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The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

The Winter People is the newest release from Jennifer McMahon.  I think I've read one of her previous novels, but it wasn't reviewed here on the blog, and I don't remember which one it was.  This is one of those books of spooky strangeness in which you're not really sure what is happening in some parts of the book because the narrator isn't really sure what is happening.  I'll admit that things sure looked like they were going one way when instead they ended up a different way that was far worse.  Basically cold blooded vengeance visited upon a family by a person who helped raise the family's children pretty much spawned the events that happened in the present.  It was sad because the person took it out on the children--children who had no control over what the adults in the situation were doing.

Strange things happen in tiny West Hall, Vermont.  People die strange, gruesome deaths.  People vanish into thin air.  Livestock is murdered.  And the woods out by Devil's Hand are creepy, like mega creepy.  The surrounding mind bending forest hides a twisted evil that's the source of all the strange gruesomeness visited upon the town.  And it all dates back a hundred years or more to 1908.

In 1908, weeks after the mysterious death of her only daughter, Gertie, Sara Harrison Shea is gruesomely and brutally murdered.  In the weeks and years that follow, her relatives and the townsfolk are visited by death and tragedy one after the other.  Legend says that the spirit of Sara or someone dressed like her was seen visiting the deceased immediately preceding their deaths.  These mysterious deaths and disappearances continue for decades.

In present day West Hall, Ruthie's mother vanishes on New Year's day, leaving behind two daughters and no trace of where she might have gone or if she plans to return.  Ruthie's mother insists on living a life well off the grid and under the radar on the former Harrison Shea farm near the woods that surround the Devil's Hand.  Thus, Ruthie feels she cannot turn to the authorities in the wake of her mother's disappearance. Unbeknownst to Ruthie, the farm she now calls home was, in a previous life, the site of a heart rending tragedy that spawned some seriously twisted after shocks.

While searching for clues to her mother's whereabouts, Ruthie finds the published diary of Sara Harrison Shea as well as wallets belonging to a mysterious couple.  Unfortunately, Ruthie's bumbling search leads her to an unhinged woman named Candace with family ties to the Harrisons, and Candace is a woman who'll stop at nothing to regain custody of her son.

Katharine, a grieving mother and widow, comes to West Hall searching for answers: why did her husband, Gary, spend the day here the day he died?  Why did he lie about his plans that day?  And what happened to the camera bag he carried that day?  Katharine runs across a copy of Sara's published diary among Gary's things, and it leads her to Ruthie's mother and the Harrison Shea farm.  Little does Katharine know she's on a collision course with Ruthie and Candace.  All three women are searching for answers, and once their searches converge, it will lead all three into the the dark woods one cold night to a cave hidden under the Devil's Hand.

The story is told alternating between the present day events that also alternate perspectives between Ruthie and Katharine, and the events of 1908 told from both Sara's perspective and her husband, Martin.  Both parts are spooky, mysterious and terrifying.  But the truth of what happened that long ago winter is not what it seems and is far darker than anyone can imagine.  The effects of cold blooded vengeance have borne blood and death for the hundred years that followed.  This is the story of a town living unwittingly in the shadow of an unnatural danger and the family bound to a farm, determined to live as a buffer between the darkness that stalks the woods and the outside world.

This supernatural mystery is by turns spooky, terrifying, perplexing, suspenseful, twisted, and atmospheric.  Billed as a ghost story, and there are subtle elements of a ghost story, however, once the reader reaches the end of the story, it has morphed into something akin to the zombie genre with a twist.  While the ending isn't necessarily bleak--the events end up bringing Ruthie closer to her family despite the exposure of a long held family secret--but neither is it tied up too neatly.  There are a couple loose ends--just enough to wonder what the hell one character was thinking (not clearly apparently) and what the consequences of those ill thought out actions might be.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

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