Awful Gods

by Eric Magnuson

Until eleven months ago, I’d seen what I’ll hesitantly call ghosts on seven occasions, beginning at age four and returning sporadically through sophomore year at the university, nearly two decades ago. Eleven months ago, however, I met a bearded, copper-haired man named Alexander Pennings.

Pennings came with much notoriety. He’d written a small library of books on others’ experiences with the paranormal. He regularly appeared as an expert on ghosts in numerous film and television documentaries of dubious nature. There were the newspaper articles — usually local publications or laughable magazines about the supernatural that featured spectral women in period dress or “haunted” houses on their cover pages — but he did somehow warrant a Times profile when these naïve ghost-chaser programs became strangely popular, even among the college-educated. The legitimate papers invariably documented the little respect he received from his colleagues at our university, especially noting their disdain for his tenured professorship and continued funding for work they deem “unserious” and “lowbrow entertainment.” Then there are details that are often included merely to give readers something shocking — and most likely apocryphal — to believe he’s a madman: the somewhat mundane event that Pennings experienced as a child at his grandfather’s Iowa City soybean farm, which led him into these studies; the allegations that he’s drugged a handful of the people he’s interviewed; but most absurdly, there is the rumor — which is taken far too seriously, even among my own associates in the history department — that the man himself is a ghost.

Despite working for the same public university since I arrived here four years ago, I’d never met the man. Nor had I even seen him in person.

Not that I wished to meet Pennings. I am, by most accounts, I believe, I hope, something of a reasonable man. I’ve written the first extensive history on the Battle of the Red Earth Reservation. I’ve published in all of the important journals, The Journal of American History, The American Historical Review, WMQ, and so on. In other words, I’ve done what I can to become a tenured professor at the university — though the internal politics on this campus keep holding me back for whatever inane reason. Perhaps it’s the peculiar relationship that this university has with the state’s Native American population — more specifically, the Takota, from the Red Earth Reservation. But that’s something else entirely. I don’t think this — I’ll call it an “oversight” — has anything to do with my embarrassing ghost stories. I stopped telling even my friends about these unexplainable experiences of mine not long after my undergraduate studies concluded. I then avoided telling them as a PhD candidate and during my post-doctoral research as well. My wife knew nothing of them when we were married — she’s since only heard them on nights where we’ve been slightly, well, incapacitated. But even as an undergraduate, I only elaborated on them to my closest associates, those who would go on to be my closest associates more than ten years after. So it was those decade-long friends that proved detrimental to my entire well-being so many years later:

Because, well, I suppose I should elaborate a bit more on what I mean by “incapacitated.” I’m afraid to say that there are times when it’s late at night, and the cocktail party’s grown quiet and we’ve drank far too much — at least I’ve drunk far too much — and we’re at the point where everything is poured straight over the ice without mixer and everybody’s gotten perhaps a little too loose with whatever is on their minds, and I might be coaxed along by one or two of these old friends to divulge these paranormal stories as something of a party trick — to playfully frighten others when the lights go down. Or perhaps I just let myself publicly believe in them when I’m drunk. Either way, the last night that I detailed these experiences was — somewhat obviously — at the end of a cool and late October evening.

By the beginning of the new year, Pennings had learned that a reasonable man on campus believed he’d seen ghosts.

Pennings first emailed me in January. I immediately wondered which of those inexplicable friends of mine relayed my strange history to Pennings but rather than turn annoyed or angry, I realized that it must have been one of those strangers at the party. I’ll assume this anyway in order to avoid a fracas. No matter. I brushed off his first request to meet. Then a follow-up email arrived, which I not only disregarded but deleted before finishing. And in February there was a voicemail, which I promptly erased. And then a second, and somehow we’d missed each other’s paths so often that there was a third and fourth. Ridiculously, I began considering the rumor that Pennings truly was a ghost.

This continued until the first week of this past April, when I opened my history department door and was taken by surprise by Pennings himself. He stood at least seven inches taller than I. His copper beard was somehow both natty and unkempt. His skin was sickly pale. And he likely had freckles but they were difficult to discern from behind the beard. He also wore a ridiculous black overcoat that hung off of him like a cape. He was, in many ways, a caricature of himself.

Pennings told me that he was happy to have finally bumped into me, which was laughable considering that he was standing outside of my door, waiting for me to exit. Knowing immediately who he was, I did what I could to appear busy. I hurriedly walked down the musty university hallway, saying that I was running late and that, perhaps, he might try calling or emailing me later in the week. I told him that email was best but he immediately called my bluff, saying he already tried for not just weeks but months to reach me. “Do you have a class to teach right now?” he asked.

“Mr. Pennings,” I said, “I’m really not interested in talking about ghosts with you.”

“So it’s true then,” he said. “You have had these experiences.”

“Mr. Pennings.”

“Please, call me Alex.”

