Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Winter People

Jennifer McMahon is one of my most reliable go-to authors when I want a suspenseful and at times eerie read, as you guys are surely aware from my previously published author spotlight post which covered three other novels of hers that I've read: The One I Left Behind, Promise Not to Tell and Island of Lost Girls. In McMahon's latest, The Winter People, she's relied on a trio of strong female voices to deliver her gripping and chilling tale.

Sara Harrison Shea was nine years old the first time she saw a sleeper. She'd been exploring in the woods near the Devil's Hand, a stone structure sitting on a hill whose five large stones jutting from the ground gave it its apropos name, eventhough her Papa had forbidden her to play there; all of a sudden, she'd seen Hester Jameson, who'd died two weeks earlier from typhoid fever. Hester's mother had been close behind and when she'd questioned the why, Cora Jameson had said "Someday Sara maybe you'll love someone enough to understand." Sara's Auntie had later shared the truth behind sleepers (dead arisen) and the powerful secret of how to bring a loved one back. It's 1908 when Sara having kept that secret for so long has cause to think back on Cora's cryptic words; now a married women and mother, a vengeful wraith has snatched her beloved angel, Gertie, from her loving arms. Tragically understanding Cora's pain all too well and loving her little girl too much to let her go, Sara turns to the dark knowledge gained years ago to change the course of fate.

In present day Vermont, nineteen year old Ruthie Washburne has lived in West "Freaking" Hall all her life; why even after graduating from high school last June she was still stuck in what she considered "the black hole in the center of the universe." On a cold snowy winter night, in order to avoid a scene with her mother, Ruthie sneaks into her room after arriviving passed her curfew at the isolated farm house they called home. After waking up the next morning to a warm and damp mattress thanks to her younger sister's, Fawn, bed wetting accident after she'd apparently snuck into Ruthie's bed, she's surprised and frightened to find that her mom, Alice, is missing. After a search of the house turns up no clues, Ruthie braves all her built up fears and treks out through the woods that encroach on their small home and makes her way to the Devil's Hand, a scary place that has generated talk of satanic cults, witches, murder and all sorts of local legend.

While the outside search garners no results, she's reluctant to call the police especially after all her doubts and fears increase upon finding under the floorboards of her mother's room a treasure trove of questions in the form of two wallets with I.D.'s belonging to two strangers (a man and woman), a gun and a worn hardcover entitled "Visitors from the Other Side: The Secret Diary of Sara Harrison Shea"; the same Sara whom legend said had been found dead in a field behind her home just months after the tragic death of her daughter Gertie, and which looking at the blurry black & white photo on the back cover of the book, Ruthie and Fawn quickly realize shared their same home. As Ruthie starts to dig into her mother's carefully concealed secrets, she'll uncover the truth behind the mystery that binds these two families, the reasons behind her mother's disappearance, and ultimately unlock the legend of the Devil's Hand.

Jennifer McMahon has once again delivered a page-turning thriller, though unlike her previous mystery novels which had a paranormal element to them, The Winter People is in all ways a true horror/ghost-story. McMahon has filled her creepy tale with suspense, drama, but also alot of heart. A tale of love and loss that transcends time and place and which movingly and frighteningly ponders the extent to which we'll go when grief has wrapped its tentacles around our heart after losing a beloved whom we can't let go.

The Winter People has all the elements of a great horror story; fear, suspense, and mystery. Alternating between past and present, McMahon manages to ratchet up the tension as we live through Sara's sorrow, horror and pain, and through Ruthie's tale see the ramifications of Sara's decisions. I found myself more deeply intrigued by Sara's story and the mystery of Gertie's death than Alice's disappearance, which might be due to the fact that the one event foreshadowed the other. In addition to a great plot, McMahon created the perfect setting for The Winter People's past and present tales ideally playing on our most basic fears by using an isolated farmhouse where every noise narrated became that much more frightening by the mere knowledge that all monsters faced would be done so alone and that no one could hear their screams for help.

In addition to Sara and Ruthie, the story relies on two other narrators from past and present to share its dark tale; Martin, Sara's loving husband, and Katherine, an artist who recently moved to West Hall after the death of her husband and child. Of the narrators, Sara's voice is by far the most compelling and real. As a reader, we're witness to both Sara's strength and sorrow and while many (or some) would question her actions, every reader will understand the incredible well-spring of love and pain that are their impetus; that heartbreaking need at all cost to share one more day, one more kiss, one more I love you with the one loved and lost.

The Winter People is at times fascinating, poignant and at others downright scary. A haunting tale about the unbreakable bond of love and the never easy task of letting go.