Charlie Hodge gives new meaning to the term ghostwriter.
He was hired to collaborate on a coffee-table book about Blaylock Mansion, the former summer residence of a Cominco boss that is now a bed and breakfast just east of Nelson. Instead he wrote a novel narrated by a ghost.
Hodge was initially reluctant to get involved when he received a phone call five years ago from Dan McGauley, who managed the B&B with wife Louise. McGauley dreamed of publishing a book about the estate and had long been gathering notes on its history, but he wasn’t a writer and needed to find someone who was.
A mutual acquaintance suggested Hodge, a veteran Kelowna journalist, city councillor, and author of two popular books on hockey’s Howie Meeker. However, Hodge dismissed the idea because McGauley said he was seeking a ghostwriter.
“It’s not what I do,” Hodge told him. “Why would I write a book that doesn’t have my name on it?”
McGauley quickly clarified that Hodge was welcome to put his name on the book — although, as it happened, ghosts were a key part of the story.
Hodge still wasn’t sure, so McGauley invited Hodge and his wife to visit the mansion before deciding.
“We went to Nelson for the weekend and looked at the place,” Hodge recalls. “It was absolutely gorgeous.”
Hodge signed on for what was originally conceived as a book that would draw on McGauley’s notes to present the history of Selwyn Blaylock’s palatial residence, which was built in the 1930s and originally known as Lakewood. However, Hodge says, “the book morphed.”
While Blaylock was responsible for the mansion’s construction, Hodge was intrigued with other characters associated with the property before and after Blaylock. A land title search revealed former owners included American Civil War veteran Newton Wolverton, prominent lawyer Sidney Stockton Taylor, and Nelson mayor John Hamilton.
McGauley told Hodge about Cliff Chase, the “classic con man” who bought the estate from Blaylock’s widow in the 1970s only to skip town one night, leaving a string of unpaid bills. (The McGauley family ended up with the mansion after Chase defaulted on a loan.)
“My imagination wrapped into the history of all of the characters on the land who were really quite unique and powerful,” Hodge says.
“I was walking at the top part of the property and sat down in this beautiful field and was overwhelmed with how peaceful it was. I thought ‘this isn’t about the mansion, it’s about the land.’ That’s where the spirit concept came from.”
Though he is spiritual, Hodge didn’t believe in ghosts. Midway through the project, however, he experienced serious health problems and had a narrow brush with death. He thought it would be interesting to contemplate who might haunt the mansion as well as the mechanics of an afterlife.
“What does a ghost feel or think? Does a ghost eat or drink? Do ghosts talk to each other? The average person wouldn’t think about that. I wouldn’t. But suddenly I have these questions. It’s a weird conversation to have with yourself. We assume that when we die we get all the answers. But what if you’re in limbo? What if you’re frustrated because you still don’t have all the answers?”
A ghost narrator also gave him latitude to speculate on what was going on behind the scenes. Blaylock, in particular, was difficult to get a handle on. “In his lifetime he was either loved or hated, with not much in between,” Hodge says.
Although hailed as a titan of industry, Blaylock clashed with trade unionists, chief among them Ginger Goodwin, who led a strike at the Trail smelter in 1917. Blaylock was suspected of pulling strings to have Goodwin conscripted for the First World War. Goodwin then fled to the hills around Cumberland, where a posse member shot and killed him, sparking Canada’s first general strike.
Hodge’s narrator is a phantom fly on the wall, observing such events and filling in otherwise-unknowable details.
The resulting self-published book, Lost Souls of Lakewood, came out in the spring and is available at stores in Nelson and Trail.
Hodge is proud of the finished product, but laments that McGauley isn’t around to see it. He died of cancer last December, although he read the finished manuscript and provided a preface. Hodge and McGauley are billed as co-authors, but didn’t get to do a planned road trip together to distribute the books.
Hodge says he’s relieved to be finished after expending a “ridiculous” amount of time and energy on the project.
“The world is full of fascinating people and sometimes we don’t take the time to appreciate those who come before us,” he says. “It was an honour to do it.”