It's the weekend before Halloween. There is a chill in the air, the smell of harvest hangs sweet and heavy around you as crisp brown leaves crackle beneath your feet. Icy wind that could just as easily be a symptom of the waning fall or the breath of a risen corpse shivers down your neck. You bundle your coat closer against you, avoiding looking too deeply into the shadows that creep along the edges of your vision. There is a slow, steady pounding in the distance. Faint at first it grows closer, closer... Is it the hooves of those Horseman's faithful steed as he rides? Or is it simply the echo of your own beating heart thumping from within your chest?
Few things say Halloween to me like my annual weekend visit to Tarrytown, NY and the Village of Sleepy Hollow (yes, it's a real place, the town having adopted the name of Irving's tale in 1996)--the sleepy, dewy little town in New York which plays home to Washington Irving's classic ghostly tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Who doesn't love a headless horseman?
The entire village comes alive in October, helmed mostly by Historic Hudson Valley, a "not-for-profit education organization that interprets and promotes historic landmarks of national significance in the Hudson Valley for the benefit and enjoyment of the public." From hay rides and village parades, to visiting both the birth and resting place of author Washington Irving and more in the Old Dutch Cemetery, there is something to set every Halloween enthusiast's spirits in the mood for the High Holiday in October in Sleepy Hollow.
My two favorite events of the season are the live performances of Irving's class tale, told by silver-tongued storyteller, Jonathan Kruk, and the Great Jack-o-Lantern Blaze.
A Masterful Story Told by a Masterful Storyteller
Few things are as delightful as being regaled with a story by someone who knows how to weave a good tale. From the tips of his buckled shoes to that of his tricorn hat, Jonathan Kruk deliver Irving's classic tale in a way that might have sent a chill down Irving's spine himself.
No matter how many times I see Kruk perform, I am always spell-bound as I listen to his stories, told with such passion that each rendition is a new and delightful experience. Kruk's clever quirks--including a light bit of humor with the aid of organ player Tim Keys--change a simple recitation into an experience, and combined with the setting of the Old Dutch Church itself one might find themselves transported back into a simpler time when the snipe nose of Ichabod Crane helped to predict the wind as it blew through the cemetery grounds outside, warning of nightfall and the Horseman's annual ride through the sleepy town.
Aside from being a masterful storyteller, Kruk is also an all around nice guy whom I've had the pleasure of watching perform not only Irving's tale, but Dickens', and fairytales in Spring at Beltane. Not only a talented storyteller by voice, he can always spin a yarn in pen! I just picked up his book this year on my trip to Tarrytown. He doesn't know yet, but I'll be asking for a signature when I return to hear him perform Dicken's classic Christmas tale in December.
The Great Jack-o-Lantern Blaze
Every fall, Van Cortlandt Manor is transformed into a glowing beacon of unearthly orange light, lit by thousands of grinning pumpkins that make Ray Bradbury's halloween tree look like a candle flame set next to the sun. Thousands of hand-carved pumpkins lit by thousands of hand-lit votives crawl the expanse of this historic home, fashioned into everything from lanterns to carousels, to a giant spiderweb and the Headless Horseman himself--throwing a flaming pumpkin no less.
This year I had the pleasure of meeting Cheryl Bernstein, one half of the two-person team that first introduced the Blaze to Hudson Valley fourteen years ago. Ms. Bernstein, a delightful woman who chatted with me for more time than I rightfully should have asked for, is the production coordinator for the Blaze, and the woman who singlehandedly carved an entire installation of funkins (as the festival makes use of both) with a Celtic Knot display. I should also mention that while Ms. Bernstein is clearly young at heart, she is no mere sprig of a girl, which makes her ability to hand-carve several dozen intricate knots ever the more impressive.
This year, according to Ms. Bernstein, the Blaze boasts 10k live pumpkins, lit by 50k votives. Twenty-five paid scoopers arrive at the site daily to scoop fresh pumpkins, a fraction of the total 2700 volunteers who participate each year in carving and lighting. Putting an event of this magnitude on is no small feat, and if you have the chance to visit I strongly encourage you to do so. My favorite of this year's new features was the carousel, crafted by one of the members of the original carouseling family. It actually spins.
Plus, there's apple cider donuts and hot cider (and things stronger) to keep you wander as you stroll through the lights. Just...like on Halloween night itself, stay close and don't go beyond the edges of the light. You never know what is lurking in the dark in Sleepy Hollow.
