The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

This book was tailor-made for me. It is like the author found every element that I found fascinating and rolled them into one short novel. My only small complaint is the ending. Wrapped up a little too neatly for my taste, but I am quibbling. This was an excellent book.

Genre: Horror, but tastefully done for the most part. There are a couple grisly scenes but they are necessary. More than anything McMahon has mastered the art of creepy. Much of the story was the reader catching glimpses of something terrifying, mere shadows in the dark. Yet all the classic pieces are here, a lonely farmhouse, supernatural legends about the woods out back, mysterious deaths and vanishings; they all play their parts.

Setting: Vermont. Winter. 1908 and present time. She does an interesting thing with the timeline of the novel. We are actually given two stories, one happening now and one that happened over 100 years ago. They fit together well with each influencing how you read the other.

Characters: There are quite a few. It is basically about two families living in the same house at different times. And while this definitely isn’t a middle grade novel, the children do play major roles in both family’s story. The point of view shifts each chapter between the different characters with the reader always knowing more than the character. I didn’t really notice it as I was reading, but now that I think about it, it is a very female centered book. There is only one male character of any note.

Plot: For over 200 years the town of West Hall has been one of mystery. In 1908, Sarah Shea was found dead behind her house just months after the tragic death of her young daughter, Gertie. In present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in the same farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her six-year-old sister, Fawn. They live completely off the grid, existing more like a family in the Alaskan wilderness, than rural Vermont. Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished. As she searches for reasons for her mother’s disappearance she finds a copy of Sara Shea’s diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother’s bedroom. As she dives deeper into the mystery of Sara’s death, she begins to peel back the layers of mystery surrounding her town, home and family.

I recently finished another book, Andrew Pyper’s The Only Child, which attempted to rewrite the classic Gothic novel for the 21st century. In a lot of ways McMahon is doing something similar for the traditional ghost story. If you enjoy being creeped out, but not grossed out by your horror than The Winter People is definitely worth your time. At only about 300 pages, and a quickly moving plot, it is the perfect vacation time read.

Warren Ellis on Writer’s Block

Love his answer to this. I tell my students this all the time, albeit in much gentler terms!

I find myself having an extremely difficult time getting anything out when I sit down to write. Do you have any tips or suggestions for someone looking to take their first steps into the world of creativity?

Warren Ellis Here’s the thing. Don’t insist on the first draft being good. That will paralyse you forever. In fact, insist on the first draft being as rough as a bear’s arse. Insist on it being an incoherent fucking mess. It’s not supposed to be good. It’s supposed to be *outside of you.* The first victory is hard but simple: get it outside of your head and down on a page. Right now, you’re constipated by expectation. Okay, you probably don’t want me to continue with that metaphor. But just get the ideas out of you and on a page where you can see them, in broken sentences and stick figures if you like. Fix it later, once it’s outside of your head where you can see it.