Once again I’ve gotten sucked into a book that, had I known what I was getting into, I never would have read. Nevertheless, I found myself riveted by its offbeat, Weird-Western-Meets-Dickens-Gothic-Horror atmosphere. This is not a romance but may be of interest to those who love the legend behind Sarah Winchester and the Winchester Mystery House. For non-fiction about Sarah Winchester, try the biography Captive of the Labyrinth by Mary Jo Ignoffo.
Trigger warnings abound, as this is a lurid horror novel that has elements of gothic horror and penny dreadfuls. In particular, trigger warnings for animal abuse and death, child abuse and death, and domestic violence. Honesty compels me to admit that I skimmed every now and then, which is my reader’s equivalent of watching a horror movie from under a blanket. The book isn’t scary, as in jump scares, but it is horrifying, as in having an atmosphere of dread.
Sarah Winchester was a real person. She’s famous for having built the Winchester Mystery House, a popular tourist attraction in California. The legend is that after her husband and baby died, Sarah consulted a medium who told her that she was being haunted by the spirits of those killed by the Winchester Rifle (Sarah married into the Winchester family and inherited a fortune). The spirits would only be appeased if Sarah built them a house. She would have to build continuously, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. According to legend, once building began, it did not stop until the moment she was declared dead. Like all legends, this one varies in details from teller to teller, but that’s the gist of it.
In There is No Lovely End, Sarah is portrayed as a strong-minded woman who marries a disapproving man. Historically Sarah and her husband seem to have been very happy with each other, but in this novel he is emotionally and occasionally physically abusive. They have a baby, Annie, who dies in infancy and proceeds to haunt Sarah. Eventually William also dies and he also haunts Sarah. In desperation, she goes to see a medium named Nathan. All this happens over a long period of time, and her story is interspersed with other stories.
These other stories include the stories of Nathan and his biological parents, Hennet and Hester. Hennet and his brother Walleye are criminals who find themselves in the same jail as Hester. Hester is also a criminal, but in addition to being a good pickpocket she can see and communicate with the dead. Hester is unusual among mediums because she has the ability to force ghosts into the afterlife.
Anyway, Hester and Hennet conceive Nathan during a jailbreak (yes, during – it’s very strange) and immediately part ways. Hester knows that if her baby is clairvoyant, then she will lose her own powers, so she tries to kill the baby after giving birth. Hester leaves Nathan for dead but Nathan is saved by a ghost. Once Hester realizes that she can still sense ghosts but no longer see them or banish them, she realizes that Nathan is still alive and she spends most of the book trying to find him and kill him in hopes of getting her powers back.
While Hester spends years trying to commit filicide, Hennet wanders the countryside committing crimes with his brother until Walleye takes some bad patent medicine and becomes a ghost who haunts Hennet. Hennet, who has the most “Weird West” storyline, spends most of the book seeking vengeance on the medicine show doctor who sold Walleye the medicine.
We also have the story of how baby Nathan grows up. His story is pure Dickens. He grows up in an orphanage. He is kind to the ghosts that surround him and they adore him (in contrast, they loathe Hester, as do I). Later Nathan gets an education while living in a bookstore. By “in a bookstore,” I mean literally inside a bookstore. The store, in an effort to protect him, eats him. It makes more sense in context, although not much.
I keep referring to the Weird West subgenre even though the characters spend most of their time in New England and never travel farther west than Ohio, because the book is full of motifs that I associate with Westerns. There are bank robberies, jailbreaks, mules, travelling medicine show wagons, etc. Meanwhile Sarah and Nathan have more Dickensian storylines as their stories take place in urban New England for the most part (the real Sarah lived in New England until she moved to California as a widow).
The entire story takes place in a landscape where ghosts are omnipresent. Some people can sense them, some are oblivious, and others have a full awareness of them and ability to communicate with them. The presence of the ghosts, as well as a recurring theme of family violence and family secrets, lends all of the storylines a gothic feel suffused with just slightly odd and archaic language:
Spirits splintered into one of three categories: idiocy, artifice, and aid. As you were in life, so you were in death.
Broad quantities of the dead were too dull to be anything other than pantry-opening-air-cooling-wind-whispering-wall-knocking nuisances.
Others shirked wickedly around and knit their anger into nets to cast over the living. Hester had found that the dead could harm humans. Animals for that matter. Plants, even.
But the dead were not completely atrocious. There were those spirits that found fulfillment in alleviating the living. They reinforced walls during earthquakes. Unobstructed jammed shop locks. Did the dusting. Set the tea to boiling. Opened holy books to encouraging passages. Assisted wheelchairs over breaks in the boardwalk. Frayed hangman’s knots and snuffed fallen candles before fires caught.
These helpers believed that good deeds would quicken them to the Something After. Hester knew better. Her dead sight and words were the only unnatural carriage to other worlds.
This book was much too graphically violent for my personal taste and yet I could not put it down. The characters are compelling — even, and maybe especially — the horrible ones. The combination of gothic horror, Dickens, and Weird West is hypnotic. My caveats are that the book involves a lot of things that are no-gos for many of our readers (don’t get attached to the dog) and you won’t learn anything about the real Sarah Winchester from reading the book. I also felt that it was too disjointed to make a cohesive story even given the fact that most characters come together at or near the ending. On the other hand, if you can tolerate violent, ghostly, atmospheric horror with a feminist bent (somewhat similar to the TV show Penny Dreadful without the terrible ending) then this will make some good spooky reading for you.
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