Short Story Prompt #1 - The Haunted Overlook

The Haunted Overlook © 2018 by Mike Lucas. All rights reserved. Posted here for feedback only.

The Haunted Overlook

Along the top of the seawall where I run my daily run lies the overlook, jutting proudly into the ocean like the bulwark of an old crusader castle. Folk say it’s been haunted for decades. Some venerable ghost collects scraps of newspapers in the corners of the granite railing and wails mournfully into the small hours of the night.

Me, I never put stock in any of that. The wind is the more likely culprit. Yet the overlook haunts me regardless.

It is where my beautiful wife Rachael fell to her death—while I watched, horror-struck, from less than a hundred yard away.

I am not supposed to be there that morning. Just two miles into my Sunday long run, marathon training, my ankle tightens up. Sheer pain makes running impossible. So I hobble back along the sandy lower trail, the one at the base of the seawall that ends just before the overlook, where steep, terraced steps take you up to the esplanade.

Approaching those steps I happen to look up and spot Rachael. She stands near the edge of the overlook, but faces inland, dark hair twisting in the wind. I recognize her bright cobalt jacket before I see that her posture is all wrong, that she’s backing away. Struggling against someone else I can’t see.

Then without transition her slender body is over the guardrail, and she plummets forty feet to where sharp rocks at the base of the overlook break her and give her up to the cold, thrashing sea.

After that, I remember little. I know I run, sore ankle be damned, taking the steps two at a time. My screams for help echo off the lonely stone, mournful in my ears. Maybe I should have thrown myself into the ocean after her—nothing could have saved her but it might have cast me in a better light, I suppose.

Why is Rachael even there? She should have been at home, in bed, or sipping her morning coffee on the back deck.

And who in God’s name could have thrown her—my sweet, lovely wife—over that guardrail? Who would have the strength, and why would they want to?

* * *

In the quiet of the night, under a waxing three-quarters moon, the ghost becomes aware of itself. It stands—if it can be said to stand—upon a stone abutment that reaches out into the sea.

Who am I? Why am I here? It does not like this place so it flits away, toward the little shops across the street with their quaint awnings and broad windows. But as soon as it leaves the overlook everything becomes blurry and indistinct.

Afraid, it returns to the overlook, where its memories begin to clarify. Something terrible has happened, it thinks. I have been trapped here since then. How much time has passed? It spies a shred of newspaper down the street, and sets upon it, trying to bring it out of the haze enough to read. The date. I must know the date, it thinks, not understanding its own urgency. But the ghost can only muster the faintest of breaths, barely enough to flutter the curled corners of newsprint whose words it cannot read.

* * *

“They’re going to try you for first degree murder,” says Greta, my laywer. We’re seated in her firm’s conference room, at one end of a long, cherry oak table. “That’s how sure they are you did it.”

My chest sinks into my stomach. “I don’t understand. Aren’t they looking into other suspects?”

She shakes her head. “They’ve seen this before. The unhappy marriage, the wife who dies under mysterious circumstances…”

“But I would never hurt—” My voice is raw. An image of Rachael’s face appears, all big brown eyes and freckles. I blink back tears. “Sure, we were going through a rough patch, but that’s no reason to kill her.”

“Do you remember a bystander? A man in a grey coat?”

“Yes.” I’ll never forget the look of horror on the man’s face. “He was across the street when I reached the top of the steps. I shouted at him to call nine-one-one, but he just froze.”

“His name is Chris Haddison. He’s going to testify against you.” The lines of Greta’s face turn grim. “He says he saw you push Rachael over.”

“What? But I wasn’t even … I was at the bottom!” Greta flinches at my shout, and an awful thought occurs to me. “You believe me, don’t you?”

She shrugs carefully. “Your trial will determine your innocence. I’ll do my best to get you acquitted, but—”

“Damn it! Rachael’s killer is out there and no one knows who he is or why he did it. She was thrown over that guardrail, Greta. Do you know the kind of strength, the murderous intent that would take?” I clench my teeth. “We have to find who did it.”

