Barbara Smith’s lifelong interest in ghosts began over sixty years ago when she walking with her father in Toronto.
“We were walking past a huge bank building. You have to understand I was just three feet tall so it was really enormous and my father said to me I understand that bank is haunted — that it has a ghost in it. I just flipped out,” said Smith, who was seven years old at the time. “I had never been so intrigued by anything in my entire life and so I was just throwing questions at him. He didn’t know the answers, that’s just what he had heard.”
Years later Smith found out the ghost at the bank was that of a young teller named Dorothy who was in love with a co-worker but the affection was not mutual. Distraught the heartbroken teller took her own life with a bank-issued revolver (for protection against bank robbers) in the women’s bathroom in 1953.
The story about Dorothy and her death at the Bank of Montreal (which became the site of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1993) and her subsequent haunting of the location is in Smith’s latest collection of ghost stories (her 26th book on the topic) titled Great Canadian Ghost Stories.
“I love that story and didn’t that bank become the Hockey Hall of Fame. So what a perfect Canadian ghost story,” said Smith gleefully.
Canada is not lacking in spooky tales and unexplained phenomenon. Smith loves them all and treats the stories about average folks like Dorothy with the same wide-eyed reverence as tales about historical heavyweights like Henry Hudson.
“I love the combination of history and mystery,” said Smith, when asked why she keeps digging up ghost stories. “It just tickles me. I love social history. There is a feeling that I get called deliciously frightened. I love that.”
B.C. is well represented in the book. Vancouverites will love the tale of the Headless Brakeman who slipped while walking the tracks at the Granville Rail Yard and had his head cut off by a train. Now if you happen to be down at the tracks at the foot of Granville St. late at night and you see a swaying light say hello to poor old Hub Clark.
And because you are at the rail yards why not head over to the Old Spaghetti Factory in Gastown. That building’s busy history has apparently made for some regular ghostly manifestations including the Little Red Man. This regular haunter is short, dressed all in red and likes to hang out in the women’s washroom.
To call Smith a prolific writer is an understatement. Great Canadian Ghost Stories is her 36th book. She is thinking of retiring but says when she does she’ll write a memoir and some collections of short stories. Retirement it seems is not a clear concept.
Smith’s writing career began in 1988 when she had a secretarial job working for the Edmonton school system. In the past, finances had kept Smith from pursuing writing but now she was in a better position and as a lover of ghost stories she was thrilled to find out that the old school that housed the Edmonton public school archives was supposedly haunted. She wrote the story sold it. That bit of sleuthing lead to more digging and more stories and soon Smith had her book Ghost Stories of Alberta and as she says she has “been at it ever since.”
“The first book was really hard to write, really difficult,” said Smith, who has lived in Victoria for a little over a decade. “But once that came out I was just inundated with stories to the point that all I had to do was go out and interview the people and wham I had another book within a year and a half.”
While ghost stories can be wildly entertaining — who doesn’t want to now the story of the Dungarvon Whooper — at their root they are usually tragic and usually involve a death that is either nefarious or premature in nature.
“Ghost stories are fun and everything but they imply a death,” said Smith. “Some of them have been profoundly difficult emotionally so I really do feel grateful and humbled that these people would share with me.”
Smith says many of us have our own ghost stories, stories of a room going cold or a feeling of someone standing behind us when there is no one else around. It’s these creepy connections that Smith thinks peaks our interest in the paranormal.
“The pre-orders were strong for this book. They were tremendous. All of my books sold well,” said Smith, with not a drop of arrogance in her voice.
She quickly adds though that one ghostly tome didn’t sell so well. Haunted Hearts, about ghost love stories, died a premature death.
Why is it we want to read about and think about the dead?
“I think we want to understand what happens after. Also if we lose someone near and dear to us it is comforting to feel them around you,” said Smith.
After years of collecting stories, she says with confidence the place most frequented by ghosts is not graveyards.
Instead, common haunting sites include hospitals, firehalls and theatres, where there is a lot of emotion.
“I find firehalls are very often haunted because there is that huge surge of emotion. Theatres are often haunted, I have one full book on theatres (Haunted Theatres),” she said.
Smith herself says the spookiest place she has been was an old Edmonton hospital. There she said she had a huge emotional sadness overcome her. She said it was weird because she is a “tough old boot.”
There are a lot of commonalities in ghost stories.
“Children are more likely to see things because as we grow up we train ourselves not to see them. Animals are very sensitive. If a dog or a cat stares at something that is usually not a good sign at all.”
Cold spots are big and also if you got a ghost there’s a higher chance he’s a dude.
“Off the top of my head I say men (haunt the most),” said Smith. “There’s a lot of routinized behaviour with men in a haunted house. There you hear the front door open and then close, heavy footsteps going up the stairs. They’re there five days a week forever. He’s just coming home from work.”
Women seem to a have a bit of flourish. They want to be noticed and it seems they don’t want to be caught dead in just any old outfit.
“We have a lot of coloured ladies. We have blue ladies, The Blue Lady of Peggy’s Cove. The grey ladies that kind of thing. I think they are more mournful and they are here because they are sad.”
What about her own afterlife? Does Smith want to return as a ghost?
“I hope so. My girlfriend Jo-Anne Christensen, who wrote Ghost Stories of Saskatchewan and a few other ones, she and I have promised each other we’ll try to come back and hang out together as ghosts.”
Where would she like to do her ghost work?
“I guess a childhood home. That would be really nice. But now that I think about it I think a theatre would be fantastic. I’m a big swimmer and swimming pools are often haunted. Gee, I think I’d like the freedom to flit around.”
Smith’s next book is due out in April and is a follow up to one she did focusing on Canadian suffragette, politician, author, and activist Nellie McClung.
“I had compiled a collection of Nellie McClung columns. That book naturally lead me to the Famous Five and the “Persons Case,” in 1929 and so I’m finishing up that book (Famous Five) and it will be out in April,” said Smith. “It is social history so it does kind of fit. You are not going to see a book from me about quantum physics. That’s not going to happen.”
What ghost stories does a writer of ghost stories like?
Author Barbara Smith offers up her favourite books about ghosts:
“Choosing favourite ghost story books was tough, but The Ghost of Flight 401, by John G. Fuller, has always been a big favourite of mine. I really admire the way he sets the scene for the plane crash — December 1972, one of those huge old L-1011s crashing into a Florida swamp. Very chilling. Also, you can imagine the pilots’ reactions going from mild annoyance to the terrifying reality that they are about to crash the plane they are responsible for and likely kill all on board.
“Then when those pilots faces start showing up in other L-1011s — ones that have been fitted with parts from the wrecked plane — with messages to prompt the crews to look for safety hazards, well, it’s just creepy and so believable.
“On a much lighter note — you really can’t beat A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I like the book way more than any version of the movie. I think we can all identify with different parts of each character, which really brings the story close to the heart.
“The Haunting of Hill House is such a classic — and scary like mad. I think for the same reason as A Christmas Carol is effective, we can all identify with parts of each character and then our imaginations just go into overdrive. Plus Shirley Jackson was such a skilled wordsmith. She just ratchets up the suspense.
“And last is a Ghost Story by Peter Straub. The nice quiet setting of a small town with four old men telling stories to one another is such a bait and switch for what’s to come and again, it gets personal.”