In a Dark Season
Crouched on its ledge above the historic Drovers’ Road, the house at Gudger’s Stand has witnessed many a dark and bitter deed. When a new friend of Elizabeth Goodweather leaps from the upper story of the old building, Elizabeth and Phillip, already tangled in the problems of their own off-and-on relationship, are drawn into a web of long-kept family secrets. Brooding madness, mountain magic, and a tale of bewitchment and betrayal in a by-gone time all come together in the best Goodweather novel yet!
In a Dark Season is a Romantic Times nominee for Best Contemporary Suspense/Mystery of 2008 and an Anthony Nominee in 2009.
For Book Clubs
Vicki is happy to talk with book clubs who are discussing one of her books. Send her an email (firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to pre-arrange a phone call for your meeting time. If you live in the Asheville area and would like her to come to your meeting, she will do so if her schedule allows.
Caution! Contains spoilers! Don’t read until you’ve read the book!
Discussion Questions for In a Dark Season
- One reviewer said of In a Dark Season: “the mountain-speak is a questionable choice. For readers not from the area, the written interpretation of the accent might be interesting, but then again, whole chapters filled with ‘a-tall,’ ‘hit’ (for it), ‘yaller’ and phrases like, ‘I just have to hug yer neck’ smack of poking fun. Lane isn’t, and perhaps the decision to instill her characters with backwoods lingo was necessary for authenticity, but dialect conveyed through phonetics is always a tricky territory to navigate.” What‘s your opinion on the ‘mountain-speak’? Did it diminish or enhance your reading experience?
- What do you think about the relationship between Elizabeth and Phillip? Why did she turn down his proposal? Is Phillip’s reaction believable or is this an example of a woman writing a male character behaving as she would like him to rather than in a believable male fashion? Do you think women in general like to read about “ideal’ men? And what is ideal in a man anyway?
- How do you feel about the “woo-woo” bits in the book–the paranormal encounters with an alternate reality (Elizabeth’s meeting with James Suttles and later, when Elizabeth finds shelter in the little house near the river.)? Vicki thinks that if you try hard enough, you can construct a rational (if slightly far-fetched) explanation for these events if you choose not to go the paranormal route. Do you agree? Which would be your choice–rational explanation or woo-woo?
- In the first installment of Lydy’s story (Drovers’ Road I) the professor refers to Belle Caulwell as “Circe and John Keats’ merciless dame , the two subsumed into one.” (See Keats’ poem at end of questions) Why would the professor see a similarity to Keats’ poem? Check out the third paragraph of Drovers’ Road XIV for another similarity.
- (Optional hard one) Belle also has many similarities to Circe, the enchantress with whom wandering Ulysses/Odysseus dallied. (A reader who’s not familiar with the story of Circe isn’t missing anything major–this is just Vicki having fun and adding another layer to the story) If this sort of thing amuses you, look for similarities between Lydy’s story and that of Ulysses/Odysseus, beginning with Ulysses/Odysseus’s encounter with the king’s daughter who is washing clothes. There are also parallels to the Laestrygonians, the Lotos Eaters, Scylla and Charybdis, and of course, Circe. An English major’s delight! (Here’s an on-line short version of the Odyssey just in case you don’t remember how it goes.)
- So–what happened at the stand, that night back in 1859, according to the ballad Lydy had the Professor write? What’s Luellen’s story? Why didn’t Lydy insist on his innocence?
- In the present day of the novel, who are the various groups living in Marshall County ? What are their various interests and how do the groups conflict?
- Which of the minor characters are the most vivid to you? Why?
- About that ending. What do you think is going to happen between Elizabeth and Phillip? (Note from Vicki: When I wrote this I thought that my 2009 offering would be another Elizabeth Goodweather. But, as you may know, at my editor’s request, my Miss Birdie book came next–in, I’m sorry to say, 2010, as I was late getting done with it–or Miss Birdie getting done with me. We’ll have to wait till 2011 to find out what happens when Elizabeth finally hears that puzzling message from Aunt Dodie. Yikes! I will give you a hint, though, and say that there’s a pretty fair clue in Old Wounds. Somewhere.)
- I came across the following quote just a few weeks before Dark Season’s release, and realized that it must have been in the back of my mind when I wrote one of the scenes that takes place up on Max Patch. What scene do you suppose that was? Why could this quote be uses as an epigraph (quotation at the beginning of a book suggesting its theme) for Dark Season?
