From the time he was a kid growing up in eastern Baltimore County, Gary Beard was fascinated with the tales of Baltimore’s literary master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe.
“I bought a book of all Poe’s works,” said Beard, 52, who also admires the spooky stuff written by Shirley Jackson, author of the well-known short story, “The Lottery.”
“And I love horror movies and scary stories — always have,” added Beard, who now lives in Timonium. “I take my kids camping and we sit around and tell stories around the campfire.”
Still, Beard had never tried his hand at writing anything on the spooky side until he found out about a contest sponsored by the Foundation for Baltimore County Public Library and decided to give it a go.
His first foray into writing the genre turned out to be a success, considering his story, “A Sinister Charm,” won first place in the contest, ahead of runner-up, Christine Stake, 32, of Cockeysville, and third-place finisher Carolyn Eichhorn, 50, of Parkville.
All three authors were on hand to read their winning short stories around a fire pit at the “A Toast Among Ghosts” event at the Reisterstown Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library on a balmy night last Saturday. The event raises money for the library foundation, which helps fund library programs.
In addition to hearing ghost stories, attendees could enjoy RavenBeer craft lagers and ales, wine, food trucks, historic cemetery tours, an Edgar Allan Poe impersonator and live bands, including, appropriately, Edgar Allan and the Poe Boys.
To prevail in the contest, Beard, Stake and Eichorn concocted storylines about normal people who find bizarre things happening to them, rather than weaving well-worn werewolf, vampire or zombie characters into their plots.
Beard said that once he started writing his creepy copy, he had no problem reaching the 3,000-word limit.
In fact, the Cigna Health Care executive said that he had to cut back some of the story about a family that moves to bucolic and charming Smith Island only to find things are not what they appear.
Fittingly, his wife, Kay, whom he met in a creative writing course at what was then Towson State University, was the editor of the piece. She gave him the thumbs-up early in the process, telling her husband that the story was really creepy.
Beard added that his fears of having his work judged were allayed by his wife’s swift and positive reaction.
“She really liked it right away,” Beard said, noting he has written for pleasure since he was a teen.
“A Sinister Charm” revolves around the protagonist and his wife, who inherit a house from an uncle and move to the Eastern Shore island community.
“It’s love at first sight,” Beard said about his characters. “But then they find out something is terribly wrong. There are only old people left on the island, and there’s a reason why.”
He said he felt the storytelling also went well at the event.
“I was nervous at first but then, after I began reading, the audience started responding — laughing in the right places, gasping, even groaning in disgust,” he said. “Those reactions were better than the big round of applause I received.”
For Stake, her story submission — “Capture” — was a new adventure. The post doctoral research fellow at Johns Hopkins University, who specializes in brain cancers, said that writing is a creative outlet she enjoys.
Her story entails a trip by a young woman to one of Stake’s favorite haunts, a shopping mall— except that the mall in the story is an eerie brick-and-mortar structure in severe decline.
“It about a girl trying to do a photo essay for a college class she is taking,” Stake said. “Walking through the degradation of the mall and seeing a culture that was once embraced makes her feel trapped.”
In the end, the main character enters a tunnel, tiptoes through debris and wrestles with an entity.
“Writing is a passion of mine,” said Stake, who has visited Poe’s dorm room at the University of Virginia, but has never been to the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore.
Eichhorn’s third-place story, “Close Neighbors,” came after her first short story did not place in last year’s contest.
This time, the Walden University online operation manager said she penned the story over a weekend, and the first promising feedback came from when she saw her editor’s “OMG” scribbled in the margin of the manuscript.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ve got to push the envelope a little,’ “ she said. “And I pushed it until I felt uncomfortable, and I wanted the reader to be uncomfortable, too.”
It’s a story about an ordinary woman and her neighbor.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever lived alone, but sometimes you hear noises and aren’t sure what they are,” she said. “It’s about things that go bump in the night. It’s not clear who’s telling the story. It’s a full-on Halloween experience.”