Here's one of the teasers on the book jacket for Jennifer McMahon's The Winter People: "some secrets never die". The setting is a small town in Vermont. The time is winter. And strange things are happening. People are disappearing. The novel opens with a series of diary entries ca. 1908. The reader is plunged into a story that involves "Sleepers", or Winter People. Sleepers are just what you are likely imagining they are--people who have died but still walk the earth.
I think Jennifer McMahon did what she set out to do in writing this book. She scared me enough this past weekend to set the book down just twenty or so odd pages from the end because it was late and dark and I was alone and a little too freaked out to keep reading. I finished it Sunday morning in the bright sun and welcome surroundings of a busy coffee shop. How silly is that. I like a good ghost story, but I am not often scared by them. It's hard to do 'scary' these days. For me a nicely atmospheric story with a strong setting and believable characters is enough. A few added chills is a bonus.
Thinking about the story now, it's not so much that it was necessarily a really scary story, rather there was just enough weirdness and unanswered questions that left to its own devices a reader's mind (well, mine, anyway) is allowed to fill in the blanks. Or wonder about them anyway. I have mentioned before how a good story will play on the imagination? That's what this one does. For me the true test is whether I will go down to my unfinished and very creepy basement to do laundry when reading a ghost story. This one passed the test--(or is is truer to say failed it?). Laundry first, and ghost story after--and neither the twain shall meet otherwise.
There are two parallel stories in The Winter People. One is set in contemporary times with several separate threads woven together and the other harkens back to a much simpler era. A time when people might believe in things like the dead walking. Or do people still believe? Sara Harrison Shea's diary entries hint at something really frightening having taken place at the beginning of the last century. Is it madness that instructed her, or did something truly unholy really take place?
Sara tells us she was only nine when she first saw one of the winter people. Sara has always been a little different. A free spirit--almost like a selkie or mermaid, someone who sees fairies. She's breathtakingly beautiful but not meant to be understood. Martin, her husband, is just happy to have been chosen by her. When their first child dies she goes just a little mad in her grief. So when Gertie comes along she is utterly dedicated to her and the two are inseparable. Sara and Martin live on the outskirts of town near a wooded area known as the Devil's Hand. It's not a place that is welcoming, a place you want to explore. It's the sort of forest Hansel and Gretel got lost in.
Decades later those woods begin to encroach on the little farmhouse on the outskirts of town. It almost seems as though the woods are ready to overtake the house. Ruthie, nineteen and just out of school, lives there now with her mother and younger sister. Something strange has happened however. When she returns home from a date she discovers her mother is gone and her sister is alone. Their hippie lifestyle leaves her hesitant to call the police, but surely it is too soon and her mother will return home any moment. But the hours pass with no sign of her. When she begins looking through the house for some clue of where he mother might have gone, she finds the closet in her mother's room nailed shut and a copy of Sara's diary under a loose floorboard. This strange, eerie diary, which the reader has been privy to all along, offers some hints what might have happened, but there are pages missing. Pages that people are willing to kill for.
If you are looking for something chillingly atmospheric, this might be the story for you. McMahon knows just how to engage the reader, making them question what is real and what isn't, what is plausible and what isn't, but in the end not caring either way. For me this one falls firmly into the thumping good read category.
I told myself no more ghost stories for a while, but then picked Valerie Martin's The Ghost of the Mary Celeste as my next library read. It was the seafaring/ocean setting that was the draw until I started thinking about the ghost in the title. I'm not too far along yet, but the story is slowly drawing me in and it looks like this will likely be another unputdownable read. Happily so.