Paranormal experiences seem to be liable to happen to any one at any time, to people from all ages, social standings, and walks of life. Among tales of ghosts, the weird, and other assorted high strangeness some of the witnesses that stir the curiosity are those of writers and authors, many of these historic, beloved figures. These are people who have sprung whole worlds from their imaginations that readers have traveled to in droves, and yet sometimes some of the strangest things about them lie not in their fiction, but what rather the odd experiences that happened to them in the real world. Here we take a look at a selection of talented and well-known writers with paranormal experiences just as bizarre as anything they have ever written about.
One of the most notable American writers in history was John Ernst Steinbeck Jr., winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature and author of such beloved classics as Tortilla Flat (1935), Cannery Row (1945), East of Eden (1952), and his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley of California, in the United States, and indeed this is where much of his fiction finds its setting, and it also happens to be the location of his boyhood home, which is supposedly quite haunted. In modern times, the historic turreted Victorian building is a restaurant and house museum, but Steinbeck spent much of his life there and began his storied career writing stories in the upstairs bedroom. According to Steinbeck himself, the house was supposedly very haunted, with apparitions seen and his concentration sometimes broken by things flying off of shelves by themselves. The great author apparently once wrote a letter to a friend in which he explained, “The house in Salinas is pretty haunted now. I see things walking at night that it is not good to see.” In later years the haunting has reportedly continued, with shadow figures and an apparition surrounded be a yellowish mist often seen by visitors to the house, and Randall Reinstedt said of this in his book Ghost Notes:
The figure has been seen by Valley Guild members who work in the restaurant and give tours of the building. The silhouette is most often observed in front of a window in the main downstairs front room.
Steinbeck supposedly had ghostly experiences in other places where he lived as well, even going as far as to have a house he bought in Monterrey exorcised by a priest, but his childhood home remains the most well-known of these. There have even been people who have claimed to have seen the apparition of the late, great author himself wandering around the premises. One employee at the John Steinbeck house by the name of Toni Bernardi has said that she saw Steinbeck’s ghost, which she does not see as malevolent in any way, and has said of this:
I think it was John just checking in on us. John loved to tell scary stories and used to take kids into the cellar or under the front steps to try to scare them. For him, it was humorous so maybe that’s all it is. If there is a presence, it’s a fun presence.
Another eminent author just as famous is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who penned the world renowned Sherlock Holmes series of books, as well as other classics of crime literature and fantasy and science fiction stories. Doyle was in his day a well-known spiritualist, a member of the Freemasons, and had a lifelong fascination with the paranormal, even writing several books on it all, such as his 1926 two volume tome The History of Spiritualism, and he was very involved in séances and other such activities. Considering this, it may come as no surprise that he claimed to have had his own personal brushes with the unknown. He would tell of one evening when he woken to find a shadowy figure leaning over him, which he could not retreat from as his limbs had been paralyzed. This frightening specter apparently then leaned in to whisper in his ear, “Doyle, I come to tell you that I am sorry,” before vanishing to leave the startled author able to move once again. Although this sounds very much like a simple case of sleep paralysis, Doyle would insist that it had been real. Be that as it may, it must be remembered that Doyle was notorious for getting duped by tricksters, hoaxers, and frauds. He famously was sucked in by the Cottington Fairy hoax photographs, he long believed that the feats of illusion performed by his friend Harry Houdini were in fact indicative of real magical powers, and he fell for many other hoaxes as well, so he is perhaps not an unbiased witness.
From a few years before Doyle’s time we have the English Victorian author and poet Thomas Hardy, who wrote such classics as Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Return of the Native, and Far From the Madding Crowd, was by all accounts absolutely obsessed with ghosts, and apparently saw a few. Although he never admitted himself that he had had a paranormal experience, his wife, Florence Emily Dugdale wrote of these strange encounters in a series of letters she wrote to friends. One of these encounters supposedly happened in 1919, as Hardy had been visiting the Stinsford churchyard one Christmas Eve. As he was there, a stranger dressed in old fashioned, 18th century clothing reportedly walked up to him to wish him a “green Christmas” before walking off into the church. Hardy was apparently very curious about this unusual person, and followed him into the church only to find the building empty and no place where the mysterious stranger could have possibly gone. He had just vanished into thin air. In another letter in 1927, Florence describes how she and Hardy had been out with five friends having tea when the author had noticed a man he did not recognize sitting next to him. He didn’t say anything at the time, assuming someone else knew him, but when he asked his wife later who the gentleman sitting next to him had been she said that she had seen no one in that seat the entire time. It seems only fitting that Hardy would have such experiences, as he had long written about ghosts and even expressing his desire to see one, once saying in 1904, “I would give ten years of my life. .to see a ghost—an authentic, indubitable spectre. If ever a ghost wanted to manifest himself, I am the very man he should apply to.”
