Ghosts have haunted myth and legend for as long as there has been death, appearing and disappearing in everything from Halloween attractions to horror movies, but there is more to these often misunderstood entities than just the spook factor.
At least, there is more to Rose Marshall.
Afterlife enthusiast Seanan McGuire admits that The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, the second book in her retro-cool Ghost Roads series and sequel to Sparrow Hill Road, started with a teenage death ballad.
"I wrote a song called 'Pretty Little Dead Girl,'" McGuire told SYFY WIRE in an exclusive interview, "which was basically a 1950s style death ballad about this ghost chick who hung out at the top of Dead Man's Curve and would try to get you race her, then crash your car so you'd never be seen again. I liked that character so much that I couldn't just let her vanish."
The vague apparition in the song turned into hitchhiking ghost Rose Marshall. Immortalized as 'the girl in the green silk gown,' she was killed by a phantom driver on her way to prom and now lures random drivers to take her on a ride and maybe even to a diner (she does go corporeal for a while if someone lends her a jacket). Rose continued to evolve through a series of short stories until she pretty much demanded a novel of her own; the rest just materialized from there in a way that was eerily ghostlike.
"I didn't sit down and think what was and was not possible for my ghosts,” the author admitted. “Once I had the very bare-bones idea of what could and could not happen and what was and was not possible, I just went with it."
McGuire's fascination with hitchhiking ghosts emerged from growing up in a part of the San Francisco Bay area, where unexplained sightings were not unheard of. Hitchhiking ghosts were just part of the scenery. She particularly remembers being fascinated with the spirit of a girl who is rumored to make drivers step on the gas around sunset because she is terrified of finding herself in the shadow of Mt. Diablo by the time it goes completely dark. Some believe that anyone with this ghost in their car after sundown is doomed.
"Because I was a kid when I heard all this, I unquestionably believed it," she said of the fearful whispers that would eventually shape Rose Marshall. McGuire's vision of a post-death existence was influenced as much by her own imagination as it was by folklore. She built an entire world known to the dead as the Twilight, a haven for ghosts like Rose who have unfinished business and are not ready to pass into that unknown blinding light at the end of the highway. The levels of the Twilight range from abandoned roads to eternal playgrounds to deceptively nostalgic Bradbury-esque towns that could forever trap lost souls in an era that never existed.
"I believe that humans are pretty awesome but we are not capable of understanding what heaven would look like while we're alive because whatever is out there is so much bigger than we are," she said of how this shadow world came into being. "If life after death really does exist, everyone probably gets what they expect to get, because that's the only thing I can think of that would be fair."
Being a kid obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons also helped create this quasi-eternity. McGuire always found a certain satisfaction in creating rules and illustrating them in her own personal codex, which carried over into her fiction. The Twilight doesn't just exist in its own postmortem bubble. She always kept asking herself what such an afterlife was supposed to look like and how everything fit together to make it a cohesive underworld.
The ghosts that float around in McGuire's version of the beyond mostly emerged from human perceptions of disembodied spirits. She has created a mini-encyclopedia of ghost types and sub-worlds of the Twilight that can be referenced in the back of both Sparrow Hill Road and The Girl in the Green Silk Gown. It shouldn't be surprising that her major at UC Berkeley was folklore or that the ghosts she has picked up at the many exits in her Ghost Roads series exist in the mythology of the living.
"They're almost entirely from folklore and mythology because people are fascinated by ghosts and always have been," the author said, which also explains the character of Laura, a professor who specializes in paranormal studies.
Some of the legends that shaped the unquiet dead in the Twilight have been lingering on Earth for thousands of years, while others arose more recently. Ghost lore that arose in America (as opposed to the beliefs that early immigrants brought with them across the Atlantic) was triggered during and shortly after the Civil War, which was really the first national conflict in which many of the dead were left on the battlefield and never returned home to be buried.
McGuire also incorporated what she describes as her "absolute passionate love for watching way too many horror movies" into Rose's existence with a chilling Halloween ritual where, as in so many legends about he one night a year when the veil is lifted between the mortal world and the spirit realm, the dead walk as flesh and blood. When she was approached for a sequel to Sparrow Hill Road, she was thrilled to resurrect that scene, which had been written separately and fueled by '80s B-horror in which she recalls "someone always got cut in half in a novel and interesting way."
"I kind of run by the idea that by recurring scenes and motifs in modern movies are like recurring themes and motifs in stories that we used to tell each other," she continued. "Why does this specific thing come up again and again why do we think this makes a good story? Something about it is true."
That truth may not always be verbatim but a primal human instinct or fear that runs in our veins, which makes you want to ask one pressing question. Does McGuire believe in ghosts? The short answer is yes.
"I kind of subscribe to the Terry Pratchett principle, which is to believe in things, because if you're wrong — no harm, no foul," she said, "but if you’re right, maybe they won't be quite as pissed off at you when you die."
The Girl in the Green Silk Gown will be available on July 17.