The Winter People
Published by: Anchor Books
Release Date: January 6, 2015
The New York Times bestselling author of Promise Not to Tell returns with a simmering literary thriller about ghostly secrets, dark choices, and the unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters . . . sometimes too unbreakable.
West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter, Gertie. Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara’s farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister, Fawn. Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that suddenly proves perilous when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished without a trace. Searching for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea’s diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother’s bedroom. As Ruthie gets sucked deeper into the mystery of Sara’s fate, she discovers that she’s not the only person who’s desperately looking for someone that they’ve lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.
“Jennifer McMahon is a writer of exceptional talent, and The Winter People is a hypnotic, gripping and deeply moving thriller. With her beautifully drawn characters and complex, layered, and painfully suspenseful story, McMahon has woven a dream from which I didn’t want to wake — and couldn’t have even if I wanted to.”
—Lisa Unger, author of In The Blood
“This is not a book that will sit unread on anyone’s bedside table for very long. Open the first few pages and you are swept into a swift, dark current of unfolding events that will hold you enthralled. Much more than a spooky mystery of murder and mayhem, The Winter People blends the anguish of loss and the yearning for connection into one great story, well told.”
—Kate Alcott, author of The Dressmaker
“I don’t believe in ghosts. At least that’s what I kept telling myself as I read The Winter People. I also don’t need to sleep with the lights on. I told myself that, too. But I was whistling past a graveyard–or, in this case, past a Vermont landscape that is authentic and recognizable and still altogether chilling. The Winter People is terrifying–everything you could want in a classic ghost story.”
—Chris Bohjalian, author of The Light in the Ruins
“In an edge-of-your-seat scary ghost story, Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People yanks you from one page to the next by expertly weaving the past and present. I will never look at the woods behind my home in the same way again!”
—Heather Gudenkauf, author of The Weight of Silence
“A deliciously terrifying glimpse into a ghostly world that will haunt you long after you’ve finished the last page. Jennifer McMahon knows how to conjure your darkest fears and nightmares, while entertaining you with a clever, twisty plot that winds around and around, pulling you deep into the forbidden, secret world of The Winter People.”
—Chevy Stevens, author of Always Watching
“McMahon has developed a subgenre of psychological mysteries that pit female characters with humanizing strengths and vulnerabilities against old secrets posing present dangers, forcing them to confront mystery and legend in creepily seductive settings. This mystery-horror crossover is haunting, evocative, and horrifically beautiful, a triumph…”
Several years ago, my daughter asked me to play a game. She gave me the set-up: “We’re sisters. You’re nineteen. I’m seven. You wake up one morning and I’m in bed with you. I tell you our parents are missing.”
“Missing?” I said. “That’s terrible. What happened to them?”
“They were taken,” she said. “Into the woods.” She shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly and added, “Sometimes it just happens.”
I wrote down the idea for a story I called “The Missing Parents Book” but I didn’t have much more, so I put it away, knowing I’d write about those girls one day.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago. My agent was encouraging me to try something different, something “bigger.” I started playing around with an idea for a story set partly in the Civil War. I was watching the Ken Burns Civil War documentary and there was a little bit in there about Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd’s young son dying in the White House. Mary Todd was grief-stricken, but claimed the boy visited her after death. She began having séances in the White House. Something clicked and I decided I would write a book about a woman who becomes a spiritualist in Vermont at the turn of the century. I’d have her lose a child, but believe she could communicate with her and with others who had passed on.
Then, one day, I was writing from the point of view of my turn-of-the century character, Sara. And I wrote down this line: The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old.
Whoa! I thought, getting chills. What’s a sleeper? And I had to keep writing to find out, to let Sara tell me her story. And soon, I understood that I wasn’t writing a book about a woman who believes she can communicate with the dead, I was writing about a woman who believed she could bring the dead back to life.