The 18th and 19th centuries had a bunch of cases along these lines. The well-known German writer, poet, and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also had a rather bizarre encounter one day in the late 18th century as he was traveling down a dark, lonely road on his way to Drusenheim after visiting a lady friend. At one point another traveler approached going the other way, and as the stranger came closer Goethe claimed that it had turned out to be a man looking exactly the same as him, only wearing a dark gray suit trimmed with gold. The mysterious double continued on his way as if he hadn’t even noticed Goethe, and the whole thing was not a little creepy, although he would later claim that it had also been strangely soothing. Weirdly, Goethe would be traveling down the same road 8 years later in the opposite direction and as the memory of the strange incident overtook him he suddenly realized that he was wearing the exact same distinctive gold-trimmed suit his doppelgänger had been wearing at the time. Interestingly, Goethe also supposedly had the experience of seeing the doppelgänger of a friend of his named Friedrich, who he saw walking along the street in the rain only to find him back at home wearing the same clothes but totally dry and claiming he had not been out walking about at all.
Another well-known tale of what seems to be a supernatural doppelgänger also has its ties to the literary world in the form of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was a poet, and more famously the husband of famed author Mary Shelley, the author of the classic Frankenstein. The man seemed to be absolutely plagued by his own doppelgänger, confiding to his wife on June 23 of 1822 about his many strange encounters with his enigmatic double. Perhaps the spookiest such encounter was when he told her that he had been out on the terrace and seen his ghostly twin calmly standing there. The doppelgänger then had apparently turned to him and asked, “How long do you mean to be content?” Corroborating the seemingly far-out tale was a sighting of Percy Shelly’s doppelgänger by Mary Shelley’s friend Jane Williams, who claimed that she had seen Percy walk down a street she knew led to a dead end and then strangely pass once again from the same direction, but that he had then not come back out. Creepily, Percy himself would later claim to have been nowhere near that street at the time. Percy also claimed that he often saw his double looming over him when he was ill, its face blooming from shadows and darkness to randomly startle him, and that these encounters had become more intense in recent days. Ominously, Percy Shelly would die in July of 1822 in a storm as he was sailing from Leghorn to La Spezia, Italy, on July 22, 1822, almost exactly a month after telling his wife of his doppelgänger.
Another writer menaced by a supernatural double was the great French writer Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), who towards the end of his life claimed that he had frequently been visited by his doppelgänger, who would often talk and interact with him. One day, things took a sinister turn when de Maupassant was sitting at work writing a story called The Horla, when his doppelgänger had apparently entered the room, calmly taken a seat next to him, and begun dictating what the author was writing until the unnerved man called to his servant in a panic and the double vanished. Bizarrely, this particular story he had been working on is about a man being haunted by an evil entity that plans to turn him insane and take over his body. Almost prophetically, Maupassant is said to have gradually lost his grip on sanity in the years after finishing the story. As his mental state further deteriorated, Maupassant was allegedly visited by his doppelgänger again, with the entity sitting in his room and burying its face in its hands as if in abject despondency. Maupassant would later be admitted to an insane asylum, where he would eventually die around a year after this weird last encounter, perhaps with thoughts of the doppelgänger still dancing through his head. Maupassant would write about his doppelgänger experience in his short story Lui.
In more recent times we have the story of famed science fiction novelist Philip K. Dick, who had an experience that changed his life. He claims that after a visit to the dentist he was visited by a mysterious delivery woman, after which he was inundated with a pink flash of life that changed his life. After this he would see scenes from ancient Rome played out over everyday life and even be visited by aliens who told him that time had been stopped in the Roman era and that we are all living in an illusory lie. I have written more on this particular case here.
When discussing authors who are tied to strange and frightening happenings, it perhaps only makes sense that the king of horror himself, Stephen King, should make an appearance. One of the inspirations for arguably King’s most famous work, The Shining, was apparently a stay he had at a notoriously haunted hotel, known for guest complaints of apparitions, moving objects, anomalous noises, disembodied voices and footsteps, and even a piano in the main concert hall that plays by itself. In 1974, King and his wife Tabitha found themselves staying for one night at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado, already known for various paranormal activity, and additionally they stayed in purportedly the most haunted room, Room 217. King would say of his night there and how it influenced the creation of The Shining and its Overlook Hotel thusly:
That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire-hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of bed. I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in the chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind.
