed. I wouldn’t stand a chance of frightening anybody this year, unless I obtained my guild membership and passed basic training.
I needed to get advice from one of my new colleagues. There are plenty of ghosts here; they’re everywhere, in fact, which leads to one or two issues. It would appear that you have to book a time slot for the most popular locations on Halloween, and there are queues everywhere on the night. I discovered that the most popular spots are block booked in advance by The Guild of Spectres, Spirits, incorporating Phantoms, or G.O.S.S.I.P. for short. The Guild is a closed shop organisation that runs the haunting business here. The committee members are the less adventurous and more conservative residents of the undead community. They are disapproving of the younger independent ghosts and condemn their lack of respect for the traditions of the spirithood. Purgatory for the Guild members is a serious occupation, and they are professionally miserable to a soul. The life members sign up for centuries of self-flagellation and believe that they deserve their punishment. Fun is a four-letter word in their world, and they often compete to see who can grumble the most. To be fair, the ones I spoke to were pleasant enough, but they lacked imagination.
The Guild insists that a new denizen of limbo land must possess a G.O.S.S.I.P.membership card before being allowed to practise their new occupation. The dilemma is that in order to get a card you need to be a member of the Guild, but you can’t join unless you have a card. Often new souls arriving here plead with their undead relatives and join through a nepotistic route. Some things don’t change. Even in limbo a nod of approval and a back hander are often the way to get ahead. I don’t have any family connections here because all my relatives have opted for a final curtain option at the end of their lives.
Luckily for me, the other way to get a ticket is to become an intern and learn everything by shadowing a G.O.S.S.I.P. member. The older souls here enjoy the company of first-timers and kindly offer their services. The apprenticeship scheme was created to help prospective ghosts learn the skills needed to pass the written test and confidently bluff their way through the practical exam.
The Guild considered my application letter and enrolled me on a crash course with an esteemed resident of the great void called Sir Robert Probisher. He’d considered retiring recently and leaving limbo land for good. Nevertheless, The Guild insisted that he mentored one last pupil, and he took me under his wing.
We got to know each other over the period leading up to Halloween and he insisted on me calling him Bob. He was a lively old soul despite arriving here three centuries ago after tumbling off his horse under the influence of hard liquor. I had lots of questions and Bob patiently explained everything and always kept a sense of humour. He enjoyed hearing about my life, and he was curious about the most recent pandemic. Bob had witnessed three such outbreaks in his time here, and he was concerned there’d be another major influx of new inhabitants.
“There’s only so much space here,” he’d say. “The queues for decent haunts are getting longer by the day.”
He’s correct. There are endless lines of undead waiting around before entering limbo. I understand that many newcomers are put off by this first experience of purgatory and ironically this has the effect of dissuading the faint hearted, which then reduces the waiting time. This being stated, the notion of time is somewhat awry here. I could have been queuing at the entrance for a year, however it was probably only a few hours of your earth time. Similarly, a haunting can last a few frightening moments or continue indefinitely.
It’s the Guild that allocates victims to be tormented by their members. This is done according to ancient rules about justice and equity. Bob is a consummate professional who still receives fifty commissions a year. He’s thoroughly enjoyed his work, and he has hilarious stories from his time in the after life.
He has perfected the art of the long-term visitation and disturbs the living until their hair goes grey with anxiety. It isn’t personal for Bob it’s his trade, however he takes great pride in his work. He’s well known for his talent to unnerve the quarry with plaintive whispers. His method is to follow his prey to their address and conceal himself inside their homes. According to Bob, a chimney makes a perfect echo chamber. He often hides up the flue and terrifies the household with reverberant cries. Of course, when central heating became popular a few years ago, he had to change his approach. He found that rumbling pipes and gurgling radiators could equally spook the most hardened offenders, given enough time.
Bob is old enough not to take the Guild’s rules too seriously. However, he cautioned me against appearing frivolous in front of the interview panel. At the end of my training, he vouched for me at the Guild’s review meeting. His recommendation and comprehensive training made all the difference to my progress. Consequently, within three weeks of my departure from your world, I was fast-tracked to receive my Provisional Apparition’s Certificate. I learned an enormous amount about the profession from Bob, but I had still to put it all into practice.
My first Halloween should have been the highlight of the year, but I struggled to gain a satisfactory location. The Guild is strict in allocating venues and hour-long time slots, but chaos abounds due to the high numbers involved. There are queues of groaning spirits and complaining poltergeists waiting to occupy every crumbling house in town. The local graveyard is occupied by quarrelling wraiths and its gnarly hollowed-out oak trees are stuffed with bickering spectres.
My first pitch is a rather underwhelming semi-detached Victorian house with an overgrown orchard. It’s currently occupied by two mutilated phantoms. They introduce themselves as Headless Harry and Ronald Roadkill.
“We haven’t seen you before, sonny,” says Harry, who’s carrying his head in the crook of his arm.
“Have you got your P.A.C. and your Guild card, lad?” says the other.
I pull out my paperwork. “I’ve got an hour here, at nine o’clock.”
“Well, we’ve got another ten minutes, so you’ll have to hang about outside.”
“Blimey, Harry, he’s only one of Groggy Bob’s lads,” says Ronald, checking the signature on the certificate and presenting it to Harry’s head for verification.
“I thought he’d given up the ghost years ago.”
