The previous two books I’ve read by Jennifer McMahon were a weird combination of unusual but realistic life and the supernatural. Burntown features the supernatural less, but in some ways is more bizarre and in others verges on the precious.
When Miles Sandeski is a little boy, he sees a man wearing a chicken mask murder his mother. Despite his assurances to the police that the man was not his father, the police think his father did it. Later, his father takes his own life.
Miles’s father handed down an invention taken from Edison’s lab that allows people to talk to the dead. Miles uses it to talk to his mother and find out who killed her. Then he goes off to do something about it.
Years later, something dreadful happens at Miles’s house. His daughter Eve, now calling herself Necco, ends up living on the streets in their industrial home town of Ashford, Vermont. She doesn’t remember what happened, but her mother has told her that a flood washed away their home and killed her father. Her mother became a Fire Eater, ingesting a drug that brings visions of the future. But her mother has died, apparently jumping off a bridge.
Necco is camping out in a car with her boyfriend when her boyfriend is murdered. He has been looking into her past and promised to show her something the next day. The police think she murdered her boyfriend and are trying to find her. However, they don’t know who she is.
Theo is also running from someone. Her girlfriend Hannah talked her into selling drugs to the high school students. Theo did a big deal and then left her sachel at Necco’s place when some kids took her there to watch Necco breathe fire. The drug dealer is after her for his money, but in going back for her sachel, Theo may have seen the murderer.
As Necco and Theo try to figure out what’s happening, they get help from unexpected places and make new friends. Although there is a certain amount of danger in this novel, it is far less eerie than the previous two novels. It depends more on strange characters and desolate urban settings than on its supernatural elements. I liked it well enough but felt it verged oddly toward being a feel-good novel full of eccentric characters at the conclusion.
The Night Sister
The Winter People
The Night Strangers
Reading two books by Jennifer McMahon doesn’t make me an expert on her, but they do have something in common. They both show a fascination with the supernatural and the grotesque.
Like her more recent book The Night Sister, The Winter People is set in Vermont. It takes place in two time periods, the present and 1908.
In 1908, Sara Harrison Shea lives with her husband and daughter on a barren farm near a landmark called the Devil’s Hand. Sara was raised by a Native American woman she calls “Auntie,” whom the nearby villagers visit for potions and spells. We know from the beginning of the novel that she died a terrible death and that parts of her story are recorded in her diary, which has pages missing. In the village of West Hall there have long been legends of “Sleepers,” people who are brought back from the dead.
In the present time, teen Ruthie returns late from a date to find her mother, Alice, gone. When Alice hasn’t returned by the next day, Ruthie and her little sister Fawn begin looking through the house for clues to where she has gone. In a series of hidey holes, they find some strange things, a gun and the wallets of two people from Connecticut. Since the countryside around West Hall is known for people’s disappearances and the Devil’s Hand at the edge of the farm is supposedly haunted, Ruthie begins wondering what her mother could be involved in and doesn’t call the police.
Katherine is grieving the death of her husband, Gary. He had been distraught since the death of their son, but recently things seemed to be better. Then he told her he was going to Cambridge to photograph a wedding but died in a car accident in Vermont. What was he doing there? When Katherine gets back his charge receipts, she finds he ate lunch in West Hall, so she decides to move there to try to find out what Gary was up to.
McMahon builds up quite a bit of suspense in this novel, often from small things like the tapping on a closet door. The novel centers around a series of grief-stricken people and the belief that people can come back from the dead. Can they? And if so, in what form?
The Night Sister
The Night Strangers
Best Book of the Week!
Shirley is both an homage to Shirley Jackson, dealing with some of her own themes and preoccupations, and a novel about her. It works well on both counts. Don’t be mislead by how it is being marketed, though. It is not a thriller, even though its main character becomes obsessed with a disappearance that may be a crime.
Young, pregnant Rose Nemser and her husband Fred travel to Bennington, Vermont, in the fall of 1964. Fred is a graduate student working on his dissertation who has taken a position as teaching assistant with Shirley Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. The Hymans welcome the young couple and offer them a place to stay in their spare bedroom.
Rose is a shy and unconfident 19. Because of her poverty-stricken upbringing and meager education, she feels inferior to her husband and his family. Surprised at this invitation, she is delighted to stay. She is a fan of Jackson’s work and hopes to become her friend.
Soon Rose believes she has made a friend of Shirley, but Rose is naive and can’t begin to understand the demons that haunt her hostess. Shirley’s husband is a professor at Bennington who is known for having affairs with his students. Shirley, too, is jealous of male colleagues whose work has received more recognition than hers.
Rose begins delving into Shirley’s books on witchcraft and also becomes fascinated by stories of Paula Welden, a Bennington student who disappeared years ago while on a hike in the mountains. She begins having fancies about the house, similar to the ones held by Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House.
So, the novel develops that mixture of the mundane and the off-kilter that characterizes much of Jackson’s fiction. Shirley is a deeply interesting and atmospheric novel that causes you to sympathize with the fictional Rose while feeling that you learn something about the actual Shirley Jackson. Like some other recent fiction I have read (Miss Emily comes to mind), it combines a completely made-up plot, aggravated by Rose’s fantasies, with biographical details of Shirley’s life.
Let Me Tell You
A Good Hard Look