This blog was originally published on freshfiction.com. Thanks, Fresh Fiction friends, for featuring The Ocean in Winter!
My debut novel, The Ocean in Winter, was published by Blackstone Publishing this past July. It’s a story about three adult sisters whose mother died by suicide when they were children. It’s a story about loss and grief, but it’s also a story about ghosts. My first impulse in writing this book was, I wanted to create a ghost story where the ghosts reveal something important about the characters, where the ghosts have some meaning.
Here’s the thing: I love a good ghost story. I love them told around camp fires or unfolding - even reenacted! - on television, I love it (LOVE IT!) when people tell me about creepy things happening in their houses. I have never actually seen a ghost myself, but I have had a few experiences of inanimate things moving in strange ways at strange times. (Ask me about that later.)
Side note: My ten-year-old daughter is obsessed with ghost stories. She’s too young for horror movies, but we have brought her to several places purported to be haunted, like, very haunted. I am sad to report that unlike a New England whale watch, when, if you don’t see a whale, they give you a voucher to try again, these haunted houses make no such guarantee. I am sadder still to report that even in the dark back corner of the most haunted jail in the United States, and very haunted other places, I still have no real ghost experiences to report.
That’s okay. I’ll keep trying.
Why do I love a ghost story? They include so many delicious elements. 1) They have a deep connection to place and setting. 2) They’re connected to history, especially the history of the tragic, but also the history of the ordinary. 3) They affect real, current people in specific ways. 4) When we imagine what it’s like to experience a haunting, we become interested and invested in all of these elements: place, setting, history, effect. And what else? We’re SCARED!! We wake up and pay attention.
Spooky things get under our skin and make the hair on the back of our necks stand straight up. We crave explanation – how are there people who are not really people but - kind of - used to be people? It doesn’t make sense, and science gives us nothing to hang on to. We don’t have any tools to sort out the phenomenon, and this leaves us feeling like we are on uncertain ground. It brings up a lot of feelings.
I live on the north shore in Massachusetts, and when I started writing the book, my daughter was in preschool. I didn’t have extra time to research a new area, so I ended up setting the book in the places where we were meeting our friends for playdates: the small towns of Amesbury, Newburyport and Newbury. These are all beautiful, pastoral towns on or near the coast, each studded with old houses and their own personalities. All of them have that quality – classic New England – that makes them perfect for a ghost story setting.
I also needed to take stock of my favorite literary ghosts. Of course, I have my childhood faves: Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, du Maurier’s Rebecca, and the stories of Edgar Allen Poe and Algernon Blackwood. I didn’t want literature that was merely frightening – hold the vampires, please! And anything generated to solicit a terror reaction (sorry, Mr. King) was not for me. I only wanted ghosts, insidious ones, preferably ones connected to houses. I read a bunch, but the absolute ghostiest of all the ghosties, the most deliciously haunted of all the scary houses: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, an all-time master of creating tension. Jackson had me at this line: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.”
Hill House. Not sane. Oh, yes, something is going on at this address.
I had been thinking about sisters, two at first, and a third came along after, sort of like an unplanned baby. And then I needed to decide: what happened to these girls that would have left them feeling haunted? I considered a few options, but settled on the suicide of their mother, discovered by the oldest daughter on an innocent afternoon after school. What happened next changed their lives forever.
After that, I set out to tell a story that has as its backdrop the profound and, as I learned, very unique grief of surviving suicide loss, and an exploration of how three children, living through the same events, would have entirely different memories and experiences. Along the way, I got to create broken houses to reflect each broken character, a character who projects her grief on to the walls of the old house she inherits, and a character who flits through her own life almost like a spirit.
I can’t talk more about the spooky elements in the book without either explaining the whole story or spoiling a small twist (for all that, you’ll just have to read it!), except to say that I believe I accomplished what I set out to do. I told a ghost story and used it as a tool to ground the book in its small-town New England setting, and to reveal essential and important things about the characters and their lives. In the end, I believe I told a story about what it really means to be haunted.
EXTRA NOTE - exclusive to readers of the blog at elizabethdeveer.com: check out the picture above. That's me, Elizabeth, at the house that inspired the movie The Conjuring. Note the device on the right wrist, that's my (removeable) cast, which I wore after I broke my wrist in late July. Also, see how I'm reading a book? The owners said they found that book on the floor twice (so, in theory, the ghost threw it on the floor - twice.) The house is owned by a really sweet couple, who you can meet in this article. Unfortunately, maintaining the house has been more work than they realized, and the house is currently on the market.