“For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground, yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.”
The Book of Job 14:7-9
La Belle Dame Sans Merci , 1819 by John Keats
Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—’La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Excerpts from In a Dark Season
from Chapter 1 ~ The Palimpsest
Friday, December 1
The madwoman whispered into the blue shadows of a wintry afternoon. Icy wind caught at her hair, loosing it to whip her cheeks and sting her half-closed eyes. Pushing aside the long black strands, she peered through the fragile railing of the upper porch. Below, the fieldstone walkway with its humped border of snow-hooded dark boxwoods curled about the house. Beyond the walkway the land sloped away, down to the railroad tracks and the gray river where icy foam spattered on black rocks and a perpetual roar filled the air.
Her hand clutching the flimsy balustrade, the madwoman began to pull herself to her feet, keeping her gaze fixed on the stony path far below. Behind her a door rattled on its rusty hinges and slammed, only to creak open again.
She paused, aware of the loom of the house around her–feeling it waiting, crouching there on its ledge above the swift-flowing river. The brown skeletons of the kudzu that draped the walls and chimneys rustled in a dry undertone, the once-lush vines diminished to delicate netting that meshed the peeling clapboards and spider-webbed the cracked and cloudy windowpanes. From every side, in small mutterings and rustlings, the old house spoke.
None escape. None.
As the verdict throbbed in her ears, marking time with the pulse of blood, the madwoman began to feel her cautious way along the uneven planks of the second-story porch. A loose board caught at her shoe and she staggered, putting out a thin hand to the wall where missing clapboards revealed a layer of brick-printed asphalt siding, the rough material curling back at an uncovered seam. Compelled by some urgent desire, she caught at the torn edge, tugging, peeling it from the wood beneath, ripping away the siding to expose the heart of the house–the original structure beneath the accretions of later years.
She splayed her trembling fingers against the massive chestnut logs and closed her eyes. A palimpsest, layer hiding layer, wrong concealing wrong. If I could tear you down, board by board, log by log, would I ever discover where the evil lies…or where it began? Resting her forehead against the wood’s immovable curve, she allowed the memories to fill her: the history of the house, the subtext of her life.
The logs have seen it all. Their story flowed into her, through her head and fingertips, as she leaned against them, breathing the dust-dry hint of fragrance. The men who felled the trees and built this house, the drovers who passed this way, the farmers, the travelers, the men who took their money, the women who lured them…and Belle, so much of Belle remains. Her dark spirit is in these logs, this house, this land. Why did I think that I and mine could escape?
No answer came, only the mocking parade of memories. The thrum of blood in her ears grew louder and the madwoman turned her back on the exposed logs of the house wall to move to the railing. Leaning out, oblivious to the cutting wind, she fixed her eyes on the stony path thirty feet below. Far enough? She hesitated, looking up and down the porch. A stack of plastic milk crates, filled with black-mottled shapes caught her eye.
Of course, there would be a way. The house will see to it. Belle will see to it.
Snatching up the topmost crate, she lifted it to the porch railing. Dried and mildew-speckled, the gourds tumbled down to shatter on the stones, scattering seeds over the path and frozen ground. The madwoman set the empty crate beside the balusters and slowly, painfully, pulled herself up to stand on its red grating-like surface. Then, holding to the nearest upright, she placed a tentative foot on the wide railing.
The words came to her, dredged from memory’s storehouse. As always, when her own thoughts faltered, one of the poets spoke for her, one of the many whose works she had loved and learned and taught.
Balanced on the railing, the madwoman hurled the words into the wind’s face.
“‘After great pain a formal feeling comes–’”
She broke off, unable at first to continue, then, gathering strength, she forced her lips to form the words, speaking the closing lines into the bitter afternoon.
First chill, then stupor, then
The letting go.’”
The house waited.
from Chapter 2 ~ Three Dolls
Friday, December 1
The three naked baby dolls, their pudgy bodies stained with age and weather, twisted and danced in the winter wind like a grisly chorus line. As the car negotiated the twisting road down to the river, Elizabeth Goodweather saw them once more. They had hung there as long as she could remember, dangling by their almost non-existent necks from the clothesline that sagged along the back porch of the old house called Gudger’s Stand.