I remembered my two sisters with the parents who were taken into the woods (“Sometimes it just happens”) and knew they belonged in there, too. The sisters would live in Sara’s house in the present day and somehow, what happened to them would be connected to Sara, to something that happened over a century ago.
Visitors from the Other Side: The Secret Diary of Sara Harrison Shea
January 29, 1908
The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old.
It was the spring before Papa sent Auntie away—before we lost my brother, Jacob. My sister, Constance, had married the fall before and moved to Graniteville.
I was up exploring in the woods, near the Devil’s Hand, where Papa had forbidden us to play. The trees were leafing out, making a lush green canopy overhead. The sun had warmed the soil, giving the damp woods a rich, loamy smell. Here and there beneath the beech, sugar maple, and birch trees were spring flowers: trilliums, trout lilies, and my favorite, jack- in-the-pulpit, a funny little flower with a secret: if you lift the striped hood, you’ll find the preacher underneath. Auntie had shown me this, and taught me that you could dig up the tubers and cook them like turnips. I had just found one and was pulling back the hood, looking for the tiny figure underneath, when I heard footsteps, slow and steady, moving my way. Heavy feet dragging through the dry leaves, stumbling on roots. I wanted to run, but froze with panic, having squatted down low behind a rock just as a figure moved into the clearing.
I recognized her at once—Hester Jameson.
She’d died two weeks before from typhoid fever. I had attended her funeral with Papa and Jacob, seen her laid to rest in the cemetery behind the church up by Cranberry Meadow. Everyone from school was there, all in Sunday best.
Hester’s father, Erwin, ran Jameson’s Tack and Feed Shop. He wore a black coat with frayed sleeves, and his nose was red and running. Beside him stood his wife, Cora Jameson, a heavyset woman who had a seamstress shop in town. Mrs. Jameson sobbed into a lace handkerchief, her whole body heaving and trembling.
I had been to funerals before, but never for someone my own age. Usually it was the very old or the very young. I couldn’t take my eyes off the casket, just the right size for a girl like me. I stared at the plain wooden box until I grew dizzy, wondering what it might feel like to be laid out inside. Papa must have noticed, because he took my hand and gave it a squeeze, pulled me a little closer to him.
Reverend Ayers, a young man then, said Hester was with the angels. Our old preacher, Reverend Phelps, was stooped over, half deaf, and none of what he said made any sense—it was all frightening metaphors about sin and salvation. But when Reverend Ayers with his sparkling blue eyes spoke, it felt as if he said each word right to me.
“I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”
For the first time, I understood the word of God, because Reverend Ayers spoke it. His voice, all the girls said, could soothe the Devil himself.
A red-winged blackbird cried out conk-a- reee from a nearby hazel bush. He puffed up his red shoulders and sang over and over, as loud as he could, his call almost hypnotic; even Reverend Ayers paused to look.
Mrs. Jameson dropped to her knees, keening. Mr. Jameson tried to pull her up, but did not have the strength.
I stood right beside Papa, clutching his hand, as dirt was shoveled down on the coffin of poor Hester Jameson. Hester had a crooked front tooth, but a beautifully delicate face. She had been the best in our class at arithmetic. Once, for my birthday, she gave me a note with a flower pressed inside. A violet it was, dried out and perfectly preserved. May your day be as special as you are, she’d written in perfect cursive. I tucked it into my Bible, where it stayed for years, until it either disintegrated or fell out, I cannot recall.
Now, two weeks after her very own funeral, Hester’s sleeper caught sight of me there in the woods, crouching behind the rock. I shall never forget the look in her eyes—the frightened half- recognition of someone waking from a horrible dream.
I had heard about sleepers; there was even a game we played in the schoolyard in which one child would be laid out dead in a circle of violets and forget- me-nots. Then someone would lean down and whisper magic words in the dead girl’s ear, and she would rise and chase all the other children. The first one she caught would be the next to die.
I think I may have even played this game once with Hester Jameson.