Greta swallows, and I realize I’m going to have to tone it down to keep her on my side. I sit back in my chair, and she relaxes a little.

“I know this is a difficult time, Mr Prentice,” she says shortly. “Let’s just do our best to get through the next month, okay?”

* * *

The ghost understands now. The world beyond the overlook, indistinct as it was, confused it for a long time—especially the cars. But it has found a way, in the quietest part of the night, to coalesce itself and draw loose items into the overlook where it can see them. Receipts, newspapers, even a whole Time magazine once.

Though the ghost incorporates only a few times a month, the years pass slowly. It must wait patiently, because the terrible thing, it knows, will happen again. It must be there to witness—and perhaps, if it can gain the strength to move more than just papers, to affect the outcome.

* * *

We lose the trial. Chris Haddison’s testimony convicts me. Greta tries to poke holes in his story, but I think part of her believes his account more than mine. As a last ditch effort she tries to get me to say Rachael committed suicide, but I refuse. I’m not going to let an awful lie tarnish my memories of her, regardless of how it might help.

I get second-degree murder, ten years minimum before I can get parole. All through my prison sentence I cling to two things: my innocence, and my burning need to uncover what happened to Rachael. Who killed her, and why?

In my darkest moments I fear my mind is playing tricks on me, that my image of Rachael being thrown off is false. Could the eerie, almost impossible way she fell be nothing but my own mind hiding her suicide from me?

Even worse are the nightmares where I’m at the top of the overlook, and just like Haddison tells it, I hurl Rachael over the railing myself. Her hair flies up, reaching for me as she tumbles through nothingness, and I wake in a cold sweat with the satin texture of her jacket still on my fingers—the jacket that my hands had clutched tight before they heaved it away with terrifying strength. In the darkness of my cell I murmur to myself that this is only imagined. A bad dream, not a memory. But I don’t know if I can trust my own words.

* * *

I keep my head down, the model prisoner, and after ten years I get parole. I get a crappy job and an even crappier flat, and for a time I try not to think about Rachael.

Maybe I can just let it all go.

But I start jogging again, and one day I let my route take me past the overlook. Someone has left flowers by the guardrail, at the exact place where Rachael fell. Gerber daisies—Rachael’s favourite. Curious, I make sure to run by several times a week.

Rachael died on a Sunday. Three Sundays mornings in a row I find colourful new daisies lying against the dreary stone.

Who would leave flowers once a week after ten years? A friend? Rachael’s family are all in Ontario, a thousand kilometres to the west. The next Saturday I shrug into two old sweaters before donning my coat, hoping it’s enough to keep me warm through the night.

Maybe the ghost is real and the flowers are bait for its trap. But so what? I might as well try. Even if the ghost strikes me dead, or tosses me out to sea like Rachael, at least I’ll finally know.

I’m half asleep on one of the overlook’s benches when the noise of a small engine rises above the constant murmur of the waves and brings me to my senses. I sit up, blinking. Chris Haddison gets out of a compact car, yellow daisies in hand.

He sees me and stops short. “Oh… It’s you.”

“What are you doing here?” My voice is gravelly and more menacing than I intend.

He hesitates, glances back at his car, and for a moment I think he’s going to run. But then his shoulders sag and he approaches, surprising me by sitting down next to me. “I have trouble sleeping, after what I saw,” Haddison says. He holds up the daisies. “Sometimes this helps.”

“What did you see?” I ask in a low voice. “Who killed my wife?”

He looks out at the sea and says nothing.

“You know it wasn’t me.” It’s not a question. “Why did you lie?”

He shuts his eyes. When he opens them they’re filled with remorse. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have lied … but no one would’ve believed me. They would’ve assumed I killed her.” He shakes his head. “I didn’t think one lie would be enough to convict you.”

“Then what happened?” I hear the desperation in my voice, and don’t care. “Who killed her?”

“The ghost,” he says, and swallows hard. “It was almost invisible, but there was something … It grabbed your wife, flipped her over the edge like a sack of potatoes.”

I want to protest, but I remember the horror on his face that morning. He has the same look now. Presently he stands, places the flowers carefully by the spot where Rachael fell, then waits a moment, looking out to sea as though daring the ghost to take him, too.

