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COLUMN: Writer of ghost stories sees beyond what’s visible

Charis Cotter of Western Bay knows a thing or two about ghosts.  

Burton K. Janes

For one thing, she grew up in downtown Toronto beside a cemetery. Then, according to the publisher of her most recent book, "she lives in a particularly haunted part of Newfoundland."

She says: "I was surprised to hear just how many ghosts there are around here. The Old Hollies (the spirits of shipwreck victims) howl and scream in the wind all along here, jacky-lanterns (ghost lights) are seen out at sea, there are ghost ships in Baccalieu Tickle and ghosts roam the barrens and the roads. Yikes!" she exclaims. "I’m scaring myself just thinking about all the haunted places near me." In fact, she lives near two ancient cemeteries.

"The Swallow: A Ghost Story" is set in the Toronto of the 1960s. Two girls, Polly and Rose, squirrel away in their attics to cope with their isolation and loneliness. Polly is obsessed with ghosts, while Rose can actually see and talk to them. Discovering they’re actually neighbours, the duo develop an unlikely friendship.

There is a mystery to be unraveled, one involving a haunted house, a curse and a family secret. Polly and Rose explore the uncertain world between life and death.

"The whole idea of ghosts is scary," Charis admits. "That’s because death is scary. But," she is quick to add, "if you ever see the ghost of someone you love who has died, it won’t be scary. People who love you won’t want to frighten you."

Though set in Toronto, "The Swallow" has a clear Newfoundland connection.

"Years ago," the author explains, "I heard Pamela Morgan and Anita Best sing the folksong, ‘She’s Like the Swallow,’ and I fell in love with its haunting melody and sad story."

So, she used it as the title of her novel, as well as the song Rose sings in the attic and the swallow that appears later in the story.

Charis says that when she reads a book, "I like to get completely immersed ... so the world goes away." To her, "the story is everything." As for what she hopes her readers, juvenile and others, will take away from her book, she simply wants them to "enjoy the story and the mystery, and if maybe I can make them laugh and maybe even cry a bit, that’s enough."

A "white light" concept informs her work.

"Many people believe that you can protect yourself from negative thoughts and energy (including ghosts or bad spirits) by imagining yourself surrounded by white light (which) is seen as a positive force of goodness."

Without a doubt, ghosts, spirits, cemeteries and the like draw Charis in.

"To me," she says, "ghosts occupy that shadowland between life and death that is so mysterious. They are hard to resist. Ghosts stimulate our imagination. People in different cultures all over the world have ghosts and ghost stories. I have always believed ... that there is more to life than meets the eye, and I like to try to see beyond what’s visible.

"For children, ghosts are endlessly fascinating, and ghost stories are a good way to get them interested in reading and writing."

Charis writes juvenile fiction because, she explains, "it gives me freedom to go wherever I want with my imagination, and no one is going to try and pin me down in a particular genre." Her novel doesn’t fit the bill as fantasy, horror or mystery per se. Instead, "it’s a book for children, who will go along with you pretty well wherever you want to take them, no questions asked."

Readers will hear of Charis Cotter again. She is currently working on another children’s novel, which is partly set in Newfoundland and, if you must know, yes, "there’s a ghost in it!"

Inquiring minds may want to know if she believes in ghosts.

"Ummm," she thinks. "Yes, I believe in spirits. I believe that people who die stay with you on some spiritual level." She personally has never seen one but, she adds, "I believe people who say they see ghosts." She suggests: "some people ... have the ability to see ghosts and other people ... just don’t see them."

Charis concludes her email interview with this columnist by asking a rhetorical question, "Did I mention that I ... make it a point never to read ghost stories after dark?"

"The Swallow: A Ghost Story" is published by Tundra Books of Toronto.

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at

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