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Nonfiction

Book Reviews: March 2020

Read This! Volume 12

Bad memories or mistakes can haunt us all; events or people in our past that stick in the mind and affect all we say or do, even against our best interests. The degree to which we let those voices go silent and stop guiding us is usually how we measure psychological success. It’s the persistence and lure of the regrettable past that make ghost stories so compellingly familiar. We sense the truth of a good haunting, even if we don’t believe in its supernatural aspects.

How spirits of the dead are represented can change from story to story, but there are usually elements in common . . . That only some people can see or hear them; that they are physically intangible, but occasionally audible or visible; that they exist because something binds them to Earth and their old lives, whether unfinished business or the circumstances of their deaths. I find it amusing that “ghosting” has come to mean that someone has stopped responding to your texts or calls, when traditional ghosts are just the opposite, an intimate presence you can’t dispel. This column’s subjects are both stories that handle ghosts in different ways; with one thing in common . . . the dead will not leave until they are satisfied.

The Sun Down Motel
Simone St. James
Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0440000174
Berkley, February 18, 2020, 336 pages

One of the ironies of the writing life is that it leaves you precious little time for recreational reading. Most of what you devour is grist for the mill, real world research to make your own fictional worlds feel realer. Then comes reading the work of favorite authors or friends, sometimes one and the same, or manuscripts offered up for critique from those select few you’re willing to assist pre-publication.

When I find a writer whose work I don’t know that offers me a reading experience I want to have again, I’m almost annoyed, because it means that there’s now something else I need to make room for in my limited time left on Earth. One less night I can binge video adaptations of favorite comic books, streaming or broadcast. One less hour spent on research, or the latest Tananarive Due or N.K. Jemisin. It means that I’ve read something I enjoyed enough that I’m willing to sacrifice something else to read more. So I’m highly annoyed with Simone St. James, because her novel The Sun Down Motel makes me wonder if the rest of her damned books are as enjoyable, knowing full well I will have to find out.

It begins in 1982 with bad girl Viv.

She tells her divorced mom and younger sister that she’s headed to New York, but she’s really just running away from a troubled life at home. Her bus takes a detour into Pennsylvania, so she hitchhikes to get back on course. When a driver starts to take her in the wrong direction, she makes him drop her off at a rundown motel in a small town called Fell. With her last twenty bucks, she goes to get a room from the woman who owns the place, working the desk because her night clerk quit. Viv soon agrees to save her money and work the desk that night in exchange for a free bed.

The next day she keeps the job and finds a cheap shared apartment in town. New York was just an excuse to leave, and Fell seemed as good a place for her to find direction as any. The motel was built to take advantage of business from a theme park that never happened, but as Viv soon discovers, it’s haunted by more than its failed dream. Viv starts to see the ghosts inhabiting the isolated location and is slowly compelled to investigate their deaths and the lives that led them there. A beautiful woman in a flowered dress, her body found on the construction site before the motel was completed; a young boy who cracked his skull in the swimming pool in back, closed after his death; the scent of cigarette smoke from the desk clerk who called in the accident, then died of a heart attack at his desk six months later. It’s the desk Viv sits at each night, smelling his phantom cigarette smoke drifting in from the doorway. Her nights are far from alone, between the ghosts and the motel’s eclectic nightly regulars; a local alcoholic, an adulterous couple, a hippyish pot dealer, and a traveling salesman.

Fell is a sleepy little town, and as Viv settles in and talks to people, she hears its dark history. It’s not the kind of place where you’d expect even one brutal murder, so the deaths of three women in almost as many years are already local legend. As Viv finds out more about the victims she begins to connect the deaths, and soon suspects that there’s one man behind them all. Her suspicions deepen, and, much to her growing horror, she finds herself on his trail as he stalks his next victim, while Viv desperately looks for a way to save her.

In 2017, her niece Carly is a young woman haunted by her aunt’s disappearance years before she was born. She goes to the scene of what may or may not have been a crime, looking for answers that her late mother never got before dying of cancer.

She arrives at the same motel Viv worked at, a little more rundown, but otherwise unchanged, except that the son of the owner works behind the desk instead of his mother, and they still need a night clerk. Carly asks him questions, looking for loose threads to tug at in her aunt’s mystery. Instead, she ends up taking the job abandoned by her aunt when she vanished so long ago. Like Viv, Carly finds a room in town to share and as the novel progresses the two women carry on parallel investigations into the same series of crimes.

Viv’s story is told in third person from her point of view, while Carly is in first person, immediate and very much in the now. The ghosts seen by Viv are still at the motel for Carly to see, but also to listen to as her aunt did, both women deciphering the clues left by each appearance as they work their ways to separate solutions.

The real pleasure in the reading is the gradual build to Viv’s disappearance, watching her dig deeper into a mystery everyone warns her away from, and in following Carly as she finds the same people in present day, now warning her off. We’re given clues as to what really happened to Viv, and to what might happen to Carly, if she keeps digging up dirt in a town that likes to keep its secrets. St. Simone builds a slow boil of a supernatural suspense story, terrifying by its end, with ghosts that not only feel plausible, but inevitable, given the circumstances. That the niece would share her aunt’s fey talent for seeing spirits is never directly addressed, but flows smoothly into a narrative sadly layered with familial failings, some unseen until the very end.