Then he returns to his car without looking at me.

Maybe I should stop him, force him to tell the police, but why does it matter now? I pace over to the flowers, look down into the darkness where I can just make out the sharp rocks that claimed Rachael’s life.

The next thing I know I’m climbing onto the wide stone ledge of the guardrail, then standing to face the sea. I know I’m only toying with the idea; I won’t go through with it. But up here in the breeze with the salt air in my nose and the waves crashing below, I feel closer to Rachael than I have since she died.

“I didn’t mean to,” whispers a voice, startling me. “I shouldn’t have done it.”

I turn my head. No one is there. But then, in the dim light of the street lamps on the esplanade, I begin to see … something. My legs grow weak as I realize that while the something is blurry and incorporeal, a ghost, somehow it looks exactly like—

I lose my footing on the ledge, and fall.

* * *

The ghost has waited a lifetime for this morning. Two lifetimes, really, repeating all the years of its original life. Normally the dawn banishes it, but today it focuses its determination and remains, stretched out in the dark places between the stones.

At last it will know the truth.

She arrives, her dark hair tangling itself in the wind. Light from the overcast sky draws out the freckles from her pale skin. Rachael.

For the ghost, it’s been almost forty years. It is so lost in Rachael that it almost doesn’t notice the man next to her—the man whose hand touches hers intimately.

“We should go inside,” says Rachael. “We’re usually so careful. What if someone sees us?”

“It’s early,” says Haddison. “There’s no one around.”

“My husband…”

“Didn’t you say he’s on his long run? He’d be ten miles away by now.” Haddison smiles. “It doesn’t matter anyway. I want you to leave him.”

“Chris, I…” She hesitates.

But the ghost can see how her face has lit up.

“I love you, Rachael,” says Haddison. “Say yes.”

“Okay. Yes,” she says, and stretches up to kiss him.

With an anguished snarl the ghost materializes, powerful with wrath. Its vision blurs, but it attacks anyway.

Haddison! He destroyed me. I will kill him.

But in the haze of the ghost’s rage it sees that the shape before it is cobalt blue. Did it seize Rachael by mistake? It can barely see…

Or maybe it wasn’t a mistake.

With all the bitter fury of my broken life, I hoist Rachael up over the guardrail, and give her to the rocks and the crashing sea.


First sorry for the length – almost 2200 words. I wasn’t able to pare it down much from the first draft.

Dramatica wise, mostly all I did was look at the quad and use it spur my ideas. I was totally willing to let things drift into a different quad if my subconscious took it that way. For a while (still in idea stage, nothing written down yet) it seemed to drift into Cause/Effect/Proven/Unproven, but then as I developed it further it went back to Cause/Effect/Test/Trust.

This was a weird one though. When I’ve used a Dramatica quad for a short story before, I usually start writing first and figure out the quad about halfway into the first draft. And usually I save one item for the very end. But in this story, with its weird out of sequence scenes with the ghost, I think the Effect element was introduced with those.

Still, if you take it in the order of events in the narrator’s life & ghost-life, it would be (SRCA or 1234):
Cause: who or what caused Rachael’s death?
Trust: The police assume implicitly that the husband is the killer. Haddison lies because he assumes implicitly that he’ll be suspected. The lawyer has difficulty trusting the MC.
Test: The trial, the difficult (trying) situation. Later, the MC toys with suicide.
Effect: The effect of the ghost’s whisper is to make the MC fall. The ghost learns to effect changes in its environment. Learning about the affair has a terrible effect on the ghost.

PRCO, though not always the case, I think in this story would be the same order as above. Cause (Potential) is the main drive for the story, seeking the cause of Rachael’s strange death. Trust (Resistance) makes things worse. Test (Current) is the flow of action, though unless I’m missing something this one’s a bit weakly represented. Finally, Effect (Outcome) is what the story ends up producing, and the effect of this sad event loops back around in time to become the Cause again.

