The best part of writing Creepy Corner is hearing the stories people dare to tell me.
Throughout the years, I've received dozens of emails telling me stories "I've never told anyone," or details of occurrences with the caveat "Please don't tell anyone." As someone who (believe it or not) still holds some stories back, having the bravery to send a story to a relative stranger is no small thing. I don't take that lightly, and to all of you who have trusted me with your stories, thank you.
I do think there is some element of relief when SOMEONE else out there knows your weirdest, darkest, scariest, strangest "Am I dreaming?" story.
Those stories that will never see the light of publication are just as dear to me as the stories that you all are willing to share with the rest of the Creeps.
Just a few days ago, my mom sent me this jaw-droppingly eerie story about Hong Kong's underworld in the mid-20th century, and though I was itching to write it up, she firmly stated at the end: "For your eyes only. There are people alive who still know this story. Best not to share."
Way to dangle the carrot, Mom.
There are so few secrets these days — truly delicious, precious secrets — that, after getting over the fact that mom's story may have to be forever in the vault, I got a little thrill out of it. Filing my mom's story away with the other "CC Stories That Can Never Be Published" (yes, I actually have a file for everything), I loved that even something like a ghost story might not be immortal. That story, told just how my mom told it, with just so details, may not outlive me.
While I love telling my family's and friends' stories, as well as folktales and legends, in the hopes to spread the word and maybe extend their life, there is just something right about a ghostly story being allowed to dissipate into the ether.
Which brings me to this unusual little story that I literally ran into on the street outside my home. You know, Creepy Corner Creeps, that I love THE DETAILS of stories, but this encounter is rightfully missing all the details. We don't get to know everything, and that's just how it should be.
The beginning of the ghost month for the Hungry Ghost Festival is a week away. Starting last weekend, I began noticing people burning incense, Hell Notes, wood chips in little metal containers on the street after dark. Walking home, I have to pick my way around people crouched over their smoky sidewalk-fires.
This is my favorite time of year in Hong Kong. Unlike the way Halloween is often celebrated — elaborate, carnival-like, dramatic — this is more personal, introverted. Though the Hungry Ghost Festival does have events and performances, the heart of it still feels solemn, careful. At the end of the day, it's just you and your ghosts.
A few nights ago I came across a familiar face working a fire across the street from my front door. It was the "Woman With Many Dogs" in my building; I think she owns or manages a shop nearby.
Now, normally I wouldn't interrupt someone going about their own private business, especially when that business has something to do with belief or spirituality. But as I stepped off the curb to cross the street, her eyes looked up from the fire and met mine. After a beat, recognition came into her face and she smiled at me.
"Oh, hi!" I stopped and smiled back at her.
Crap, she was just being polite, and now I'm standing here staring at her. You're a real "Neighbor of the Year," Lou. NEIGHBOR. OF. THE. YEAR.
"How are you?" I asked.
"Good, good, thank you. You coming back from work?" she gestured to my giant orange computer bag.
"Yeah, yeah. Long day," I looked her fire. "I like your fire."
OH MY GOD, LOUISE, STOP TALKING, STOP TALKING. "I LIKE YOUR FIRE"?!
She glanced at the fire, glanced back at me, a little unsure if she was misunderstanding me (we speak in a mix of Cantonese and English, though I'm not sure either is her first language).
"You know? You..." she pointed at the fire. "You ever..?"
"Oh, no, I just like it. Makes me think of family. I like the ghosts."
Her smile seemed to get a little softer; her eyes looked me up and down. "You like ghosts, huh? Your family are Hong Kong people?"
"Yes. I was born here, but I'm American. They are Hong Kongers but live in America."
She nodded. "They're far away. But your family — the ghosts — are not, right?"
I chuckled. "No, I guess you're right. All of my family's ghosts are in Hong Kong."
She looked at me for a moment, her head bobbing, nodding, considering something. I thought I should maybe go and opened my mouth to say goodbye when…
"You know, I know when ghosts are close."
"Yeah? Close?" I asked, amazed at how candid she was being.
Her face scrunched a little, but she kept smiling. "Uh...yeah. But better not say too much." She looked around, faking a grimace, a consciously silly pantomime of being surrounded.
"Oh, right, of course," I lowered my voice. "The ghost month is soon, yes? I shouldn't talk about 'things' too much, yeah?"
Again, her smile changed. This time it was a little sly? Sheepish?
"Mmm...things happen. You can't ignore them. Do you ignore them?"
I shook my head. "I try not to." And then I carefully asked, "Things happen?"
Poking her shrinking fire, she looked up at me through narrowed eyes. "My dogs. You know my dogs! They see things, they tell me."
She mimicked a whining dog, "Ai-yah, they look," she demonstrated, bugging out her eyes and staring transfixed at something. "And then I know. They come into my house, or they try! You should light a candle in your house. You live alone? Doesn't matter, your ghosts might be looking for you. The wrong ghost might be looking for you. You should never be in the dark. Not now."
"I've heard that. I should light a candle, or keep a light on."
"Yes, yes. You should. It can be so scary. Not everyone believes, but I do. It follows me — around my home, in the hall, it knocks," she made a knocking motion in the air. "I hear it."
She drew up abruptly, as if remembering something. "Mmm, I shouldn't say any more." Her whole demeanor suddenly changed. He smile became forced.
"Goodnight, OK? Mmm, you should keep a light on, OK?"
And it's the last words she said to me that sent a chill down my spine.
"Be careful what comes into your house, OK? They're looking for a way in."
I went home that night and left the lights on until morning.
And for the record, the Woman With Many Dogs has never come across to me as especially "weird" or "odd." She is a little more outgoing and friendly than most people in my building (especially if you're nice to her darling dogs), but I have never looked at her and thought, "She ain't all there."
But as I've learned from the Creepy Corner, a strange experience or a good ghost story can bring out a side of a person we don't normally get to see. I feel so lucky that I got to have that conversation with my neighbor, and though I'm dying to know the details of what she was talking about — does she see things? What does she hear? DOES SHE LIVE IN A HAUNTED APARTMENT? WHAT'S TRYING TO GET IN? — it's not for me to know.
And that's just how it should be.
I'll just be sleeping with the lights on until the end of next month.