“Mr. Pennings, whatever I saw happened so long ago. It could have been anything, which was probably nothing.”

“I know Dr. Witting,” he said. “I’m actually good friends with him.”

And I stopped at this odd detour to my department chair’s name.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Despite the reputation you might think I have, I have a good standing with Dr. Witting. He secretly likes the work I do. He’s a closet connoisseur of the paranormal — at least if it has historical context, like the Confederates still haunting Gettysburg for instance.”

“I’m still not following you.”

“I’m told that you’ve had some trouble getting tenure here.”

“I barely remember what I saw, Pennings.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“But I thought you believed everything that people told you.”

“And maybe you just get drunk and tell lies.”

“Excuse me?”

“A man who invents stories when he’s drunk because he lacks the ethics or wherewithal to abide by the truth.”

In twenty minutes I was sitting with Alexander Pennings in the quietest corner of a shabby Mediterranean restaurant off campus.

* * *

Pennings rested a digital recorder on the wooden table and said, “Do you mind if I record our conversation?”

I was obviously apprehensive. I didn’t trust the man. But I felt somewhat cornered. To give myself some traction, I said, “Not quite. Let’s talk a little bit first. I’d like to know why you’re so intent on speaking to me.”

“I’m eager to speak with anyone who’s had a paranormal experience. They can be difficult to find,” he said. “Many people are like you. They don’t want to return phone calls in these matters. The ones who immediately call you back, or seek you out first, often saw their doors blown shut by the wind. The people who truly have these experiences often hide it. They begin pretending it never happened. But as they bury this down deeper and deeper, the more they actually believe it did happen. They torment themselves. I’m sure you’ve had many frustrated nights in the dark. It’s common. But I find that when people finally do open up with these stories, they feel somewhat relieved.”

The introduction sounded oddly rehearsed, as if he’d said the same thing over innumerable lunches.

“So you think you can set me free from my personal demons?” I said. “I didn’t know that you were also a psychologist.”

He laughed. And while I tried building this wall between us, the thought of speaking did sound appealing. I hadn’t told these stories while sober in more than a decade. I didn’t know what would happen if I did tell him about my experiences.

“But what do you plan to do with my stories?” I asked.

“Right now,” he said, “I don’t know. It greatly depends on what you have to tell me.”

“Will you tell anybody else about them?”

“Do you want me to tell anybody?”

“Of course not,” I said.

“Then I won’t tell anyone we ever met.”

Pennings’s surrender seemed oddly swift. Somebody in his field surely needed a name attached to their subjects. To have no name only made it easier to discredit the stories that made him so infamous. But then again, he already lacked so much credibility within the academic community.

“What if I also say ‘no’ to the recorder?” I asked.

“Then it won’t be recorded.”

Again, very peculiar. What could he be getting at? I wondered. He held no notebook nor pen that I could see. And he never maneuvered to pull one from his ridiculous overcoat.

“Tell me, Pennings. What’s the real reason you sought me out?”

And for the first time that afternoon, he began to look somewhat uneasy, as if his script ran out. He reverted to what he already said: “I try speaking to anyone who’s had these experiences.” And he thought for a moment, collecting what he may. “This will be a casual conversation between us. If we choose to, we’ll have a more academic study later on. But for now, we’re having a conversation that will never be heard again.”

After thinking to myself for a moment and sipping from my water, I began to tell him what I believe I’ve seen.

First: “When I was four-years-old, I awoke to see a large Native American man standing at the end of my bed. He did not speak. Nor did he move. He then disappeared.”

Second: “Months later, my mother and I heard voices in our basement. They were foreign. Or, more likely, indigenous. Years later, when I asked my mother about them, she said, ‘Oh, you mean the Indian ladies? They had a good time in that basement, didn’t they?’”

Third: “At five-years-old, I was alone in my grandfather’s basement. A light flashed off and on in front of me. A chair in the next room moved.”

Fourth: “At ten-years-old, I heard furious typing at the computer keyboard in the next room as I studied. I peeked my head inside to find the room empty.”

Fifth: “Standing outside of a friend’s house when I was sixteen, I saw an old man staring at me from a second-floor window. He was bearded. I later asked my friend if her dad was home. She said no. I said that I’d seen a man upstairs. She told me, without humor, ‘You saw one of the house’s ghosts.’”

Sixth: “During freshman year at the university, I awoke in my bedroom with everything bathed in a foggy teal glow. I turned over and saw a young girl looking out my window. She smiled. I somehow fell back to sleep.”

Seventh: “I was violently shaken awake from a nap at my parents’ house. When I opened my eyes, I saw an orange blur floating away from me. Then I saw nothing.”

“That should be everything,” I said. “Will that be good enough?”

“And you believe, without any doubts, that these were paranormal experiences?”

“Off the record?”

“Of course.”

“Off the record to the point that this lunch never happened?”

