In the far corner of my office, on the bottom shelf of a bookcase, hides a rather embarrassing collection of paperbacks. Their covers bear images of a ghost in an alleyway, a sonar reading of the Loch Ness monster, a grainy photograph of Sasquatch. Their titles -- Ghostly Tales and Sinister Stories of Old Edinburgh. Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America -- appear slashed by claws.
My favorite among them is Haunted Wisconsin by Michael Norman and Beth Scott, less for its literary excellence and more for the places described in its dog-eared pages. I have visited nearly every location listed in the book: a collection of stories I have transformed into a cobwebbed travel guide.
Its tales are drawn from archives, newspaper articles and personal interviews. They range from historical tales of terror to modern-day hauntings. There are bothersome poltergeists, Ojibwe ghosts, a lady in brown, a horse of death, a psychic set of sisters.
There is a strange touristic impulse to the way I consult these books -- I read them the way others might highlight a Fodor's or Lonely Planet guide. I'll be hiking the same crowded trail as the rest of the backpackers -- and I'll be snapping photos of the waterfall along with the crush of tourists -- but I'll also be alone in the abandoned cabin or collapsed mine shaft, my eyes wide, my ears pricked. I go places others do not, and it is as though I own a map that no one knows about, its roads and legends written in invisible ink.
I keep the books in my backpack or the glove box of my car, like a flask, something I can sneak out and draw from when no one is looking. "Hold up," I'll tell my wife. "I want to take a little detour." Which once translated to a six-hour trek to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where I sought out the "Mystery Light" of Paulding. As the sun set and the owls called all around us and the world grew inky around the edges, we stood in the woods, waiting. Sadly, the Mystery Light turned out to be nothing more mysterious than headlights glowing through the trees from a far-off highway. This was a familiar disappointment. I can't tell you how many times I have stood in dark places waiting for something to happen.
I'm still waiting. And after reading so many of these collections over so many years, I cannot help but wonder, when I'm exploring the underground tunnels of Edinburgh or a haunted attic in a Vermont B&B, when a board creaks or a shadow shifts or an owl screeches, if I might find my way into a future chapter.
My Guilty Pleasure is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.