Haunted Heirlooms

By Gail Z. Martin

Anything you keep for sentimental reasons has a hint of haunt to it.

Deadly Curiosities, my new urban fantasy novel from Solaris Books, is centered around a 350 year-old antique and curio shop that exists to get dangerous magical items off the market and out of the wrong hands. The proprietor, Cassidy Kincaide, is a psychometric, someone who can read objects by touch and sense strong magic and memories.

While Cassidy’s talent goes far beyond the nostalgia most of us experience, there’s more truth to her magic than you might feel comfortable acknowledging.

The word “memento”, one we often use to mean sentimental knick-knack, actually means “remember death,” and described the Victorian penchant of making jewelry to memorialize their dead. While we no longer make death jewelry, the items that we keep for sentimental reasons are more similar than not to those old Victorian lockets–a memorial to memories and emotions that we don’t want to forget.

Think about the treasures you’ve got stashed away in a box in your closet or under your bed—or maybe in a storage unit. You keep things that have little or no monetary value because they bring back a strong vision of the past. Pictures, jewelry or personal possessions of those who have passed away serve to extend the influence of the dead over the living, even if it’s just the power of memory.

The items we hang onto—as individuals and collectively (museums)—not only remind us of the past, they shape our understand of that past by what we choose to keep, and what we throw away. Because what we keep is selective, our heirlooms tend to reinforce the memories we value and erase the things we don’t want to remember. Many families have been sundered by vicious squabbles over heirlooms with no monetary value for this very reason. As a society, the items we enshrine in museums reinforce a code of conduct, a view of national identity, a worldview. Old objects have power.

Even the dialog over historic items and national treasures taken in antiquity posits that what we are is influenced by the objects we own and that those objects are linked to our very essence. When I’ve been in the Smithsonian, the Vatican Museums, the Louvre, the British Museum, I see items taken from one empire by another because of what those items signified, the psychological and sociological power invested in them. The recent movie “Monuments Men” shows the lengths to which nations will go to acquire or rescue their treasures. The extensive efforts by First Nations peoples to regain their artefacts suggests just how much importance we attach to heirlooms.

Go to any religious shrine, and you’ll see more objects with a hint of haunt. Relics and religious artefacts are invested by our belief with power. We look to them for clarity, luck, protection. Wars have been fought over such objects because on a deep instinctive level we sense imbued power. Think of the feeling of awe that you get in a historic site/shrine/museum, a sense that because of the objects housed in that place, the past isn’t gone, it’s just thinly veiled.

Which brings me back to Deadly Curiosities. A place that exists to find the powerful old items linked to bad mojo and black magic, run by a secret coalition of immortals and mortals who are trying to protect the world, one cursed heirloom at a time.


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