Haunted Places and Haunted Stories: An Interview With Rebecca Turkewitz

Rebecca Turkewitz

Where, exactly, can you find the dividing line between a ghost story and a story about ghosts? In her new collection Here in the Night, Rebecca Turkewitz explores that fascinating boundary. There are moments that stray into the uncanny here, for sure, but Turkewitz also explores the effects of ghost stories and local folklore on her characters, leading to moments that illustrate just how tales of the uncanny can have similar effects to the uncanny itself. I spoke with her about her collection, her own experiences with folktales, and what’s next for her.

Ghosts and local folklore are a huge presence in the stories in Here in the Night. Were you inspired by any real-life ghosts or legends when writing the stories within?

Definitely. “The Elevator Girl,” which takes place at Ohio State University, where I did my MFA, is inspired by a real campus legend. The elevator in the art building is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a former student who got trapped in it. According to the legend, the traumatized student survived the ordeal, but returned to haunt the elevator after her death. It seemed so strange to me that a ghost would haunt a place they neither lived nor died in, and I wanted to write a story that explored that. 

Another story incorporates the folklore of crybaby bridges, which are everywhere in Ohio and Indiana. These bridges are said to be haunted by wailing babies and/or grieving mothers. They often have different backstories– a school bus crashed into the guardrail, or a mother’s car flew into the creek below. My story uses the version in which a spurned lover drowns her newborn baby in the river. 

One of the things that I found most intriguing about this collection was its handling of the supernatural — namely, that in a few of the stories, it’s less important whether or not the supernatural is real and more important that the characters believe that it is. (Or not.) Is it challenging to write something like this, where the uncanny/realistic division isn’t the most important aspect of it?

Writing stories that live in the space between the uncanny and the real comes very naturally to me. I love reading ambiguous horror (such as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or Michelle Paver’s Wakenynhyrst) and often find these tales to be the most unsettling. For me, the challenge of writing this type of fiction is worrying about how readers might react to it. Many of the stories in Here in the Night exist in the muddled space between literary fiction and horror, which makes them hard to classify. And genre purists are sometimes quite resistant to quieter horror. 

Do you see this collection as being part of a fictional tradition? I found myself thinking of Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County, where the suggestion of the supernatural feels stronger than the actual presence of the supernatural…

I think this collection belongs to many different fictional traditions. I love playing with genre expectations. There are times when I’m trying to call back to classic horror like The Haunting of Hill House, and times when I’m writing much more in the literary shadow of Alice Munro or Louise Erdrich. I also think my stories fit in the emerging tradition of literary horror, alongside the works of Carmen Maria Machado, Karen Russell, Helen Oyeyemi, Mariana Enriquez, and Stephen Graham Jones. I take a lot of inspiration from the work of Kelly Link, where there is a particular self-awareness about genre, and an overt sense of delight in the spookiness. And, this is a book that is primarily concerned with the experiences of girls and women, and I owe so much to writers who paved the way for women to be seen as worthy foci of literary fiction. 

The story “At This Late Hour” has a narrator whose job is a kind of haunting. What comes to mind when you think of the overlap between traditional work and its more uncanny side? And do ghost tours factor into this at all?

The first seed of inspiration for that story was a visit to The Lowe Hotel, a purportedly haunted hotel in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. I was there during the town’s annual Mothman Festival and I became really fascinated by the fact that the employees were clearly using the hotel’s haunted reputation to draw customers. They gave ghost tours, and they pointed out rooms where people should stay if they wanted to witness paranormal activity. I also find hotels to be pretty uncanny, just generally. 

Places loom large throughout the book. Were you drawing on your own memories of places to create them, or did the process of writing these stories involve a blend of imagination and research?

It was a blend of all three: I was drawing on my own memories, research, and imagination. Almost every story is set somewhere I’ve at least visited, and every town is based on a specific region or place. I try very hard to get the details and feeling of a setting right. I can get lost exploring Google Street View or reading the Wikipedia entries for small towns.

Several of these stories also explore how time and memory can distort certain events in bizarre ways — especially “Sarah Lane’s School for Girls” and “Northwood.” Do you find it challenging to write the layers of reality that come with a story such as this?

Structure is always a challenge for me, but I’m also very drawn to unusual structures in fiction. I want the structure and manner of telling to add something to the story. In the stories you mentioned, I was trying to capture the way memory can warp our perceptions, and how our unique perspectives shape the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. I do a tremendous amount of outlining and note taking and pre-writing before I start my first drafts, which helps me keep track of the layers I’m trying to create.

Dare I ask: what’s next for you?

You may! My goal is to start writing a novel this summer. I have an idea that I’ve been researching and developing for a while. But I adore the short story form, and I’ve been in that mode for so long, it’s been really hard to switch to a new challenge. I have several stories I’m finishing, and a couple new ideas that are strongly pulling at my attention. I know that until I get these stories out of my system, I won’t be able to fully commit myself to a novel. Right now, I’m working on two historical horror stories set in a 19th century mill city in Maine.


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