Today, we’re talking about those subtle touches and whispers– a nudge at the top of the stairs–the scent of roses in the dead of winter–those little hints of a presence not entirely of this world with author Connie Hambley.
Paranormal Elements to Boost Mainstream Stories by Connie Johnson Hambley
Frequent readers of Sorchia’s blog may gasp when reading this, but not everyone can digest a main course of paranormal or horror or fantasy. For some, a simple seasoning of other worldly elements is enough for the story to lure and satisfy a reader.
I write mainstream thrillers with a paranormal element and my stories are stronger because of it.
My second suspense novel, The Troubles, is set in the Irelands. If you’ve ever traveled there, you can feel the energy of generations seep up your legs to your heart and root you to that place in an indescribable way. But, hey, I’m a writer, so I try to find a way to describe that experience that is both realistic and shiver-inducing.
The Troubles: Deceived by her family, a rebellious woman seeks to unearth how Northern Ireland’s Troubles are buried in her mother’s secret past.
Jessica Wyeth’s mother, Bridget, is long dead, but her spirit and love for her daughter are very much alive. Jessica travels to her mother’s homeland to find answers. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that Bridget struggles to reach across the divide and guide her daughter to safety and answers. The excerpt below describes their first contact at an ancient stone circle in the desolate countryside of the northwest corner of the Republic of Ireland.
Writing good suspense is allowing the reader to feel one step ahead of the characters. Hitchcock used the classic technique of allowing the TV viewer to see the bomb behind the couch even as the room’s occupants remained blissfully unaware of the impending disaster. I use the paranormal to inform readers that something bad could happen . . . soon . . . and they have to keep turning the pages to find out what will to happen.
With paranormal as a seasoning, I don’t have apparitions and demons in my stories, but I do have the sensation of a kiss on the nape of Jessica’s neck that the readers soon realize is Bridget trying to comfort her daughter. I also use the myths and lore of ancient Ireland as fuel for suspense. A keening sound on the wind is an Irish banshee, a harbinger of death.
My newest thriller is entitled The Wake. Irish wakes for the recently dead are a mix of laughter and sorrow and of joy and remorse, and I use that dichotomy to build a better narrative. Again, using the dead to guide the living is an essential tool for suspense.
The Wake: A shattered heiress’ family secret is exploited by her spurned lover to blackmail her into engaging in international terrorism.
The excerpt from The Wake below, is one of the few scenes in my books where both mother and daughter are together, alive, but (mini spoiler alert!) before Jessica has learned the truth that Bridget is, in fact, her biological mother. The scene shows connection between mother and daughter and the story develops to show how Jessica receives strength from surprising sources to combat attempts to pressure her to commit horrible crimes. It’s clear that Bridget never leaves Jessica’s side.
Just like Jessica and Bridget, my stories are stronger because of the relationship formed with elements from the other side.
EXCERPT from THE WAKE:
To wake the dead in the Irish way is to drink, sing, and celebrate life without reservation. Tears of joy and sorrow flow like whiskey, and voices rise in song and keening. In the netherworld between life and death, time and physics have no meaning. The living yearn to talk with the dead. The dead yearn to touch the living.
Ten-year-old Jessica Wyeth sat hunched and numb in a throne-like chair. Adults milled around the parlor of the funeral home, placing an awkward hand on her shoulder or casting a pained look before they flinched away. Those who wore gabardine with patrician airs talked with hushed voices. Others with ruddy skin and nubby tweeds sang stray bars of ballads to warm their vocal cords for the evening’s song.
The light blue casket held Margaret Heinchon Wyeth. Grained oak with burnished brass handles held James Kent Wyeth. A corner of pink velvet dangled between the cap and frame of the hastily closed shell of a small white coffin that cradled their youngest daughter Erin. Custom would have dictated the tops remain opened, but the car accident that took their lives demanded otherwise. Some may have chosen cremation, but young Jessica was too bewildered to know she had any choices when it came to burying her family.
The late May day hinted at the coming sweltering New England summer. The verdant colors of the leaves and grass were fresh and lush, and the pinks, yellows, and blues of tulips, daffodils, and hydrangea filled the beds along Hamilton, Massachusetts’ streets. Black shutters flanked the windows of immaculate white colonial homes. Parents dragged reluctant children forward, unsure themselves of how to handle the stark reality of death. Couples walked slowly on the brick walks, some stiff with shoulders pulled back and heads raised, others hunched chin-to-chest with grief. All greeted one another solemnly, but took care to be acknowledged. A wake was no time not to be seen.
Cars parked along Bay Road as far as the eye could see. Lights flashed on the two police cruisers detailed to manage traffic. Jessica was too numb to learn the lesson that nothing pulls a community together, or draws a crowd, like tragedy.
