When it came to nightmares, nobody, including the Brothers Grimm, Edgar Allen Poe or Walt Disney at his sneaky (and more popular) best could hold a candle to my mother.
Give her a brooding night with fitful lightning on the horizon, an audience of two or more and a moaning wind around the house, and she made the Weird Sisters of Macbeth look like a package of half-Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and half-Shirley Temple.
In short, had Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the teenager who made Frankenstein a household and later a cinematic word walked in on one of my mothers ghost-story nights, Shelley would have called first for a change of subject and then for more light in the room.
My mother knew all the standards, such as the man who had his golden arm buried with him and what happened to the person who found it, and a grisly tale about game of hide-and-seek in an old mansion that involved an old oak chest and finally some short tales by Mary E. Wilkins, which, remembering my mothers adaptation of them to a handful of wide-eyed, open-mouthed teenagers, still starts me looking into shadows or wondering whose ghostly hand it was I had just seen outside a rain-streaked window pane.
One of the reasons her stories frightened the way they did was her way of putting them all in our back yard, so to speak.
The golden arm and its owner, the way she told it , were even then at rest in Maple Grove cemetery, just east of town.
The old oak chest could still be seen (should anyone dare look for it ) in the gloomy old house by the river that the family abandoned years ago, moving away as they did after discovery of the winner of the ghastly game of hide-and-seek still there waiting to be found in the mouldering old oak chest.
As for the Wilkins anthology, I cannot to this day see a rosebush moved by a wind that is not there without feeling again the nightmarish quality of my mothers favorite role as a spine-tingling, hair-raising Sheherazade whose tales would have kept a hundred sultans awake and in cold sweats for more than a hundred and one nights.
After a session at my mothers ghost-story nights, no kid could come up with a decent nightmare. Theyd had them all while they were wide awake.
Mine were harmless dreams of missing trains, losing my way to a dental appointment, misplacing glasses before heading for a geography test or failing to make it to breakfast at summer camp.
The thing about nightmares and my mother was her ability to make them happen without anyone going to sleep.
I remember one kid who wouldnt miss a ghost-story night at our house but who needed someone to walk part of the way home with him as it got late and our nearest street light was a block away.
It was no problem. He only lived across the street from us. But nights could get pretty scary, especially if one were spent listening to my mother. (Last I heard of this kid, he was a federal judge in Arkansas and so far as I knew was managing to walk home at night by himself.)
Only one of my mothers stories ever bothered me, really, and all I remember is that it was about a dog that howled in the night.
It never bothered me until I saw a show called Werewolf of London with Henry Hull and Warner Oland, the first and to my mind still the best of them all. I can see it today on television with no ill effects.
As long, that is, as I can get to my car in a parking lot at night without hearing a dog howl in the distance. Its the golden arm, the old oak chest, the wind in the rosebush all over again but it is, as well, my mother in her element.
She loved an audience and the more she could scare it, the more she loved it.
Addison Bragg can be reached at email@example.com