“This one’s opted for the all inclusive decade package.”
“Pending results, you’ll only be 22 when you finish that stretch, young man.”
“Yeah, but with his Lordship’s help, he’s guaranteed a lifetime’s work.”
Bob had briefed me about these two characters. They met forty years ago before the seat belt laws were enforced and both were victims of drunken driving accidents. They’ve shared a Halloween pitch together since they first met and had a reputation for frightening all who come close to them. Bob reckoned they’d traded on their disfigurements for too long and got complacent. The decades have taken their toll, and now they’ve lost their drive and got bored.
“It’s been a slow night because of the virus.”
“Just a couple of socially distanced trick-or-treaters, a half hour ago.”
“A few teenagers out by themselves. Lucky it’s not raining.”
“Still, some years it’s a wash out completely.”
Bob advised me that the best conditions are a fog with a light wind to mask our movements; the element of surprise is always crucial in our profession.
“There’s not much occurring, why don’t you go to your next pitch?” says Harry.
“Yeah, Magic Matt’s there with his gadgets and contraptions,” says the other.
I get the hint. I was warned they’d try to pull rank. Lazy seniors looking for a slow night will do that to a junior ticket holder. They’re not bothered if the Guild fines them for obstruction. They’re past caring now.
I arrive at the back of the museum and meet Magic Matt. He introduces himself and starts to talk about his guillotine, its history, and how he intends to scare the night’s visitors. He’s full of interesting technical details and quirky facts and figures. He’s been in limbo for one hundred and fifty years and has earned an annual reservation at this site on Halloween. He’s fascinated with the workings of the device and can’t wait to demonstrate it to me. Matt takes a ripe basketball-sized pumpkin and rams it into place under the neck-restraining assembly. He strains to pull on the raising rope to lift the blade to the top of the crossbar. The entire system creaks and grinds to a halt with the cutter blade stuck four feet above the point of impact. Matt apologises and we endeavour to complete the task and set the guillotine into prime position to be ready for action.
“Ready?” he says and triggers the release switch. “Here we go.”
The blade judders down between the uprights and embeds itself in the giant vegetable with a sickening splat. The pumpkin remains intact.
“See there, almost perfect,” he says with a grin spreading across his face like warm treacle.
“Now I’d like you to present your neck,” he says, and I flinch. “We ought to put on a show for our next visitors.”
I’m not convinced by his reassurances and decline his offer of a public beheading. To be charitable, I imagine that Matt’s business has also been slow this evening.
However, I noticed a couple of small parties come and go whilst we’ve been experimenting and he’s failed to seize the moment. There’s an inherent spontaneity that’s lacking in Matt’s approach to scaring visitors. A jaded teenager who kills a thousand zombies on his games console every night is going to find this device dull. It’s the type of torture that’s unbearable, but for the wrong reasons.
“I think you need a drop of oil on the runners, Matt.”
“You reckon?” he says, crestfallen. “I rather thought we’d cracked it that time.”
I consult my guide to good spook sites. All the best locations in the city centre are occupied until after midnight. However, on the edge of town there’s a local beauty spot that sounds promising. Witch Wood is a mile long woodland walkway that offers a claustrophobic tunnel of over-hanging trees. It’s traffic free and very popular with dog walkers.
Half way down the avenue there’s a good vantage point from where I can see both ends of the tunnel. I recalled Bob’s advice and search for a suitable place to sit tight and wait.We’d discussed tactics for Halloween, and he told me I’d require the vigilance of a spider and the stealth of a fox. Nevertheless, I’m not necessarily prepared to wait by myself all night long.
An owl hoots somewhere in the canopy overhead, it’s welcome relief from the silence. A badger scuttles below me, stops, sniffs the moist air and rummages in the undergrowth.
There’s a distant giggle and a flash of light at the eastern entrance. I have company at last. It’s a teenage couple on their way home. I seize a hand full of dry twigs and pebbles. They’re walking hand in hand into the dark avenue. I reposition myself amongst the upper boughs and observe their approach.
According to legend, the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest during the witching hour. This is when the legions of tortured souls are on the prowl. A series of high-pitched wails pierce the stillness. Ahead of the youngsters, three phantoms have materialised. They cavort and dance round the pair in vain.
The lad shines his halogen lamp at the swirling visitants and they shy away from its blinding glare. The couple laughs at the half-hearted exhibition and continues undeterred. It’s been a long night and few spirits prolong their activities much beyond this ungodly hour.
The brave pair are emboldened and march forward toward the avenue’s distant exit. They are homeward bound.
I crack a branch and they falter.
A stone drops from my hand.
It lands in front of them.
They look at each other and pick up the pace.
I’m ahead of them. I splinter a branch and they stumble.
Their wide eyes search the darkness. I skim a stone past them.
She gasps and grabs his arm. Her body quivers.
He stands tall but grips her hand as I twist and rip a brittle limb.
Her breathing quickens and I whisper their names.
She clasps her hand over her open mouth.
Dried leaves flutter down from above them.
He lifts his head and swings the torch in an arc.
He’s slow. I’ve dodged the searchlight.
I float upward and hover behind them.
They remain frozen. She chokes and swallows.
My hands are raised with fingers extended like claws.
I inhale deeply through flared nostrils.
She screams. He drops the torch. They both flee for their lives.
I could get to enjoy this.