I am a wimp. I don’t like scary things in general – I can’t even watch horror movie commercials without getting freaked out and paranoid that something sinister is hiding in every dark corner of my house. I do like the general spookiness of Halloween-time, but I’ve typically gotten my Halloween fill by watching themed competition shows on Food Network, or from cheesy “scary” movies like Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Occasionally I’ll branch out and watch something fantastic like Suspiria or the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, or read something truly frightening like The Shining, but I typically can’t do modern horror.
That being said, in the past few years I’ve really started to gain interest in more horror-type things, like the old and new TV/movie iterations of It, and, more recently, things that fit into both the horror and mystery camps, like The Winter People. Something about reading a spooky mystery in October really appealed to me this year, so I just went for it. This book is a supernatural horror/mystery about the power of lore, waking the dead, and how far we might go to get back what we’ve loved and lost.
Set in the fictional town of West Hall, Vermont, the story takes place both in 1908 and in the present day. The 1908 storyline centers around Sara Harrison Shea, who has just lost her beloved daughter Gertie and is in the deepest throes of grief. These sections are mostly told through Sara’s diary entries, and in them we learn that she has lived an unlucky life, losing her entire biological, immediate family by the time she’s an adult (except for the one sister who got married and skipped town). She lost her mother at birth and was raised by her father and “Auntie,” a witchy woman who is famous for doling out remedies to the townspeople who venture out to see her. Auntie lives in a cabin close to a gigantic hand-shaped rock formation dubiously named “The Devil’s Hand,” and she is full of all kinds of innate gifts and knowledge. When Sara is little, Auntie writes down and seals the instructions for how to wake the dead, specifying that Sara should not break the seal until she needs to. Young Sara can’t imagine when she’ll ever need that ability. I think you can imagine when Sara needs that ability.
In present-day West Hall, 19-year-old Ruthie and her 6-ish-year-old sister Fawn live with their mother in Sara’s old house, almost completely off the grid. When their homey, hippie, dependable mom disappears one day, Ruthie and Fawn take it upon themselves to figure out what might have happened to her. In the process, they uncover secrets about their house, their family, and Sara Harrison Shea. Some of the creepiest things happen in and around the house; the girls find lots of hiding places, a secret passageway or two, an ominously boarded-up closet in their mother’s bedroom, and a copy of Sara’s diary, which was published by her niece Amelia after Sara’s untimely and gruesome death. A more minor but still important storyline in the present day involves a woman named Katherine whose husband recently died in a car accident close to The Devil’s Hand. When Katherine finds and reads her husband’s copy of Sara’s diary, she is compelled to move to West Hall to figure out what might have happened to him, and to find out if his death was truly an accident.
There is a barren, eerie atmosphere to this book. Lots of snow, silence, woods. Glimpses of movement in between trees and by The Devil’s Hand. Scrabbling sounds in the closet. The feeling that you’re being watched at all times. A disturbing, off-putting sensation permeates the entire thing, and I had an increasing sense of alarm and confusion as I got closer to the end. This, to me, marks great writing. Experiencing every bump, scratch, and shadow right along with the characters, panicking at the disappearance of little Gertie, feeling a sense of dread at the closed and boarded closet door. Jennifer McMahon’s storytelling pulls you right in.
Maybe I’m just sensitive because my grandparents had a closet in their room that held some weird energy, but the closet thing in particular freaked me out for days. There is one scene with a plate being dragged into the closet, and for some reason it was as vivid, mesmerizing, and horrifying as if I were watching it on a screen. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. It didn’t help that I had no idea what the hell was really going on through 75% of the book – that definitely added to the sense of panic, and made the whole plot all the more terrifying. Grade A, chilling stuff. At least to a wimp like me.
But. I was honestly a little disappointed by the ending. Once the truth of the situation was revealed and everything fell into place, nothing was quite as scary as it originally seemed. I guess I didn’t expect all of the mysteries to be solved so succinctly – I expected to be left with some level of unease at the end. As with most mystifying things, once we’ve gotten an explanation, the allure fades a little. The good thing, though, is that the creepiness and chilling beauty of the first three quarters of this book more than make up for the neat ending. I still can’t shake the image of that closet, or what might be scrabbling around in it.
I might be a relative horror literature newbie, but I know good writing when I read it. This is good.
Well, now I’m afraid of closets.
Horror literature lovers. Anyone who likes eerie, atmospheric books.
Author: Jennifer McMahon
Publish Date: 2014
Publisher: Anchor Books
Edition: First Anchor Books Edition (2015)
ISBN / ISBN13: 9780804169967
US Price: $15.95
2 thoughts on “Book Review – “The Winter People” by Jennifer McMahon”
my biggest issue was with the ending too. it just fell flat, and i didn’t understand that woman’s role in the story at all. she seemed extraneous to me.
I totally agree. The story could’ve done without her.