The ghosts of Catalina Island
When you sail from Long Beach/San Pedro, California to Catalina Island, at some point, you lose sight of Southern California. It fades into thin air. Ahead of you, Catalina is not yet visible. At that moment, on your vessel, regardless of its size, you are alone.
Writing is much the same way. You start with an idea and a character you care about. You sail your little boat and watch the land you just left slip away. Ghost Island was like that for me. I had known from the first time I visited there that I would write a novel set on Catalina Island. I did not know it would be a paranormal novel, but I should have. In many places on the island, it’s impossible to tell in what year or even what century you’ve landed. Part of it is the absence of cars; part of it is the spirit—if I may use that term—of the place itself.
In order to write a ghost story, an author who has seen ghosts probably has an edge. I have not, yet I have had experiences that have convinced me that death is not the end. On several occasions, I have been overcome by the smell of cigarette smoke. On one of these instances, I wrote the lines that became my novel, Intern, a thriller about a political intern who disappears. On another occasion, the smell of perfume or strong aftershave came from a back bedroom where I keep photos of loved ones who have passed away. A friend who was visiting also smelled it and walked down the hall with me to the room where the scent was. I had no paranormal experiences when I visited Catalina Island. I knew only that the place belonged in a book.
I later learned that Western writer Zane Grey, author of Purple Sage and many other books, lived and wrote on the island. His former home—which was built in 1926 on a hilltop overlooking Avalon harbor—is the hotel where the characters in my novel are stranded. Since 1925, the Chimes Tower has been tolling the quarter hour from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Rumor has it that Zane Grey and Wrigley, of chewing gum fame, despised each other, and that Wrigley donated the chimes to the city in 1925 to annoy the author. Some think the chimes are peaceful. Others find them eerie. Like them or not, they remain a resonant reminder of how quickly time passes.
Ghost hunters have visited the Casino building I used in my book as the ghosts’ hiding place. They found activity, photographed, some, and did what any sane humans should and got out of there.
A local recently reported seeing the ghost of Zane Grey. He was smoking a cigarette on the walkway to the Casino. When the person approached him, the image faded, and only the cigarette smoke remained.
I like to imagine that Mr. Grey sauntered back inside the Casino theater—hidden from prying eyes and the Wrigley chimes—to join the ghosts in my book in lively conversation.
© 2011 by Bonnie Hearn Hill