I often look to history for inspiration, not only when writing historical fiction but anytime I am thinking about the times, places, and people who have driven stories, good and bad, through time. There is a wealth of information and inspiration that can be learned from the past, as well as some hard lessons and sad truths in how much damage can be done when we close our minds and hearts to people and allow our biases and judgements to run away with us. It is a bittersweet story, but a powerful example of the best and worse of the human condition.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of spending some time in Salem, MA, exploring historical sites and digging into the history of the town with one of the area's historians, and the owner of Bewitched After Dark, Jeff, who led me through town, providing a candid history of the accused and their accusers and sharing little-known history not found in any textbook. I visited off-season, so the streets were uncrowded and the landmarks accessible. As it also happened to be the anniversary of the House of Seven Gables, I was even able to snap some rarely seen interior photos of the historic home!
I've included some of my shots below to guide you through a brief but inclusive photo tour of Salem and some of the surrounding areas. It's a wonderful, spirited place brimming with history, magic, triumphs and tears--from the Old Witch Gaol and Burying Point, to the home that inspired a literary classic, to the final resting place of several authors who have shaped American literary history. Enjoy!
Wow! My head is still spinning from last week's release of The Isle of Gold. What an incredible debut release. I am so grateful for all of the support and excitement over the launch of this adventurous, empowering fantasy, and I finally get to answer one question that I've been asked over and over again: yes there is a sequel coming!
In fact, The Isle of Gold is the first installment of the Daughters Jones Trilogy! Look for the next installment in 2019, and definitely stay subscribed for updates.
Every book needs a great soundtrack, and if you're just settling down with Merrin and crew, I'd love to invite you to listen to this one on Spotify, created by reader Samantha Walker. Thanks, Samantha! You've done an incredible job--this soundtrack is superb!
Do you NaNoWriMo? I'm trying it for the first time this year, using the time to write a novella that I am very excited to tell you about soon! If you're writing, I'd love to support each other. I can't figure out how to send a writing buddy link, but I'm writing as @sevenjanewrites!
Today is the day! The Riptide has hoisted up her anchor and is moving out into the horizon, and I am so excited for everyone to meet Merrin, Winters, Tom Birch, Jomo, Dunn, and the rest of the crew. Oh, and Evangeline. It wouldn't be a story without her.
I have a funny habit of "casting" out my characters as I write them. I find it helps me get into their heads if I can visualize them. Luckily, I've been able to work with the fabulous Lindee Robinson of Lindee Robinson Photography and some very incredible models to bring the Riptide's crew to life. Meet the crew below...and be sure to scroll to the bottom for some behind-the-scenes secrets of this ragtag crew!
There are some missing faces from this line up, but as the Daughters Jones trilogy continues, so will the casting! All of these characters mean so much to me, and I have been so fortunate not only to find faces to represent the Crew, but to make some wonderful new friends along the way. Katlin, Evan, Angel, and Andrew, and of course Lindee, are all incredible artisans and genuinely lovely people, and I am honored that they have joined this adventure!
One other thing I just can't help but mention, is that (if you didn't notice on IG!) Katlin and Evan, our Merrin and Winters, are actually a real life couple! It's a little odd to see Merrin and Winters all cuddled up together, but these two are simply such an incredible couple that I can't help but spread the love.
It's finally October! That means it's time to sit down and let your darker thoughts run away with you, enjoying the thrill of being scared and the relief in being alive. Pull out your favorite spooky classic--maybe Stephen King's The Shining or Bram Stoker's Dracula, something by Ray Bradbury--or perhaps sit down with your favorite horror movie.
I'm a hesitant horror film fan. For the most part, I tend not to like big budget Hollywood horror movies. I don't enjoy gore, and I'm not a fan of jump scares. Instead, in movies I prefer, as I do in books, slow-burning terror that creeps up on you and grabs you from behind...then stays with you for days afterward, picking away at your inner thoughts like a vulture pecking through its dinner.
This year I'd like to share some of my favorite horror films with you. Many of these are available on streaming services and I promise, they'll all give you a good scare!
A note before the films. When I started cataloging these favorites, I simply brainstormed my top picks and listed them out, thinking they were just good movies but assuming there was no rhyme or reason behind why I chose them. Upon having written this blog, I see that I was very wrong. There is a theme that ties these films together, and it boils down to what I personally find most haunting in my own life--my fears and insecurities as a woman in this society, as a wife, and as a mother. To me, those things are more terrifying than any bogeyman ever could be.
Jennifer Kent’s phenomenally scary Australian chiller The Babadook has quickly become one of my favorite new horror films. Without giving too much away, let me tell you why.
Because it's not a horror story about a monster. It's a story about a mother.