Cool fingers brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. She felt a kiss on the back of her neck in that special spot that usually made her shoulders shiver in delight. Today, her head dropped forward. Bridget Heinchon cupped her fingers around Jessica’s chin and lifted.
Bridget’s expression was a mask of grief and anger. “How you holdin’ up?” A brogue lilted her words.
Jessica managed to shrug and tugged at the lace of her hanky. Words stuck, unformed, in her throat. She looked up at her Aunt Bridget in a fog of confusion and fear. From anyone who cared to see, her rounded eyes implored for direction and comfort. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, they said. Her voice seized from non-use, mute since the morning of the accident. Guilt drained the last bit of color from her face. Her mouth worked for sounds that remained locked away. I was supposed to be in the car, too.
Bridget pressed her lips together. A simple black dress hung off her once lithe frame. A strand of pearls and an amethyst and gold brooch were her only adornment. Her beauty was unmistakable, if faded by the ravages of poor health. “You’re doing fine, my child. No need to trouble yourself to make small talk if you’re not up for it. Folks here are comin’ to pay their respects to you and your family. Tomorrow is the burial.”
Two pools of watery blue begged. And then?
“And then life will go on.” A spate of coughs rumbled from deep inside Bridget’s chest. She curled her arms around herself to brace against the pain.
“There now, Bridgie. Be easy on yourself.” Gus Adams reached out and supported Bridget by the elbow. “D’ye need to sit?”
Jessica wanted to tease the manager of Wyeth’s Whirlwind Farms for looking uncomfortable in a black suit with his curly hair slicked back with goo. Where were his tattered trousers and crusty boots? His suit was out-of-date and smelled faintly of dust and mothballs, togs of formality shunned unless forced into service. She wanted to tease him, but couldn’t muster the strength. Gus had been the one to keep her home, saying he needed her help in breezing out several horses. He had said that visiting Aunt Bridget could wait. Gus and Jim almost came to blows, but in the end, Jim relented and left Jessica home.
And then their car careened off the road when it took a turn far, far too fast. Very little was left of the car. Even less was left of her family.
Jessica wanted Gus back in his dusty pants and cotton shirt. She wanted him to look at her with amusement and awe the way he did when she flattened herself against the back of a horse and rode at full gallop across a field with nothing more than a handful of mane to guide her. She wanted him to curse at her for leaving lights on in the barn or not properly cooling a horse. She wanted anything but to see him in his funeral best with a look of resignation and sympathy in his eyes. Another look, one that tightened just behind his temples, betrayed the fear and desperation she knew swirled around his heart.
“Our girl has just asked what will happen next and I’ve told her life goes on.”
Gus rounded his eyes with approval. “She’s been talkin’ then? Ah, now. Glad to hear it. Glad to hear it.” His eyes glistened.
Bridget hesitated. “No words, just feelin’s, but it’s a start.”
A child’s intuition told her more wanted to be spoken, but she wasn’t to overhear. Conversations about her filled the room. Only Bridget spoke directly to her. To most, she was a traumatized child to be handled with care, not treated as a person—a bone china bird with fragile, outstretched wings that would fracture from the force of an ill-phrased wish. When other adults did draw near, they hugged Bridget and murmured condolences on her sister’s family’s deaths. Words failed them when they looked at the child left behind.
Meet Connie Johnson Hambley
CONNIE JOHNSON HAMBLEY grew up on a dairy farm in New York and had plenty of space to ride one of her six horses, and all would have been idyllic if an arsonist hadn’t torched her family’s barn. Bucolic bubble burst, she began to steadfastly plot her revenge against all bad guys, real and imagined. After receiving her law degree, Connie moved to Boston and wrote for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Nature and other wonky outlets. Connie embraces the changes in the publishing world by being both traditionally and independently published. Her short story, Giving Voice, won acceptance in New England’s Best Crime Stories: Windward, and delves into the darker side human trafficking in Vermont near the Canadian border. The third book in The Jessica Trilogy, The Wake, joins The Charity and The Troubles, a 2016 Best Fiction winner at the EQUUS Film Festival in New York City. Connie is a board member of the New England chapter of Sisters in Crime, a national organization of mystery and thriller authors
EXCERPT from THE TROUBLES:
Planxty, a big grey horse with a mind of his own, picked his way up the path. Jessica used the horse’s keen senses to tell her they were alone and safe. He hung his head on a loose rein, his ears forward as he examined the trail. The loudest sounds were the steady breathing of the horse and his heavy thudding hooves.
Lulled by the sensations of the horse’s movements, the hollow hurt of being shunned and cast away diminished. She wanted to ground herself to this time and this place. Everything that had gone before her existed as no more than a thought. In this moment she simply was. The gray of the horse, her pale skin, and wisp of blonde hair made her feel more a part of the mist than the earth. Whatever painful emotions or memories crept in she willed away before they hardened.
