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Why Are There Always Ghosts? How History and the Dead Keep Me Writing

Gaslamp fantasy author Leanna Renee Hieber on the "ongoing séance" of writing about the past. 

Leanna Renee Hieber
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  • Photo Credit: Image from the cover of 'Eterna and Omega' by Leanna Renee Hieber

Two questions I’m most often asked: why are there always ghosts? Why the late 19th century setting? I must answer these things together, as they are inextricable.

Ever since I was little, I was fascinated by the late 19th century in a way that I can only describe as a holdover from a past life. I always have felt called to write about the 1880s and 1890s in the same way a medium feels called to share the messages of the departed. Not that it was an easy time to live for anyone of any marginalization, but because it was a time in which the wheels of great change were slowly, achingly, turning towards a better world. Things we celebrate in our modern era; rights, laws, and the effects of technologies that we’re still fighting for and discussing, were all first gaining serious ground in the latter 19th century. 

I was equally fascinated by ghosts at that same early age. Perhaps it was Dickens’ Christmas Carol that entwined ghosts and the 19th century in my mind first, but further explorations into the era as a student, an actress, and a writer of gaslamp fantasy proved that ghosts were a 19th century obsession. For all the advancements in technology, there was a still great deal of death. As new sciences emerged, so did interest in the ghostly realm and how it might be better understood and communicated with. 

"History haunts us in important ways; imploring us to do better for one another than those who came before us; for the sake of those after us."

Spiritualism in the 19th century was first coming out of Quaker circles. A protestant Christian denomination, Quakers of the era were equal rights advocates and ardent abolitionists fighting the immoral scourge of slavery and its brutal legacy. They believed women should be respected and educated equally. Quaker tradition allowed women to speak, whether in Meeting or in a public capacity—something disallowed in broader society. 

So, when women who claimed to communicate with spirits came to the fore (dubious and disproven claims of the Fox Sisters and other prominent Spiritualists notwithstanding), they were poised to have more of a platform coming out of this community. Considering no denominations of any faith were allowing women to take up the cloth and become clergy, Spiritualism as a calling and pursuit appealed to many women as the avenue to gain spiritual leadership and positions of authority. 

Not to mention, seeking comfort and closure by talking to a lost loved one’s spirit greatly appealed to a nation starved for healing and solace after the Civil War. Spiritualists created a necessary space of processing, communication, and acceptance that in some ways modern grief counselors have taken on; a space that was inclusive of women as leaders, authors, and experts. Spiritualism and advancements in women’s rights go hand in hand. 

Rooting many of my book settings and character backgrounds in Quaker schools, upbringing, and traditions or in a Spiritualist community has allowed for strong women and diverse casts to flourish and for the connections to the ghosts in my books to also have real historical ties. I may have forward-minded characters but that isn’t a modern viewpoint being placed upon a historic context. 

Every concept I discuss in my work; from equality across race, faith, sexuality, and identity to labor law to the extensive paranormal themes included, all comes from real discussions, viewpoints, and collaborative activism of the time period. These were present many decades before laws ensuring rights and safety caught up with them. The language may have been a bit different but the breath of dynamic change holds in translation. My outspoken women having ties to Spiritualism, labor movements, new technologies, and artistic ventures in which women were innovators only furthers that historical truth.

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I’m a licensed New York City tour guide focused specifically on ghost tours of the city and surrounding environs. This gives me an opportunity to entwine history and ghosts further still. When one sees and hears the story of a building which has had many lives, in some cases even if it isn’t labeled as ‘haunted’, you’re still hearing echoes of other time periods and the activities and lives lived within it. 

This takes on an echo of life; a psychic resonance and cultural memory. I look at my tours and my writing as an ongoing séance, bringing lives and times forward to a contemporary audience to interact with. I think history haunts us in important ways; imploring us to do better for one another than those who came before us; for the sake of those after us. 

An example of real tragedy informing a specific ghost is the character of little Zofia (a reader favorite), in my Spectral City series. I created Zofia to stand for many young women of the era. She is a Polish immigrant to New York who died in a garment district fire as a child laborer. The girl remains active in Manhattan as a spirit to help the living escape dangerous situations, appearing to point to an exit in an emergency or calling upon the Spiritualists she works with to help those in need when no one else will. 

Triangle Shirtwaist fire procession
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  • Procession in honor of the 146 workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Zofia is a reference to the many 19th century garment district fires that were driving a burgeoning labor movement to seek mandates and safety standards as well as address the dangers of child labor. Unfortunately, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, a site I talk about a great deal in my work as a tour guide, was a tipping point. 

In that disaster, 146 people died, mostly women, as young as 14. Zofia represents the struggle that workers like those who died at the Triangle had been waging for decades prior. My ghosts are a way to set the scene, build character, and talk about New York’s complicated history all in one. 

So many of the haunted locations I mention in my books, aspects of why the ghosts in the series remain to haunt the living, come from real events and truths. Such as the idea of a haunted atmosphere surrounding Washington Square Park, where over 20,000 human remains lie below, in mass graves dug during yellow fever and cholera epidemics of the 1700s. The park also used to be an execution site until 1819. My characters, most of whom are psychic sensitives or have some kind of paranormal gifts, are aware of the spaces that at modern glance might not seem grim but under the surface have untold stories.

Awe-inspiring facts are always a great muse. Details about the Brooklyn Bridge, for example. The tallest man-made structure on the North American continent when it was completed in 1883, it is said the wonder of engineering contains enough wire in its wire-rope suspension cables to wrap around the earth. 

There were many worker deaths while constructing the bridge, long before we understood “caisson disease” to be “the bends”; coming up too fast in wooden containers (called caissons) from too deep underwater when setting foundations below the East River. These details have made it into my books not just because I think they’re compelling facts, but I use them to lend a sense of wonder and behemoth reality to the structure, one I end up turning into a spectral weapon in my latest book.

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Beauty, wonder and terror often become swiftly changing dance partners in my work. That dizzying journey is a cornerstone of the Gothic novel—the genre I cut my teeth on as a kid and have taken on ever since—running from looming manors and into the shadows where something uncanny awaits. My fiction is a place where reality and fantasy meet on the edges of a thin blade, one I seek to actively sharpen with every book I write. Cheers and happy haunting! 

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