The film centers on a widowed mother, her fragile and somewhat disturbed seven-year-old son, and a twisted bedtime story—a black-and-white figure that arrives in the thumping presence of a black-and-white pop-up book, Mister Babadook (which itself is a word puzzle, Babadook being a jumble of A Bad Book). The monster itself isn't all too scary. In fact, he's rather generic. He's more or less a thing of shadows dressed in a black undertaker’s coat and a top hat, with a pasty face and elongated fingers. But, once the Babadook comes, you can't get rid of him. In fact, denying him only makes him stronger. Like an impulse or a craving you just can't quit.
The Babadook isn't a monster, though, at least not in the traditional sense. He's a manifestation of grief. Specifically, a mother's grief. Amelia is dealing with the sudden, tragic death of her husband and a son who she, at least subconsciously, blames for his death (the incident that took her husband's life happened en route to the hospital to give birth). The Babadook, then, is Amelia's psyche in crisis, her son's fragile state a result of her careless mothering, and the more she tries to deny her pain, the stronger and more violent it becomes. Her world is getting smaller and more isolated every day, and her unwilling role as mother is eating her alive. It bangs around in her chest, and the drumming of her heart is the ba-ba-dook.
This film is not splashy. It'a actually rather rough around the edges and somewhat droll. But it's real. The best horror movies aren't demons from hell or monsters that lurk in the dark, it's our very own inner darkness, and what we'll do when they come for us.
Hush is a simple, intimate film--a silent thriller you might say, and you'd be totally accurate.
The film is not ambitious, and there are zero frills, but the concept is novel and chilling. It centers on a woman home alone in her writing retreat of a wooded cabin, and a masked home invader. The gimmick is that she's deaf and mute--she can't hear her assailer, nor can she call out for help. His motives and identity are secretive, but unimportant. At first, it's the more or less the banal type of cat-and-mouse scenario you'd expect. There's some spooky glimpses of a masked man out of a window, and the appropriate amount of vulnerability and silly mistakes one might make in a moment of panic.
Until it isn't. What makes this film compelling is that Maggie, the deaf-mute victim, doesn't run away hiding and hoping she can escape, at least not for long. She fights back. She fights like hell. She turns the tables, until she's no longer the hunted, but the hunter. Ultimately it's the villain that's leaves the audience wanting here, and we're rooting for the victim in a totally new way, because, well, she may be weak and pitted against a much stronger foe, but she is no victim.
A thrilling movie, yes. But more than that Hush is mirror for every woman in society. It provides a lens to see our perceived weaknesses, and shows us exactly what might happen if we give in to fear and doubt--and that's scary as hell. But, like a mirror, it's an opportunity for clarity, and a chance to see beyond our superficial reflection and into what's waiting inside of us.
A movie about the deterioration of marital bliss, Honeymoon is a shoestring budget horror film that's less horrifying and more shivery, but still effectively chilling.
The film centers on lusty newlywed couple Paul and Bea who honeymoon at Bea's family cabin that edges against an idyllic lake. Early on Paul and Bea exhibit the classic, if not very compelling, young couple bliss. It's not deep because it doesn't need to be--just two people in love doing what young kids in love do. Before long, something shifts in their relationship and things begin to deteriorate, although it's somewhat impossible to say what changed, why, or what's changing. It carries the feeling that you might get when your SO is upset with you....and you're not sure what you did, and they're not telling. Ugh.
Classic relationship problems arise--the kind that happen after the figurative honeymoon period wears off. Jealousy. Loss of sexual appetite. In a vein similar to storylines a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Bea undergoes a series of bizarre and unexplainable changes--naked sleepwalking, memory loss, and other unoriginal but nonetheless creepy changes. What is tropey in classic sci-fi horror films becomes tangible in this gritty, home-camera plot line. It never becomes clear why Bea has been targeted, or what exactly has taken over her, but is has Paul knocking on every closed door to try to sort it out, yielding zero answers and some silly albeit expected events along the way.
Critics fuss the flaws in the film, namely that Paul takes too long to flee the isolated area, that he gives Bea the opportunity to hide his keys, and so on and so forth. Frankly, our male victim gets criticized for doing all the things that women victims always do in horror films, flail about in totally unbelievable ways that if they didn't do there would be no scary story. Ultimately, the swamp or alien or Bea or whatever she now is wins...though things get a little fishy in the end (pun intended!).
It's hard to put my finger on exactly what I liked so much about this film. I think it lies in my interpretation of the events, and perspective that may be a little deeper than anyone intended. I see Bea not as a hapless honeymoon honey, but as an undeniable element of the natural world reclaimed by nature. The allegory between women in nature is solid, and Bea's return to the wild, so to speak, could explain her bizarre behavior and departure from what is "expected" of her as a bride, as a woman, as a civilized person. Meanwhile, Paul makes for a suitable tables-turned trope so he can bumble about for a while, still displaying his manly chivalry as he tries to save his bride, rather than let her be reclaimed. He's society, masculinity, civilized order all in one.