The house lay below a curve so hairpin-sharp and a road so narrow that many travelers, intent on avoiding the deep ditch to one side and the sheer drop to the other, never noticed the house at all. It was easy to miss, seated as it was, in a tangle of saplings, weedy brush, and household garbage, perched well below the level of the pavement on a narrow bank that fell away to the river.
I wish I’d never noticed it. It wasn’t until the power company cleared some of those big trees that you could even see the house.
Her first sight of the house and the cruel row of hanged dolls had been on a fall day sixteen years back. It was Rosie’s first year in high school. Sam was still alive. He was driving and the girls were in the back seat…
The memory was sharp: the abrupt shock of the newly-cleared slope below the road; the sudden appearance of the hitherto-unseen house with its long porches front and back; the pathetic dolls and the hunched old man sitting in a chair beneath them, belaboring their rubber bodies with his lifted cane. And a woman just disappearing into the house; I only saw the tail of her skirt as she went through the door. The whole scene was bizarre–and unlike anything else I’d seen in Marshall County. I started to say something but then I couldn’t; it just seemed too awful–those helpless little baby dolls–I didn’t want the girls to see that old man hitting the dolls.
Ridiculous, of course. The very next time the girls had ridden their school buses, ghoulishly eager friends had pointed out the newly-visible house and the trio of dangling dolls. As they downed their after-school snacks, Rosemary and Laurel had discussed the display with cheerful eagerness.
“Shawn says it’s where old man Randall Revis lives–and that he’s had three wives and all of them have run off. So old man Revis named the dolls for his ex-wives and he whacks them with his walking-stick.”
Rosemary’s matter-of-fact explanation, punctuated by slurps of ramen noodles, was followed by her younger sister’s assertion that a girl on her bus had said the old man was a cannibal who lured children into his house and cut them up and put them in his big freezer.
“Like the witch in Hansel and Gretel! And every time he eats one, he hangs up another doll!” Laurel ‘s eyes had been wide but then she had smiled knowingly.
“That’s not true, is it, Mum? That girl was just trying to scare the little kids, wasn’t she?”
“That’s what it sounds like to me, Laurie.” Elizabeth had been quick to agree, adding a tentative explanation about a sick old man, not right in the head.
But really, the girls just took it in stride as one of those inexplicable things grownups do. I think they quit even seeing the house and the dolls. I wish I could have. For some reason I always have to look, and I’m always hoping that maybe the dolls or the cords holding them will have rotted and fallen away. Or that the kudzu will have finally covered the whole place. The old man’s been dead for years now; you’d think some one would have taken those dolls down.
Elizabeth shuddered and forced her thoughts back to the here and now. Sam was six years dead; the girls were grown; it was Phillip Hawkins at the wheel of her car on this particular winter afternoon. But still the hanging dolls seemed to hold some implicit warning.
“What’s the matter, Lizabeth?” Without taking his eyes from the road, Phillip reached out to tug at her long braid. One-handed, he steered the jeep down the corkscrew road and toward the bridge over the river at Gudger’s Stand. Snow plows had been out early and tarnished ridges of frozen white from the unseasonable storm of the previous night lined the road ahead.
She caught at his free hand, happy to be pulled from her uneasy reverie. “It’s just that old house–it always gives me the creeps.”
Phillip pulled into the deserted parking lot to the left of the road. For much of the year the flat area at the base of the bridge swarmed with kayakers, paddlers, and bus loads of customers for the various white-water rafting companies, but on this frigid day, it was deserted except for a pair of Canada geese, fluffed out against the cold.
“That one up there?” Phillip wheeled the jeep in a tight circle, bringing it to a stop facing away from the river and toward the house.
She nodded. “That one. It’s as near to being a haunted house as anything we have around here–folks tell all kinds of creepy stories about things that happened there in the past–and ten years ago the old man who lived there was murdered in his bed. They’ve never found out who did it.”
They sat in the still-running car, gazing up the snow-covered slope to the dilapidated and abandoned house. Low-lying clouds washed the scene in grim tones of pale gray and faded brown.
“What’s that?” Elizabeth leaned closer to the windshield, pointing to a dark shape that seemed to quiver behind the railings at the end of the upper porch. “Do you see it? There’s something moving up there!”
