If your glance at October on the calendar suggests it’s time to pick up an eerie thriller, you’ll want to give serious consideration to Laura Benedict’s new gothic tale CHARLOTTE’S STORY. It’s the second book in a series of standalone gothic novels that began with Bliss House.
The tales focus on a haunted Virginia house, and what better excursion can you ask for in Halloween month?
This tale unfolds in 1957. Charlotte and Preston Bliss have just inherited Bliss House from Press’s mother, Olivia. Bliss is not on the agenda, however. Four deaths follow, deaths that seem to have rational explanations.
It’s soon clear Charlotte will have to pursue a dark truth, and readers come to understand that Bliss House promises its residents what they want but delivers more than they expect.
Laura, author of several more supernatural suspense novels, including Devil’s Oven, a modern Frankenstein tale, recently answered a few questions for the The Big Thrill about her work and the haunted house genre.
What spurred the idea for CHARLOTTE’S STORY, a prequel to your recent Bliss House? Was a book set earlier planned all along, or did an idea just arise that wouldn’t stop haunting you, so to speak?
I see what you did there! Writing a gothic haunted house novel has been on my to-write list for years because I love the genre. Before I even wrote one word of Bliss House, I knew I wanted it to be a series. It’s a house that’s filled with stories, yet in every one the house is the primary, and most critical, character. My challenge was to determine which stories were compelling. I wanted the origins of Bliss House to be revealed slowly, and the only way to do that was to work backwards in time, and it has been a real challenge to try to figure out how much to reveal with each book. As for CHARLOTTE’S STORY, I’ve always wanted to write a gothic with the feel of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca—a sense of a woman’s deep emotional isolation and the overwhelming sense that something from the past is messing with her present.
Readers familiar with Bliss House may recognize Charlotte as the mother of Randolph Bliss, who is a prominent character in Bliss House. She gets small mention, but it was she who eventually sold Bliss House out of the family—and for very good reason. CHARLOTTE’S STORY is the story of how she comes to grips with being part of the Bliss family and living in Bliss House. Her first test is the death of her adored four-year-old daughter, Eva, so it’s a pretty tough journey.
Did working with the earlier era afford any additional opportunities for you as a storyteller? Was there anything about an era we think of as a simpler time that afforded additional eeriness or atmosphere?
Charlotte’s Story is set in 1957, less than a decade before I was born. The fact that we think of it as a time with very clearly defined social and family roles for men, women, and children perhaps affects readers’ expectations. Of course, each generation imagines that previous generations had a simpler time of it—but whenever I think of how different life is just from the changes in dentistry, refrigeration, and air conditioning in the past 60 years, I don’t envy anyone from the past. I absolutely agree that each era has a kind of mysterious atmosphere around it. Perhaps because the eras before we’re born are forever alien to us. I suspect that the 1950s don’t seem as unfamiliar to me as they might to a thirty-year-old reader, and I hope that my impressions can be a kind of bridge: steeping readers in the atmosphere, but showing them clear similarities as well.
How did you go about researching your characters from the fifties? What helped you get into the minds of people living in that era? It’s not that long ago, yet it seems to be quite different from today. Does the past shine a light on the present?
I’ve always been a huge fan of pre-1960s films, and have an appalling number of lyrics from period musicals in my head. Charlotte herself is a classic Hitchcock blond. Pinterest has been an invaluable resource for static images of clothing, cars, books, architecture and advertising. The reader only sees a fraction of these things in the story, but they were there in my head as I wrote. If I’d put in all that I wanted to, it would’ve slowed the story down too much.
My mother-in-law and her friends from college were just four or five years younger than Charlotte, and their lives are terrific models for what it was like for women—especially well-educated women—to come of age in that period. I read several books written in that decade that helped me a great deal: Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial (a delightfully strange book) and The Haunting of Hill House, William March’s The Bad Seed, Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley.
I think it doesn’t feel like it was so long ago, but the changes in technology and social issues have put us light years away from the 1950s. The things that haven’t changed though are our individual desires to be treasured by others and to care for one another, the need for personal fulfillment—a general recognition that we matter in the world. That stuff never changes.
You may have answered this before, but is Bliss House based on or inspired by any real Virginia houses? Do old houses or locations stimulate your imagination?
One of my favorite things to do when I was a child was to take walks at night and catch glimpses of the insides of people’s houses (from the sidewalk—I promise I wasn’t a peeping Thomasina) and wonder about their lives. Now, few people take walks at night. When I travel, the first things on my list are local historic houses. I probably should’ve been an architect or an architecture historian. Jefferson’s Monticello is my very favorite house in Virginia. And Lewisburg, West Virginia, where my husband is from, has some truly lovely grand old houses. I first started thinking about Bliss House soon after I toured the famously haunted Winchester House in California, and anyone who has visited the storied Whaley House Museum in San Diego will know exactly why there is a theater in Bliss House.
Why is the South such a great gestation place for ghost stories and gothic tales? Does your dual citizenship in hometowns Cincinnati and Louisville give you a unique perspective on the Southern gothic world?
The families of the South, particularly small town families, have had a long tolerance for the strange and surreal. And the South as an entity often feels shameful to people—residents and outsiders, alike—because of its troubled past. Something to be afraid of and to be held at arms’ length. We see monsters in the things we fear. The very concept of the South is the provenance of ghosts. But even before Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams in the South, there was Nathaniel Hawthorne, H. P. Lovecraft, and Poe from up north. (Poe was from Boston, originally) Joyce Carol Oates, from upstate New York, has written some of my favorite gothic stories. So while the gothic is universal, there’s very fertile ground for it in the South.