It's also really nice to see women as powerful creatures win once in a while. Sorry, Paul.
I will admit a shameful secret here: I often don't like film adaptions of Stephen King stories. There are several exceptions, and there are several examples. But I really enjoyed Netflix's version of Gerald's Game. (I'm also a huge Carla Gugino fan, but I promise I didn't let that bias me.)
On the surface, Gerald's Game is a sex-gone-wrong scenario between a woman with a bit of a troubled past and a husband who...is an unfortunate prototype of the rationale that victims gravitate to spouses similar to their abusers. Desperate to rekindle the dying flame of their sexless marriage, Jessie, and her husband, Gerald, vacation to a remote lakeside house for essentially what equates to a sex-capade. His (pitiful) attempt at a rape fantasy--wherein Maggie is tied to the bed, because "rape fantasy"--quickly sours. An argument ensues and Gerald drops dead, leaving Maggie bound and trapped....and with zero on help on the horizon.
Basically left for dead, Jessie has to find a way to free herself, or end up joining Gerald. Along the way, her trauma and dehydration manifest as madness, and Jessie relives a childhood not-so-fantasy involving her father, which intertwines interestingly (and disturbingly) with what is happening to adult-Jessie in the bedroom. At one point she even sees a man lurking in the room, but we're left to assume he's a figment of Jessie's insanity, and not a real person. He is made of moonlight, after all.
If Jessie is to survive her situation, and overcome her madness, she'll have to both literally free herself of the handcuffs--something which terminates in a powerful albeit bloody moment--and shed the binds of her past in the process. It's an incredible moment of empowerment and resolve both figuratively and literally. A psychological thriller, this is really a survival story in every sense of the word.
There is, as in all King stories, a moment when this one becomes all too real. I didn't initially like this twist, as it seemed to water down what Jessie accomplished. But, upon reflection I came to realize the twist may have been the most empowering part of this creepy tale. That figment moonlight man? Not a figment. A criminal and a necrophiliac, we later discover that this disfigured man-creature was really in Jessie's bedroom. She may have been his next victim, but because she speaks to him and gives him her wedding ring (a symbolic shedding of her not-so literal handcuffs), he leaves. Later, Jessie is able to exert her newfound freedom and power--from her husband, her past, and herself--and use it to protect others from this new aggressor.
Before I Wake
I have been wanting to watch Before I Wake for a while, but we had been saving it until October, when my husband and I glut ourselves on scary movies.
It was worth waiting for. I'm still not over it. Not because it scared me, but because it horrified me.
Another in Netflix's horror canon, Before I Wake provides a perfect bookend for the movies in this list as it also centers around a grieving mother and her child, or children you might say. This film encapsulates the worst fears of both parents and children, following simultaneously both a pair of foster parents trying to move on after the tragic loss of their own son and a young orphan seeking a home and struggling to let go the loss of his own mother to illness. There's an interesting pivot here hidden in the exposition as the parents prepare for the arrival of the foster child--Cody--that show what parents do to protect their children may make them seemed conspiratorial and secretive, possibly even sinister. Good intentions, right?
The gimmick in this tale is unique, even with many scary-stuff-while-you-sleep stories circling the ether. While Cody sleeps, his dreams manifest in reality, as do his nightmares. This supernatural power is dangerous in more than one way--even the "beautiful" dreams are just as deadly as the all-too-real nightmares. For example, while the grieving parents are able to see and interact with a strange, surreal version of their dead son, this only feeds the growing wedge between the pair and exploits the mother, Jessie's, unyielding grief, pitting her in an antihero role as the mother--a saving grace--and a woman on the edge of losing it, who abusively tries to harness Cody's "gift," including things like drugging him to sleep so she can stare at the hologram-like image of her lost son. It's relatable, even if we don't want to admit it. Who wouldn't go to extremes to see their lost loved ones again? I am not sure any of us could see through that temptation clearly.
Of course, there's a monster. Cody's nightmares manifest as a ghoulish creature he calls the Canker Man, and the Canker Man is very real--if he eats you, you disappear although it's unclear whether you actually die or not. Dramatic tension grows as Jessie tries to get to the bottom of this mystery, and save Cody--her new son--along with whatever is eating him inside his dreams.
There's a twist here, and one I fear I will give away if I narrate further on the plot of this story, so I'll end here on this note: sometimes it's not our dreams that are the most beautiful, but our nightmares.