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Speaking by phone from Chicago, where's she on a signing tour that brings her Tuesday to Bank Square Books in Mystic, novelist Jennifer McMahon could not be more cheerful or friendly. She frequently breaks into laughter and shares charming anecdotes - all in the context of her latest book, "The Winter People," a terrifying story about pagan rituals and a secret recipe for raising children from the dead.
"I love scaring myself," McMahon says. "With the way I write - I'm not a planner and I have no idea where a book is going to go - I love it when the characters surprise me and do something or learn something horrible I hadn't planned on. When that happens, I can feel a creative spark and the hairs stand up on my arms. I really do frighten myself - and it's a great feeling."
"The Winter People" is McMahon's sixth novel, and previous works, for example, have explored a serial killer with a penchant for severed hands ("The One I Left Behind") and a dark past coming back to haunt four college friends years after a bizarre tragedy scattered them to their odd fates ("Dismantled").
"The Winter People" is a tripartite and connective story that spans a century in the small, odd town of West Hall, Vermont, and focuses on events that take place in an old farm house and the adjacent and apocryphally haunted woods that surround an ancient rock outcropping called the Devil's Hand.
"My original story was going to take place during the Civil War," McMahon says. "I'd been watching Ken Burns' documentary and was taken by this small bit about Mary Todd Lincoln, who'd had seances with spiritualists in the White House, trying to reach her dead son. The idea of grief that profound really grabbed me. But after a few false starts, the book became something different."
At the turn of the 20th century, Sara Harrison Shea is a grief-hammered young mother whose beloved daughter, Gertie, has died in an accident. She begins to rely increasingly on the philosophies of her late Auntie, a witch doctor whose knowledge extended beyond the perceived boundaries of the natural world. One of her secrets was of a grimoire that could supposedly return the dead for a short period - enough, perhaps, to say a proper goodbye. The "sleeper" - a tremendously cool phrase that spontaneously occurred to McMahon as she sat down at her computer - is the reanimated corpse, who then has seven days with the living.
The reunions are not necessarily pleasant.
Whatever magic Auntie's legacy might have promised, Sara is brutally murdered - setting off decades of unexplained and peculiarly violent episodes.
In modern times, 19-year-old Ruthie lives with her little sister and mother in the same house once occupied by Sara. When the daughters wake up one morning to discover their mom has vanished, they begin to search the house for clues and come across parts of a diary written by Sara after Gertie's death. Meanwhile, a new-to-town artist is drawn by mysterious events to find out what her deceased husband was doing in West Hall - and why he was seeing a woman that seemed to have no identity.
It becomes incredibly claustrophobic and frightening - a damned good time.
McMahon has a lot of fun connecting all of these filaments. Her lush prose suffuses each page with an almost suffocating sense of winter. Her characters are wonderfully drawn and evolve and react in ways that endear them to the reader even as the tension mounts. McMahon can ratchet up the horror with small writerly gestures and subtle scene-shifts that carry massive emotional weight - as opposed to visceral carnage or over-the-top violence.
To be sure, the idea of bringing a child back from the dead isn't virgin territory. Stephen King horrified folks with "Pet Sematary," which itself was based on W.W. Jacob's story "The Monkey's Paw." As for the idea of a dead loved one returning for a brief period, just for a final goodbye, the 2011 cult horror film "Wake Wood" probed a similar premise with spooky efficiency.
The mythology entrenched in "The Winter People," though, more than stands on its own through the seductive and creepy elements of ritual and magic that are slowly revealed through the detective work of the characters.
"I did invent my own mythology," McMahon says, "but it was definitely influenced by Native American ritual, pagan practices, and New Orleans voodoo. I also did a lot of research on spiritualism at the turn of the (20th) century."
McMahon also credits her upbringing and the disparate influences of her mother and grandmother. "I grew up in my grandmother's house in Avon, and she was a psychiatrist," McMahon says. "She taught me to be a little cynical and to question everything. My mom, on the other hand, exposed me to Ouija boards and folk magic. At Halloween, we left offerings outside for the dead." She pauses. "I'm absolutely convinced there's more to the world than what we see, and I try to be open to what's possible."
And what of sleepers? Does McMahon think they might be out there?
"I really think - hope - there aren't sleepers," she says, laughing. "But I'll tell you. Walking in the Vermont winter at dusk, in the woods with my dog, I sometimes wonder."
Judge the book by its cover
In our marketing-centric world, it's important to note that the cover of Jennifer McMahon's ghostly new novel, "The Winter People," is an incredible accomplishment. Anyone browsing in a book store who sees a copy of "The Winter People" will at least pick up the novel and give it a cursory glance.
The jacket, with its elegant-but-aged typeface and a deep-snow iridescence, showing an old New England farmhouse and a ghostly light shining in one window, is a triumph of mood and unease.
Michael J. Windsor and John Fontana designed the jacket, and the farmhouse photograph was taken by Lawrence Perlman.
"This cover is the cover of my dreams," McMahon says. "I discussed a concept with my editor at Doubleday, and we definitely wanted something evocative and wintry. But I didn't expect anything this good. I have a copy of the book on my desk and I keep staring at it and rubbing my finger across it. The pearlescent finish seems very wintry to me. My friends see me do this and they must think I'm insane."
IF YOU GO
Who: Novelist Jennifer McMahon
What: Author's dinner in support of her latest book, "The Winter People," a ghost story about - among other things - the loss of a child and how far a grieving parent would go to see their loved one just once more
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Bank Square Books, 53 W. Main St., Mystic
More to know: The event includes a catered dinner, a signed hardcover of "The Winter People," and discussion time with McMahon
How much: $40, RSVP required
For more information: (860) 536-3795, banksquarebooks.com, jennifer-mcmahon.com