What I’m reading . . .

Where the Crawdads Sing (novel)
By Delia Owens

A young girl grows up alone in the coastal marshlands of North Carolina, having been abandoned by her family. She can neither read nor write so the sea gulls, shore birds, and swamp creatures become her friends. In order to survive, she learns how to fish and to hunt on the shoreline for mussels, which she sells to the local bait and tackle store. In her desperate loneliness she meets and befriends two boys, Tate, the son of a local shrimper, and Chase, the popular and handsome townie. Then, someone is killed and the local sheriff launches an investigation.

This first novel by Delia Owens is both a soulful romance and intriguing murder mystery. Owens creates a wonderful character in Kya, the swamp girl. Though I love a good romance, I found myself more fascinated by Owen’s convincing description of Kya’s survival, once her drunken and abusive father finally left, in the Carolinian swamps at the age of seven. Ever since reading The Boxcar Children and The Secret Garden (when I wasn’t much older than seven) I’ve enjoyed stories of children discovering and building places for themselves in wilderness areas. Owens obviously knows the North Carolina coastline and the animals that live there.  Her prose is rich and descriptive.

This is definitely a book club pick, a novel with both merit and high entertainment value.

What I’m watching . . .

The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix TV series/Shirley Jackson book)

When I was about sixteen years old, I read Shirley Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson first published her haunted house story in 1953 and then ten years later in 1963, the book was made into a black and white movie starring Julie Harris. Now Netflix has come out with a brand new TV series of The Haunting of Hill House (just in time for Halloween) and I have to say, the screen writers did a remarkable job. The Netflix series is refreshingly, not a slasher/gore, horror movie enslaved to haunted house conventions.  It even has a satisfying, if not happy ending, something increasingly unique to the genre.  But more about the new Netflix series later.  First, I’d like to talk a little about the book.

As a young woman, though I liked to read, I’d never read a scary book before The Haunting of Hill House.  In those days not many popular authors wrote horror, especially a story of a bizarre haunted house with serious co-dependent issues. The Haunting of Hill House made such an impression on me at such an impressionable age, I’ve attributed the occasional haunted house dreams I’ve had all my life to reading this book when I was a girl. I can still quote some of the lines Jackson wrote to describe Hill House. She said the house was “insane” and “whoever walked there, walked alone.”

Prior to The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson’s greatest claim to fame was her 1948 short story, The Lottery. Some may be familiar with this shocking tale because it’s been repeatedly anthologized in high school English textbooks. Still, I think The Haunting of Hill House is Jackson’s signature work. Stephen King, our preeminent teller of scary tales, has paid tribute many times to Shirley Jackson and The Haunting of Hill House.

Before the Netflix series, there were at least two film versions of The Haunting of Hill House, one of those being the atmospheric and frightening 1960’s movie. The Netflix production though, has managed to not only capture the essence of Jackson’s story, but successfully elaborate and enrich it. The original book is about a small group of people led by a psychic researcher, who come to Hill House to investigate rumors that it’s haunted.  In the Netflix version, the group exploring the house is a young family. They’ve bought Hill House to renovate and resell it.

Though the acting is wonderful in the new Netflix series what’s really memorable is the way the filmmakers use flashbacks and time sequence to build the mystery surrounding the house. They juxtapose the older, present-day family members currently struggling with trauma from their Hill House experience, with their much younger selves at the time they lived in Hill House. The opening scene begins in the past with the young father loading his children in the family station wagon in the middle of the night.  He’s desperately trying to leave Hill House before any more family members die.

There’s been lots of haunted house tales since Jackson’s book, but what makes her story and the Netflix series so distinct is how the character of the house is portrayed.  It is both a benign reflection of its inhabitants, and something fearfully predatory.  What does Hill House want and why? Behind both Jackson’s story and the Netflix offering, lies the chilling answer.

What I’m writing . . .

Niagara (personal essay)

I’d never been to Niagara Falls but I’ve been to Shoshone Falls, and how different could they be anyway? Shoshone Falls is spectacular despite the fact it sits in the middle of the Idaho desert. But my mother and father honeymooned at Niagara Falls, and on a trip back East near the Niagara area, I decided I couldn’t miss seeing the attraction.

I’m not sure why geological spectacles are considered romantic places, but my husband’s parents honeymooned at Crater Lake, Oregon, another natural wonder. Niagara Falls has a long history as a honeymoon destination. I saw an old movie once staring Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton about a honeymooning couple at Niagara Falls. That movie, Niagara, came out in 1953, the year I was born and a year after my parents were married. So this trip to the Falls was special. It was a trip about beginnings. About my origin. Likely somewhere close to all the spray and mist generated by the Falls, I’d been conceived.

I decided to call mom and get more details about her and dad’s 1952 trip to Niagara Falls. She reminded me they didn’t just go to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon.  The trip was also part of a job dad had. He’d contracted to drive a traveling religious exhibit of the “Lord’s Last Supper” to the Toronto, Canada National Exhibition (CNE). The CNE was located within fifty miles of Niagara Falls. Mom described the big exhibit truck. She said it had a side panel that could be rolled up to reveal a life-size diorama of wax figures of Jesus and the twelve disciples sitting at a long table.

“What’d you think of Niagara Falls, mom?” I asked her.

“Hmmm. I don’t remember very much. That was so long ago. A lot of water. You know we wrecked the Lord’s Supper exhibit near there, don’t you?”

Mom probably forgot much of Niagara Falls in the aftermath of her and dad’s big accident. After sight-seeing Niagara, dad drove the truck carrying the exhibit through an underpass with a low clearance and sheered off the top. I had visions of Jesus and the disciples decapitated heads rolling along the highway.

Though mom didn’t tell me much to prepare me for the spectacle of Niagara Falls, I was still excited to see it, and I wasn’t disappointed. It is awe-inspiring. A gigantic curtain of water from Lake Erie plunges over a one hundred and sixty-seven foot precipice in a large horse-shoe shape. To compare: Shoshone Falls at flood stage, tumbles 20,000 cubic feet of water per second over its falls. Niagara Falls runs at flood, 202,000 cubic feet per second.

As I stood at the rail and gazed through the mists at Niagara’s plummeting water, I tried to imagine mom and dad here sixty-six years ago, a young couple, slim and dark-haired, with all kinds of hopes and dreams for the future. But the day I visited, it was cold and windy and my jacket got wet from all the falling water. Sometimes, try though you might, you just can’t fully capture the significance of an historic moment. I stood at the edge of Niagara Falls maybe a half hour, thinking about my parents and myself.  Then I took some pictures of the Falls.  Behind me was a Tim Horton’s coffee shop.  I strolled over, got a hot cup of coffee, and pulled out my iPhone.  I was so thankful for my Map App. Finding the quickest route out of the Niagara Falls park and back onto the freeway would not be a problem.