I haven’t said this since The Panopticon, so it’s high time I say it again: I absolutely loved this book! I could not put it down. I stayed up past my bedtime because I was powerless to stop turning the pages. I found The Winter People utterly compelling, brilliantly atmospheric, totally absorbing, and wonderfully creepy and sad. All of my very very favorite things in a horror story.
The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon is the story of a town called West Hall, Vermont. In 1908 a woman named Sara Harrison Shea was found murdered, shortly after the death of her young daughter. Ever since, the town has been the site of several strange disappearances. In the present day, a young woman named Ruthie lives in Sara’s house with her mother and young sister–and her mother is the most recent person to disappear. Behind all of this is Sara’s incomplete diary, which she scattered all over her house in order to hide the powerful secret it contained. The secret, we find, is this: there’s a way to bring loved ones back from the dead, and desperately grieving parents want to do so.
In all, The Winter People is a quieter, more atmospheric and more emotionally centered cousin to Pet Sematary by Stephen King. The lesson is the same as in Stephen King’s book, too: Don’t resurrect the dead. Don’t. Just…please don’t. It’ll be bad.
Clearly Jennifer McMahon has read Pet Sematary. The penultimate scene in The Winter People is obviously a nod to it. Comparisons are inevitable. But McMahon takes the concept of resurrecting the dead via old magic and does something all her own with it. As I mentioned before, her mood and focus is totally different. The Winter People has a sort of old-fashioned ghost story feel to it. There’s also a definite poignancy and rawness to her explorations of the kind of grief that would drive someone to try to bring a loved one back from the dead.
McMahon is wonderful at construction, as well. The Winter People uses diary entries and alternating viewpoints to build suspense and atmosphere, as well as tantalize you with clues to uncover the many layers of connections within the story. The tone is haunting, and the writing is evocative both of place and of emotion. This is a relationship-centered novel just as much as it is a ghost story, and both elements work splendidly separately and together.
Gillian Flynn would be the obvious go-to readalike idea for Jennifer McMahon, but there are a few other authors you might try. Sarah Waters’ work might appeal to you if you enjoy The Winter People. Try beginning with The Little Stranger, a haunting ghost story involving secrets and Gothic touches. John Harwood would be another good readalike idea, particularly his recent The Asylum (I blogged about that one here). If you can take or leave the horror elements but enjoy intricate storylines, suspense, rather troubled protagonists, and a nice haunting atmosphere, you could try both Sheri Reynolds and Amy MacKinnon. Start with A Gracious Plenty and Tethered, respectively. Also give Pet Sematary a try, just for fun, if you like the concept of The Winter People.
As for me, I put down The Winter People and immediately picked up McMahon’s Don’t Breathe a Word. I devoured it in a day and a night. My intention is to just keep on reading her work until there isn’t any left, that’s how much I love it. So don’t wait up, folks. I’m going on a McMahon bender and I’ll be coming back loaded with creepy imagery, nasty secrets, and twisty-turny double-bluffs.
It’s going to be awesome.