“Sure. Sure.”

“Then, yes, I suppose I do.”

“Why do you have no doubts?”

“Because they’re the things that I saw. I don’t doubt my memory. Especially when it’s something mildly traumatic like this.”

“And you consider yourself a reasonable, logical man, correct?”

I was slightly offended by this. Of course, I did. “Mr. Pennings, I didn’t come down here to eat a soggy gyro and be offended by a man in a cape.”

“I meant no offense,” he said. “I’m just asking in order to piece everything together.”

I gave in to this. He seemed sincere.

“Then, yes,” I said. “I consider myself reasonable. Logical.”

“And I assume that you trust in science?”

Admittedly, this is not where I predicted his line of questioning would run. I assumed that I’d regale him with these stories that by then were cheapened by the fact that I’d told them so many times that I didn’t even need to think about which words to put emphasis on anymore, and that he’d be happy and we’d be on with our days never to speak again. This was turning far more philosophical than I believed Alexander Pennings ever ventured to be, especially considering that the last television program I saw him appear on utilized a smoke machine to almost comic effect.

“I don’t even bother asking most people that question,” he said, leaning back into his chair. His long coat wrinkled on the floor. “When I meet them I generally see that they fear God in one way or another. So instead, I ask them, ‘Are you a religious person?’ And they invariably say, ‘Yes, they are.’”

He sighed and let the conversation hang there, as if I knew where to pick it up. My mouth was full of lamb meat. Fortunately, he continued.

“So after my line of questioning is through,” he said, now leaning over his untouched plate, “I go around the house and I basically tell them, Well, I’m sorry, but there appears to be a breeze coming through here. Or we have an electrician come and the problem is fixed. I’m basically an overseer of handymen. As long as we’re off the record here, I’ll leave that off the table as well. As for the incidents that you may have seen on the television programs I’ve hosted or appeared on, those are merely the cases that couldn’t feasibly be witnessed by an unbiased party. They are the things that we cannot prove or disprove, meaning: We do not need any real proof of them. So we recreate them for television with actors and special effects. It’s obviously not something that I’m proud of, but does anybody actually make money from something that they’re proud of anymore?”

It was over the course of our conversation that I realized that Pennings was completely unsure of what he was studying. He told me that nearly everything he’d found in the past three decades could be explained in one way or another. Faulty wiring. An undiscovered breeze. Plumbing so old that it now made the pipes speak. Most of the people he’d interviewed over the years were likely to believe anything they’d heard, and a great percentage of those merely liked the idea that it was ghosts that produced their little oddities. Pennings, it turned out, was looking for a reasonable man to tell him that he was not wasting his life on a ludicrous search for the paranormal. But like the good academic nobody any longer made him out to be, he would not part with a false positive. He began to ask questions that made me feel uncomfortable and, for the first time in years, somewhat infantile.

“Do you believe in God?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Sometimes though?”

“Not really. If I do, it’s brief.”

“And you take it back afterwards?”

“I suppose so. If I actually think about it.”

“So you’d consider yourself an atheist?”

“I generally tell people I’m agnostic.”

“But you’re not so sure?”

“Is any agnostic?”

“Funny. Humor. I’m glad we’re moving along. But tell me, does your agnosticism believe in an afterlife?”

“Well,” and this was the perplexing thing that I didn’t wish to think about. Because, frankly, I didn’t believe in an afterlife. But I also honestly believed that I’d seen these things, felt these things that are popularly believed to be the lore of what only happens after death. “No,” I said. “I do not.”

“So what do you think happens after we die?”

“I don’t know. I have no idea. Most likely nothing.”

“Is that worrisome?”

“Not knowing?”

“No. That it could be absolutely nothing?”

“It’s not a great feeling,” I admitted. He stared at me inquisitively across the table.

“Is it more than a worry?” he asked. “Do you fear it?”

“I really don’t know how this matters to your work.”

“Please. It matters a great deal, actually.”

I still didn’t answer.

“Do you fear death?” he said.

“Sure. I suppose. I think I’m allowed that from time to time.”

“But tell me. How do you reconcile your belief in ghosts with your belief that nothing happens after death?”

“I don’t know. None of it makes sense to me, really. I know what I’ve seen. My memory’s never failed me. But I also have no hard evidence that anything happens after death.”

“Do you think it’s possible that you conjure these ghosts and hold onto their memories because you fear death? That perhaps you let your mind imagine them because you want there to be something to come after life?”

I stopped eating and looked at Pennings for a long time, not saying anything while I considered what this meant to me. We had very little else to say during our lunch. We left knowing that we’d likely never see each other again.

And now, everything is ghosts.

ERIC MAGNUSON is a freelance writer based in the United States. His fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review and Stumble Magazine. His journalism has been published by numerous magazines, including Rolling Stone, The Nation, and Spin.

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