At least I think that’s right. This one is weird with the time loop and the cyclical nature of Cause and Effect. Also, given its length, I wouldn’t be surprised if maybe there’s another quad in there, like maybe the ghost scenes have another quad with Cause/Effect?

Note: I did not try to use any other Dramatica story points. Nor did I look to the placement of the quad (under Physics/Doing/Skill) – normally I would but that didn’t seem to fit my idea this time, so I didn’t worry about it.

P.S. Holy !@@! exporting from Scrivener to markdown (so that italics would be kept) was very tricky, at least on Scrivener for Windows!

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I’m going to try and get back to all these awesome stories and give some worthy feedback. Interesting the cause/effect loop that you created (if I read it correctly).

I find PRCO interesting because O becomes P and P becomes O. Kind of reminds me of that in a time loop sort of way.

I promise to come back and give this a harder look.

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This one has taken me some time to think about. I know if 'd been you, I’d feel worried.

So I like this a lot.

Dramatica wise I see the Cause (betrayal) and Effect (murder) clearly.
The Test and Trust weren’t really there for me. I read your description/intention of them, but if I hadn’t, I would have said they were missing. I think they feel – tacked on-- isn’t quite right, I guess like they are just the connective tissue between the parts of the ghost story/murder mystery.

Now for the writing – the writing upset me and left me feeling off kilter. Which if it was your intent is effing brilliant because that’s exactly what you want in a ghost story. So Kudos on that score.

Now if it wasn’t intentional (which I find difficult to fathom, and why I had to give this some thought before critiquing) you have some issues with the POV. That first section feels like it’s this weird hybrid between 1st both past and present. Which echoes and foreshadows your whole time loop paradox. And then we’re in present (even with the omni ghost) until the end. Like I said, that very effectively set my teeth on edge, but when I went looked for places that I could point to and say HERE, looksee the pov bobbled. I couldn’t find one.

Very crafty of you.

Anyway, I did enjoy your writing and story. Thank you for playing in the inaugural workshop.

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Thanks Diane! I think you’re right about Test and Trust. I did think Trust was there okay, although maybe the problem (and I only just thought of this thanks to your comments) is that the characters doing the most problematic Trusting are not in the story. The problematic Trust is really the fact that the cops (and maybe judge/jury) trust Haddison’s testimony, and accept implicitly that the husband did it, without validating those assumptions. But I only have the lawyer relaying that info (she maybe has a little trust issue but not much). Hmmm. Maybe that scene should be with a cop instead.

I agree Test is almost missing completely. I wonder if I could make the story better if I could figure out how to use it properly? Hmm…

POV/Tense Stuff

I noticed the same thing, and I was specifically hoping for some feedback on that, so thanks!

This is the part where the tense gets a bit weird:

Note the use of past just in that one sentence. In my first draft I had everything after that sentence in past tense, but that didn’t jive with the rest of the story in present, which I wanted. So I switched it all back to present, but that one sentence didn’t seem to work in present.

Why? I think the narrative is kind of being framed liked it’s being told at a certain point here – the narrator is now at a point in his life where the overlook haunts him, so Rachael falling must be in the past. Also that sentence is an out-of-sequence “preview” of what’s going to happen in the next few paragraphs, so a different tense kind of calls that out.

Or do you think that sentence could work fine in present tense? If so, I would probably change it, to make it all consistent.

Be suspicious whenever you see two phrases connected by the words just as or as or while. Ask yourself whether those two actions can really happen simultaneously and for the same length of time…

That’s a passage from Writing Fiction for Dummies. I’m not sure if you subscribe to this idea, but it might be the reason it feels uncomfortable for you.

Perhaps it isn’t a tense issue, but rather something to do with the above.

The only other thing I can think of would be had watched or had fallen… but I’m not sure those work with while either.

I just wonder… he can’t see her fall to her death. Can he? He can only see her fall over the edge. Presumably to her death.

In fact, the more I think about it, the less I like the idea of simple present and simple past in the same paragraph under normal circumstances. Maybe past perfect creates that space you need (had watched).

Or a third option, do it more and intentionally mix past and present throughout the whole piece. Maybe the problem is it is too clean…

That would be pretty ingenious.