Both women make friends and allies . . . Viv with a black woman who photographs adulterous motel clients for a divorce lawyer, and the town’s one lady cop, forced to work the night shift by her chief. Carly finds sympathy from a craggy but handsome stranger with a tragic past. As a boy he escaped unhurt while his father murdered his brother. He’s back in town to face his own demons while he helps Carly dig up hers. Her roommate also takes an interest in her mystery, and rounds out her team as researcher.

The stories play out in parallel paths, and by the end one story rolls neatly into the other for an explosive climax. Blending the hunt for a serial killer with the ghosts of his victims made it more a horror story than merely a mystery, and the author’s characters nicely engaged me enough to care about their fates. That’s what makes all good writing work for me, regardless of genre. As I am forced by this reading to seek out her other novels, I’ll soon discover if this blend of mystery and the mystical is her particular terrain or a single exploration.

I look forward to finding out.

Remembered
Yvonne Battle-Felton
Hardcover / Paperback
ISBN: 978-1982627126
Blackstone Publishing, February 4, 2020, 240 pages

The shadow of slavery always horrifies me.

Not just its existence, but its consequences. That the institution was justified by dehumanizing its victims is the worst of it for me, as it allowed anything done after. The impact of it on American society and psychology has never been fully processed or dealt with, so we all stumble forward as best we can, into what we hope becomes a better brighter future for everyone, however slowly, with occasional backsliding.

Remembered is not a traditional horror novel, though I found it listed under that category. Like Colton Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, the nature of its subject matter can’t help but inspire the same feelings in the reader. The novel begins in 1910, objectively a worse time than now for most African-Americans, with a trolley accident that may or may not have been deliberately caused by Edward, a young black man who repairs the powerful vehicles. It’s a time of rising unions, embattled employers, and the increasing conflicts between them used methods more associated with mob wars than business. The question everyone is asking is whether Edward was trying to start a labor riot or prevent an accident caused by union sabotage.

Spring, Edward’s mother, was born into slavery and lived under it until freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, not long after Edward’s birth. Like Carly, she’s haunted by a departed relative, but for Spring it’s not just a dim memory and a mystery, but the hyperactive ghost of her dead sister, Tempe. She’s always manifested each time a family member is about to pass, and she makes a fresh appearance while news of the crash spreads through the black community. Spring rushes to the hospital looking for Edward, praying that he’s not next on Death’s list, that her sister’s ghost has come to summon someone else.

Once she quietly fights her way to his bedside, over the objections of nurses and law enforcement, Spring talks to him and her sister, as she pulls out a scrapbook of clippings that she uses to guide him through a history of their family and times. Cutting between her vigil and her past, Spring tells the story of the end days of slavery, taking Edward from her youth through the years after the Emancipation Proclamation, as she finds a new life in a country fighting its way back from the Civil War.

Battle-Felton tells a tale of transition, with all the attendant difficulties for the country and her characters. As we learn why Tempe is so concerned with Edward’s fate, how Spring left the South and made her way north, and the fates of all the people around her, black and white, we travel from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. It is a long, difficult road, and while Tempe is the only actual ghost we meet, it is a world haunted by its recent past and an uncertain future.

The book’s depiction of life under slavery is told with prosaic events in the daily lives of its characters that take us from the abduction of a young free black girl into forced servitude, hidden far from her family, to the dissolution of the Confederacy and start of the northern migration of freed slaves that was to change the nation. The way is filled with the tragic ways that its characters survive, from blighting their master’s farm until he is sure it is cursed, to the subtle horror of suffocating any infant born in slavery. It is a land that bears no fruit, but the curse isn’t supernatural so much as vengeful. The story reminds us that there’s always a way for even the most oppressed to strike back, in subtle but effectively subversive ways that can’t be detected.

Spring is a simple, honest soul, and the telling of her tale is earnest and open in its language and progression. It’s revealed early on that Edward is really her late sister Tempe’s son, but discovering the circumstances of her life and death, the fate of the farm, and following Spring’s odyssey to Philadelphia to raise him as her own is what kept me reading.

Along the way I learned things about their era as they did, which included a reminder for me that The Emancipation Proclamation only freed the slaves in rebel states . . . I’d started listening to a New York Times podcast on the history of slavery, and it had begun with Lincoln’s plan to end the war by freeing slaves in the south to cripple their workforce. He had also included a plan to deport all freed blacks, regardless of their birthplace, here or abroad. Had that provision been kept, my life would be significantly different today. The Thirteenth Amendment followed soon after, but it was a grim reminder of how slowly slavery was released.

The complexities of the past, the legacies of our ancestors that bind us, all make great grist for the writer’s mill, even when handled in radically different ways, as in these two novels. We are haunted by everything that came before us, and if these two stories told me anything, it was the value of letting them all go, and making our own way forward.

Terence Taylor

Terence Taylor (terencetaylor.com) is an award-winning children’s television writer whose work has appeared on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney, among many others. After years of comforting tiny tots with TV, he turned to scaring their parents. His first published short story, “Plaything”, appeared in Dark Dreams, the first horror/suspense anthology of African-American authors. He was included in the next two volumes, and his short stories and non-fiction have appeared in Lightspeed and Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. Terence is also author of the first two novels of his Vampire Testaments trilogy, Bite Marks and Blood Pressure. He is currently writing the conclusion, Past Life. Follow him on Twitter @vamptestaments.