“Probably just something blowing in the wind.” Phillip followed her gaze. “One of those big black trash bags maybe-”
“No, I don’t think so.” Elizabeth frowned in an attempt to make sense of the dark form that had moved now to lean against the wall of the old house. “It’s a person. But what would anyone…I wish I could see-”
Phillip was already pulling out of the parking lot and toward the overgrown driveway that led up to the old house. And even as he said “Something’s not right here,” the angular shape moved toward the porch railing. There was a flash of red and a tangle of rounded objects fell to the ground.
“I think it’s a woman up there.” Elizabeth craned her head to get a better look at the figure high above them. “What’s she doing…climbing up on something or…?”
The question in her voice turned to horror. “Phillip! I think she’s going to jump!”…
The present day story of the old house is intertwined with the story of Lydy Goforth and the Drovers’ Road in 1860.
When first I seen Belle Caulwell she was standin in the midst of a great drive of hogs, her dark green skirts not swayed a lick as the flood of swine, all a-slaver at the smell of the corn wagons, parted and passed by to either side of her, like as a rushin creek will divide at a tall rock. She stood there not payin the brutes no mind a-tall and just a-starin at me, them dark eyes of hern like fire-coals burnin their way right into my breast.
The lanky youth fell silent. He laid one bony hand over his heart and stared up at the tiny patch of sky just visible through the high, barred window, his gaze as intent as if he could see the burning eyes watching him still.
The Professor shifted on the planks of his bunk, picked a bug from the ragged gray blanket that was the whole of his bedding, and cracked it against the wall where a scattering of red dots told the tally of his kills.
Circe, he pronounced, shaking his head. Circe and John Keats’ merciless dame , the two subsumed into one. He scratched at an odiferous armpit. Boy, I begin to see why it is you find yourself in such a dire predicament. But, like the blind singer Homer, you have initiated your narrative in media res. Perhaps you would indulge my curiosity and begin at the beginning. I take it that these mountains are your native heath?
The young man frowned and shook his head as if reluctantly returning from a happier world to the chill reality of the Marshall County jail. He shot a suspicious glance at his cell mate.
The Professor brushed at the sleeve of his black frock coat in a vain attempt to remove the dirt ground into it during the unfortunate events surrounding his arrest. His once-white shirt was adorned by the tattered remnants of a dark blue cravat–the garments of a man with some pretensions to gentility. With a soft exhalation, he settled himself more comfortably on the narrow bunk, his head cocked expectantly, awaiting an answer to his question.
The young man, whose blue-checked shirt and rough jeans trousers, though far from clean, looked to be new, lowered himself to the uneven bricks of the floor, casting a last, longing glance at the little window before replying.
Well, I see why it is they call you the Professor–all them fine words just a-spewin out yore mouth. Now I don’t know nare singer called Homer, nor do I understand the half of yore fancy talk. But I reckon you kin tell me first who it is you are and how come you to be here afore I unburden myself to you. Hit’ll do to while away the time till that old jury kin come to an agreement. And my name hain’t Boy, hit’s Lydy Goforth.
The Professor rose and made a little bow in the direction of his companion. My most humble apologies, Mr. Goforth. Allow me to introduce myself–Thomas Walter Blake, the second of that name, native of Charleston , South Carolina , late of Harvard University , and completely at your service. In view of our enforced intimacy, may I suggest that we dispense with formalities hereafter. If it meets with your approval, I shall call you Lydy and I beg that you will make use of my own praenomen, my familiar appellation, my given name…in short, please call me Tom.
Lydy’s eyes narrowed. Reckon I’ll stick with Professor, iffen you don’t keer. Hit don’t seem fitten fer a body with so many big words in his craw to be called by a name any common he-cat might carry.
The Professor shrugged and sank back to his bunk. As you will, my young friend, as you will. He leaned back and, crossing one black-trousered leg over the other, assumed the air of a gentleman at his club, about to embark on a leisurely narrative.
You may ask how it is that I, scion of a distinguished Charlestonian family and graduate of Harvard University, how it is that I find myself in this verminous cell, in this backwater of civilization-
Shitfire, Professor! Lydy broke into the flow of words. Be damned iffen I know what it is you’re talking about. What I asked is how come you to be in jail?
Aah. You prefer a concise account. Very well. It appears that I am being held for carnal knowledge of a minor. The professor straightened his cravat. Or breach of promise. The father of the damsel in question has not yet made up his applejack- befuddled mind.
Lydy dragged the rough homespun of his shirt sleeve across his eyes. Law, Professor, looks like hit’s the love of woman what’s overthrowed the both of us…