The Ohio River is a strange divider in my life. Though Kentucky was a border state, it has very southern sensibilities. The difference has always seemed very stark to me, and when I moved to Kentucky as a child I had a lot of many very wrong, pre-conceived notions. I think I’m primarily drawn to the gothic because I’m a romantic fantasist at heart, and spend a lot of time thinking about things that never were and probably never could be. Also, I spend a lot of time terrified of many things. The fear in my stories is always real to me, first.
You list Poe and Agatha Christie among your influences. Both have mystery and gothic bonafides. Why are the mystery genre and the Old Dark House tale such good fits?
Secrets thrive in darkness. Poe was very good at describing the effects of secrets on the secret-keeper, and Christie was the master of stories about ferreting secrets out. But it’s the darkness that they have in common, and, without getting all Freudian, the classic Old Dark House is essentially the self. When we dream about a house, and explore the rooms, we’re supposedly exploring our own minds. Think of how unsettling it is to dream about a house—nothing is ever exactly the way it’s supposed to be, and there are always rooms that we didn’t know were there. The best stories transport us into a kind of dream state, and we’re always a little afraid to know what’s around the corner when we’re in that Old Dark House.
Is a mystery an essential at the heart of a good ghost story?
I believe mystery is critical to every successful story—not just to mystery, crime, and horror stories. I recently finished reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, a book that could in no way be called a mystery novel. But every chapter, every paragraph gives the reader the sense that Strout is leading us to some new discovery. And we must, must know what she’s going to reveal. The stories together to explore the mystery of who Olive Kitteridge is, and who the people around her are. In a truly good book, it doesn’t matter that the mystery turns out to be quite ordinary—or that the mystery is unsolvable. It’s the experience of exploring that teaches and entertains.
Death and what happens after it has been, I suspect, the central mystery of human life ever since the second human saw the first human stop breathing. Mystery is at the heart of every religion. It’s the unknowable. The ghost story gives us a kind of an answer. A glimpse that we can almost understand.
You mention on your website that no one can live in the darkness all the time. Did you ever find yourself so immersed in the gothic world of Bliss House while writing that you had to step away and let the shadows fade back a little?
I am such a scaredy-cat! While I usually draft stories in the daylight, I tend to edit, hard, in great chunks of the nighttime, after the husband and dogs have gone to bed. The cats and I are the only ones awake. There are the sounds of coyotes and owls outside my windows, and the cats always seem to be stalking or playing with things I can’t see. It’s in the second draft of a story where I work to amp up the suspense—the really scary parts. I recently finished writing a stand-alone Bliss House short story, called Cold Alone. I confess that I stood up from my computer at two in the morning to check the locks on the doors and close the curtains because I had a strong sense that I was in danger. But it was all in my head. My head can be a pretty frightening place when I’m alone with it.
In pop culture, we’ve almost seen a gothic rebound in recent years after a lot of mayhem and torture in the early aughts. Do you think we’ve moved a bit away from shocks and back to the fears that allow our imaginations to play a bit?
My feeling is that the playing field has gotten bigger and the bench has gotten deeper with the advent of independent publishing. On any given day, you’re liable to see the same two or three names you’ve been seeing for years taking up a big share of the top ten horror novel lists, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a huge variety of stories and writers that are selling reasonably well. And a lot of readers also watch a lot of television. Many of those earlier mayhem and torture writers have moved on to write some pretty brilliant television, so that zombies and monsters have become network fare. The ones that endure are sophisticated in their storytelling so that even viewers who say they don’t like horror will watch shows like Wayward Pines and American Horror Story and The Strain. Also, as readers get older, their tastes change and mature. They’re looking for more. Stephen King’s work has become much more literarily sophisticated over the years and he as brought his readers right along with him.
Gothic storytelling has always had an edge of violence to it, but often a very quiet, subversive kind of violence. Sexual elements as well. Gothic is a broad category, which is tricky. A few readers have picked up my books thinking that they are gothic romances, rather than gothic horror, and find themselves rather shocked. I always encourage readers to check out reviews before they buy.
How far do you see the Bliss House series going? Are there many more tales to tell in this world?
Bliss House and CHARLOTTE’S STORY are the first two novels, and the third, The Abandoned Heart, will be out sometime in 2016. Cold Alone: A Bliss House Story is the first of what I hope will be several short stories in that world. I do have notes for two more novels, so you never know.
Anything else you’d like to add about CHARLOTTE’S STORY?
All of the Bliss House novels are written as stand-alone books, and can be read in any order. CHARLOTTE’S STORY is a good place to start. And while the story is told in first person by a woman, it is not a book written just for women. It’s a book of dark suspense with, of course, a mystery at its heart. So I say, leave the lights on and the curtains drawn, pour yourself a martini, a champagne cocktail, or even some hot cider (it’s the perfect season for it), settle in, and get ready for a dark journey through a hell of a house.
In addition to the novels mentioned above, Laura’s work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, PANK, and numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads. She currently lives with her family in the southern wilds of a Midwestern state.
Laura Benedict’s latest novel is CHARLOTTE’S STORY, the second book in the Bliss House series of standalone gothic novels about a haunted Virginia house. BLISS HOUSE was praised as “Eerie, seductive, and suspenseful,” by Edgar award-winning author, Meg Gardiner. Laura is also the author of several more supernatural suspense novels, including DEVIL’S OVEN, a modern Frankenstein tale, and ISABELLA MOON. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, PANK, and numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads. She currently lives with her family in the southern wilds of a Midwestern state.
Visit Laura on Twitter (@laurabenedict) and her website to learn more about her and her work.