Jessica and Planxty wandered along a countryside suspended in the moment between sleep and wakefulness. She let her horse do most of the thinking as she felt some primal part of her being drawn farther along the ancient trails. The terse interchange with Nan still rang through her head, so she steered away from paths she had ridden before. Maybe she could find the peace she yearned a little farther down the trail.
Only once did Planxty balk at Jessica’s choice as he tried to overrule her final turn that took them both to the top of a rounded hill. Roused by the horse’s refusal, she listened for any indication that they were not alone. Satisfied, she encouraged the reluctant animal forward and was surprised again when the animal skittered at sounds she could not hear. Habit made her skin prickle from nerves.
When they finally entered the clearing, Jessica caught her breath. The random scattering of rock debris she thought she saw turned out to be a perfectly formed circle of ancient boulders—Stonehenge on a smaller scale. The tall grass on the hilltop bent from its own weight, unkempt and untouched, perfectly bowed as if smoothed by hand.
Grass inside the circle was lumpy, having grown over rocks deposited there centuries ago. Boulders varied in size from being somewhat square in shape and about three feet wide to the largest close to eight feet tall and rectangular. Two boulders, that once stood upright and leaned with age, were capped with a slab that threatened to topple off. Their gray and lichen covered sides glowed in the growing light, matched in color only by the mists that were finally warming to life. The scene had an expectant quality, as if waiting for her.
The sun finally conquered the horizon, and she watched in fascination as the white-gold crescent rose, perfectly framed by the three huge stones. Long shadows crept toward her and she turned to see what they marked. A sudden flash made her heart stop. She instinctively ducked, listening for a sound that never came. Raising her head, she was rattled when she saw her own shadow cast upon a church steeple down in the valley. The illusion happened only for an instant and disappeared before a gasp escaped her lips. Planxty stood rooted on stiffened legs with muscles tense and ready.
Even if Jessica wanted to run, she couldn’t. Time lengthened, and she became aware of a deep and seductive pull at some unknown part of her. An ache of sorrow grew unchecked. For a moment, the stone circle wasn’t foreign or separate, but was as much a part of her as it was to Ireland. The encrusted boulders surrounded her with centuries of myths and history. She could feel the imminent arrival of something. A presence?
Mesmerized, she shaded her eyes with a raised arm and watched as films of mist began to glow with the same white gold of the rising sun. The vapor expanded upward in a single layer from the ground and then settled back again––a deep sigh of the earth. The focused heat of the sun warmed one wisp enough for it to separate and become independent. The cloud hovered before it slowly drifted into two. Suspended by an unseen power, the two parts intertwined then parted, each trailing a reluctant finger of vapor behind it.
A cool breath of air teased at the nape of Jessica’s neck, and she shrugged her shoulders to usher the feeling away. She listened to the mist’s whisperings as it lifted around her, seeming to carry her emptiness with it.
She cocked her head to listen. The line between real and fable dissolved as she let herself be drawn toward whatever wanted her. For a moment, she felt loved, teased with warmth and comfort on the wings of the angelic mists. Sleep-starved and half dreaming, she resisted the beckoning Trojan as too powerful, too familiar. Its proprietary grip lured her senses to believe the impossible. Jessica breathed deeply, teetering between worlds. Then she bore down, forcing out what had so cunningly tried to seduce her. The fight for what she thought was real left her uncertain and uncentered.
The wind carried a whispered word, chilling her. She strained to hear what her eyes didn’t see. Was it a bleating sheep or something else? A plaintive, pleading sound rose and fell as if depleted and renewed with giant breaths. Jessica couldn’t be sure if the distant wail was human or even real. Her heart stilled as the keening became clearer. No sooner had she determined its direction, the cry was lost again in the morning wind.
Jessica stared at the stone circle, a place now sharpened by a force she couldn’t identify. Ancient and timeless, its existence had seeped into her, somehow changing how past and present fit together. A connection to this place existed whether she liked it or not and she stifled a cry, rubbing away the goose bumps that rose on the back of her neck.
The sun rested on the capped headstone of the cairn, forcing shadows to reach across the undulating ground. An energy threatened to pull horse and rider deep within the circle. Rejecting its gravity, Jessica slapped Planxty’s rump so hard her hand stung.
She hadn’t planned to ride hard on a horse and terrain she barely knew, but as soon as they had turned to the barns with the stone circle at their backs, Planxty fought for his head. He was as spooked as she was, so she didn’t question his urgency. If she had not been so muddle-headed, she may have been able to listen more clearly to the message her horse sent––the first in a long line of messages she didn’t hear.
Pick up one of Connie’s books:
THE WAKE (on pre-order for a September 1, 2017 release date): https://www.amazon.com/Wake-Jessica-Trilogy-Book-ebook/dp/B073NQ1HK5/
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