Perhaps not as widely known as Stephen King, but another modern author who has had some run ins with something strange is Irish crime fiction novelist Caroline Mitchell. She claims that her whole career was sort of inspired by a bizarre experience she had in 2010 as she was living in Essex with her husband. She claims that for four years they and their children were plagued by all manner of terrifying paranormal activity in their home, including loud noises, a growling noise, moving objects, and even being attacked and scratched by unseen forces. These incidents were supposedly witnessed by dozens of friends and family, and even police officers called to the residence, and they ended up resorting to having a priest come in to exorcise the home, which seems to have had some effect. Mitchell wrote a book on her experience called Paranormal Intruder, and has said of it and its influence on her writing career:
I don’t even tell everyone that I started writing because of those experiences – it takes so long to explain. I just say, ‘oh yeah, I just got into writing’ because once they hear that they don’t hear anything else! It was just a horrible experience and certainly a weird way to get into writing. I self-published Paranormal Intruder in 2013 because I didn’t expect a career as a writer but it sold really well and even now it’s still a best-seller in that category. I think it’s very unusual to have a real life story from a police officer, the fact that this really happened, and we have so many witnesses – over 30 witnesses – that separates it from other books on the market. The fact you have someone who is the most reasonable, respectable person standing up and saying ‘this happened to me’ makes it more interesting. I know it’s not for everyone and I don’t expect everyone to believe it and I’m not out to change anyone’s mind, I just started off telling my story.
Not all writers who have had truly weird encounters are novelists, and some very odd accounts come from comic book writers. Some of these strange cases have to do with comic book characters that just don’t seem to want to stay on the page. A very notable and widely discussed instance of this was allegedly experienced by the legendary comic writer Alan Moore, creator of the Hellblazer series and its supernaturally powered main character, John Constantine. The character is very popular among Moore fans, but according to him he had a very bizarre encounter with Constantine in the flesh, of which he once said in an interview:
One interesting anecdote that I should point out is that one day, I was in Westminster in London — this was after we had introduced the character — and I was sitting in a sandwich bar. All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trenchcoat, a short cut — he looked — no, he didn’t even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine. He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner to the other part of the snack bar. I sat there and thought, should I go around that corner and see if he is really there, or should I just eat my sandwich and leave? I opted for the latter; I thought it was the safest. I’m not making any claims to anything. I’m just saying that it happened. Strange little story.
It is unclear just how serious Moore was being or if he was just musing and being eccentric, but it is certainly not the only comic character who has apparently walked right through the frames and into real life, often to torment their own creators. In the 1970s, comic writer Doug Moench was hard at work on a Planet of the Apes comic book, and this particular story revolved a villainous ape named Brutus, who wears a sinister black hood. One evening he was just finishing a scene in which Brutus grabs the wife of one of the other characters and holds a gun to her head, when his concentration was shattered by a muffled scream coming from his own wife across the house in the living room. The concerned Moench then reportedly rapidly made his way to the living room to find a black hooded figure with his wife in a chokehold and a gun to her head. He would say of the surreal experience:
It was exactly what I had written…it was so, so immediate in relation to the writing and such an exact duplicate of what I had written, that it became an instant altered state. The air in the room congealed, became almost like fog, and yet, paradoxically, I could see with greater clarity. I could see the individual threads of his black hood. It really does make you wonder. Are you seeing the future? Are you creating a reality? Should you give up writing forever after something like that happens? I don’t know.
The experience was so traumatic and bizarre for him that Moench suffered extreme writer’s block for many years, and was constantly plagued by the idea that what he wrote might actually come true for reasons he could not fathom, that he was somehow cursed with this. There is also the odd tale of comic artist Dave McKean, who also worked Alan Moore’s Hellblazer series and also on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of comics as well. McKean once related an experience that he had while on his way to the Comic Con in San Diego, when a girl that looked just like the Sandman character “Death” walked off a plane and went past him after someone had apparently died on the plane as they were waiting for take-off. She apparently looked exactly like in the comics and vanished into thin air.
Writers often have an air of mystery about them, but these cases really stand out as being rather bizarre indeed, and just as weird as anything conjured up in their worlds of fiction. What is it that happened to these creative people, and what does it all mean? Was this even real at all, or just the effects of their considerable imaginations seeping in to the real world to torment them? We will never know, but they most certainly serve to feed debate and the imagination.