I vote to mess it up more and make people think you have gone crazy as a writer til it hits the twist at the end. You are already playing with time and space. A total disregard for tense would reflect that very well. Like using all the tenses without fear of it not being clear.

Actually he can see the whole fall because he’s at sea level, below the overlook and some distance down the beach. (What he cant’ see is who might have thrown her, because he’s below, so the railing’s in the way.) So I think “while” works fine.

I’ll give your suggestions some thought.

I noticed the part at the end of the intro scene has similar issues. Starting with “After that, I remember little…” I’m narrating as someone looking back on the event, which is hard (impossible?) to do while recounting the event in present tense.

Well, if it were my story, I would give those test/trust beats to the ghost in the omni sections. But that’s me. A line like…It hoped (or knew) if it waited he would come – would set it up that you don’t know if the ghost is Rachel or someone else, because you don’t know which him, it’s a nice piece of misdirection.

I think if you set the specific scene of the first part you can swing both the past and the present. Have it be the police coming to arrest him AT the overlook. then his description can be what he saw and a demand for justice, then you can have his present feelings about the overlook (at little history about the ghost) and then dialogue with the police. Does that help any?

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Thanks Mike.
I enjoyed this. I was invested in the plot and felt compelled to read on to find out the conclusion. It didn’t feel like its 2.2k word count.

I found two things left me lost, and the dissonance lifted me out of the urgency that was in the rest of the piece.

First one is as you already discussed:

(Nothing extra to say on that, other than to give a +1 pov for it jarring at the moment.)

Secondly, I didn’t understand the ‘turn’ in the last scene, after the final asterisks. I’m actually dashing for a flight so didn’t have time to re-read and give feedback, so I figured I’d feedback on my first read, as that’s all what most people give us!


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Just got around to being able to read this one. May need to absorb it a bit before I can say much about the Dramatica stuff, although I see and like what you were going with in your descriptions of it. I really like seeing what others are doing to incorporate these elements into a piece of writing. Cool exercise.

I love ghost stories. And this one was really intriguing. Sorry to be dense, but just want to be clear. Is the narrator coming back as the ghost that kills his wife? That’s pretty cool.

Since it came up, I’m all for the idea of playing with the tense and using present tense in that one early paragraph (this is where my wife is falling, where I’m watching her die, etc) and kind of making it look like the past, present, and future are all kind of happening all at once for the narrator/ghost.

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Thanks for the kind feedback guys!

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘turn’ but I’m going to assume it’s sort of the same as this:

Right, the idea was that when he died (after losing his footing on the ledge), he came back as a ghost to haunt the overlook – but in the past, at the moment of his birth. Foggy memories, etc., but he did recall the “terrible thing that happened” – Rachael’s death.

I tried to explain that by saying “Two lifetimes, really, repeating all the years of its original life.” And then the switch to first person in the final sentence was supposed to make it clear. Maybe not totally clear, but hopefully enough to make you go back and re-read parts to figure it out.

There were also a couple very vague hints earlier, e.g. the cars confusing the ghost was supposed to be because they were older models. And it was funny that the ghost grabbed “a whole Time magazine once”, because I didn’t do that on purpose, but later realized it seems like a hint that the story is messing with time. I love it when your subconscious throws things in like that. (I think there might also be some unintentional meaning hidden in the title?)

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Got it. I didn’t catch that. The forty years had thrown me off because I was thinking of the ten years he was in prison. [quote=“mlucas, post:11, topic:1693”]
“a whole Time magazine once”, because I didn’t do that on purpose, but later realized it seems like a hint that the story is messing with time

I caught that and thought it might have been purposeful. Nice.

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I saw the title and my mind went right to The Shining with the Overlook Hotel.

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Interesting! I didn’t remember that (at least not consciously). I was thinking more along the lines of the narrator (and reader) overlooking the possibility that he was responsible for Rachael’s death. Also, how Rachael’s death overlooks or “hangs over” his whole life.

It’s weird how that stuff can creep in unintentionally / subconsciously! But I guess that’s how storyforms often work too…