“I stepped inside the railroad car, and three dozen pairs of eyes peered my way.”
I almost didn’t read this book. Yes, it’s been on my mental to-read list since it came out last year. Yes, I checked it out from the library with the full intent of reading it. But when I picked it up and looked at it, I wasn’t fully convinced that it was the creepy Halloween read I was still seeking. I dithered. I dathered. Then I said “oh, what the hell, I’ll give it a try,” cracked it open, and read 200 pages in one sitting, because, ladies and gentlemen, Cat Winters‘ debut novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds (Harry N. Abrams, 2013) is just that deliciously good.
It’s 1918. World War I is raging overseas, and the Spanish Flu is killing, well, just about everyone. Following the arrest of her father for being a “traitor,” sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black is sent to San Diego to live with her widow Aunt. Once there she is forced to interact with the despised Julian, a spiritualist photographer who makes money off of people’s grief by photographing people with the “spirits” of their departed loved ones. Or so the scientifically minded and ever skeptical Mary Shelley thinks, until she is photographed with his brother, her first love and childhood best friend, shortly before they get the news that he was killed in the war. Shortly before his ghost starts appearing to her, spewing terrific diatribes of giant blackbirds who are holding him down and trying to kill him. He wants to get closer to Mary Shelley, to find safety in her, and she must figure out what he’s trying to tell her before it’s too late.
This book is, as stated before, positively delicious. Winters does a great job of plunging the reader into this nightmarish time; at one point when I was waiting in the doctor’s office I put the book down and started glaring at my fellow patients suspiciously for not wearing their gauze Flu masks before I realized it was not 1918 and, chances were, nobody there was going to infect me with a killer Flu.
I’ll also admit that it stimulated on one of my readerly fetishes, which is books having to do with World War I. Call me morbid, but I gobble up accounts of trenches and giant rats and mustard gas and oh my. It’s just so terrible, and I love reading every word. This was no exception.
As for the supernatural element, this story is legitimately creepy. There were several plot points that drew gasps from me, and the gradually creeping dread I felt as Stephen’s haunting escalated was visceral. And, hello! HELLA STEAMY GHOST SEX. Sorry to spoil that for you, but it was so hot. Oh my god.
Now, I will be real and admit that this book isn’t perfect. While I loved Mary Shelley as a plucky, somewhat eccentric heroine, her aunt was annoyingly shrill and characterization, as a whole, wasn’t the strongest. Winters’ writing, while solid, doesn’t have the kind of poetry that gives me the willies, but you know what? That’s fine, because she is a damn good storyteller, and sometimes that’s just as special as a chilling turn of phrase.
Final verdict: this book is a real gem. It has everything I wanted but didn’t even know it: a compelling mystery (with a REALLY satisfying ending), creeps, chills, World War I, plague, and ghost sex. Isn’t that what everyone wants?
For music, I chose Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” for all those sexy nighttime hauntings.
Where I got it: The library