I can't remember the last time I cried when something happened to a character in a novel.
But leave it to author Rey Otis. Her prose is poetry, her dialogue is sharp, and her characters are intricate people - fully realized, and compelling.
Otis' first book, "Strange Fruit: A Ghost Story" opens in the aftermath of a devastating car accident. The main character, Lyric Freeman, is lying in the road, unable to move, waiting for help.
Now, the reader knows that in objective reality, it's only going to take minutes for the ambulance to arrive. But Otis' skill with imagery and narration are so effective, time elongates and takes on different textures, as Lyric struggles to understand what has happened, and fights to keep control of her mind and the rising panic. Lyric survives, but her injuries result in the ability to hear the dying speak.
She and her family are drawn into a supernatural conflict, when the spiritual repercussions of the cruel legacy of slavery begin to haunt the present world.
Not being a dedicated reader of dark fiction, I anticipated the book would be frightening and suspenseful — and it was. But I unprepared for the way my heart went out to Lyric as a woman — as a professional, as a mother fiercely intent on protecting her children, as a woman deeply in love with her husband. But I did relate, because Rey Otis is the genuine article — "a real writer" as the saying goes.
Her interest in horror fiction started with a copy of "The Exorcist," purchased from a neighbor's yard sale and devoured alone in her family's cabin in Big Bear, California.
"I snuck a flashlight and read the book under the covers. I scared myself," she laughs. "I wouldn't go to the bathroom without an escort for a few months."
A couple of years later, "I discovered 'Carrie,' (by Stephen King) she recalls. "As a little fat girl who was tormented about it at school," the story of a bullying victim who takes annihillating revenge on her persecutors resonated.
"I just started to read anything I could get my hands on," she says.
It would be many years before she would write. She attended school, married, bore three daughters, moved to New England. A longtime registered nurse who now works in Hospice care, Otis draws on her rich experiences as well as her medical background in her work. Her new book, "Dead Batteries," follows the story of Selena Rodriguez and the alien worlds she encounters after receiving an artificial heart.
Otis' interest in odd or difficult subjects, she says, has been an abiding part of her life:
Grace: When you talk about the 'dark side,' describe what that means to you?
Otis: "I don't really think of the dark side as a "negative" side. I don't see it as negative. At the beginning of my nursing career I wanted to just be around birth. Then I worked at a trauma/transplant ICU for a long time. And there was this similarity between death and birth. It's like coming in a different door.
How did your writing start taking shape?
The way my first book came about, I was on a train commuting to Cambridge (Mass.) and there was this burned-out hull of a building halfway between Attleboro and Mansfield. I Google-mapped it and it showed the building before it had burned — it was this huge mansion! I went to the local chambers of commerce — nobody knew what this thing was. So I gave it a history. I felt a little bit better after that. ... Everyone has a book in them. I believe that. I do.
When you say that, is "book" a metaphor for something else?
That's a really good question, but no. I think everyone — hunters-gatherers, cave-people, we've always told stories. We need them. They're vital, they're like oxygen. One of my favorite things about my job is listening to older people tell me their stories — veterans, people who've been on the planet for a hundred freaking years.
When you sat down and started the process, were you thinking, "I'm going to write a book."?
As I started unfolding the story that was happening in my head, I realized it was coming out with more volume and faster than I anticipated. And I thought, 'this is probably not a short story.' It was freaky. My second book was like that too, in parts. It's very non-linear. Until it's there, it ain't there. I get pieces of it. It's like watching clips from a movie trailer, but there's no movie yet.
You write a mix of science fiction and horror, but there's also a historical or mythological bent to your books. Are there genres you avoid?
"I can't read romance. It gives me nightmares. [laughs] I don't mind being emotionally manipulated, I just don't want to be aware that it's happening. It's just so trite and it's never how love is. I think marriage photos should never be of newlyweds. They should be of you when you're an old fat couple and the kids are gone and you're looking at each other saying, 'I still like you. I want to hang out with you.' I'm not saying romantic love isn't fabulous — it feels great. But any story that ends with people running off into the sunset — I think it's a damaging thing to lead women and men to believe."
What is your relationship to your characters?
It's kind of spooky. Because once they're there, they're solid. I feel like I kind of have to keep up with them. They direct me. When I feel like they don't have anymore to say, then the book's done. I am in awe of people who write series, because their characters just keep on talking to them.
Do you ever come up against a situation where you would like to see something happen but the character disagrees?
Yes! One of the funniest things that has happened to me — I wrote a scene on the train. There's a scene where someone is missing and I really didn't know what the outcome was but it didn't look good. And then the outcome happened and I burst out crying on the train. And the conductor said "Are you OK?" And I said, "Yes, I'm great! I really didn't know what was going to happen." And the conductor looked confused and said "But aren't you writing it?" And I said "Yes, but I didn't know!" Another time, a character I really liked had an unfortunate outcome. But if I had not been true to that, people would have known I was false. People would have known that I was lying.
Rey Otis lives with her family in Providence, R.I. She is working on her third novel.
By ANNIE PHILBRICK
“Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger (Simon and Schuster, Atria, March 2013, Hardcover $24.99)
The gem of a novel takes you back to the times when kids played kickball in the street in the lazy light of summer, protected by the innocence of youth and a small town. These children of innocence are exposed to murder, adultery and lies which alters their view of their small town but not by so much that they forget their faith, their family and their loyalty to youth.
“Life After Life” by Jill McCorkle (Algonquin, March, 2013, Hardcover $24.95)
I read this book in one day and with each turning page loved it more and more. The characters grow on you to such an extent that you fall in love with each one, no their faults. With her impeccable writing and use of subtle nuances, Jill has created Pine Haven Retirement Center to be such a place that if I were to need such a place, that's where I would want to be. And living with those very same characters.
“Her” by Christa Paravanni, (Macmillan, March, 2013, Hardcover $26.00)
This memoir truly talks to you about what it is like to be a twin. Rough and raw, Christa's story will make you cry and to me, that is one major emotion that makes a great book.
Annie Philbrick is the co-owner of Bank Square Books in downtown Mystic. www.banksquarebooks.com