While I was in between books recently, I picked up a short horror novella: Woman in White, by fellow Vermont author Kristin Dearborn. It’s a really terrifying story about otherworldly horrors in small-town Maine, Dearborn explains why it’s not just monsters you should be afraid of.
I run a reading series here in the Green Mountain State, and at the last instalment, Dearborn had read the opening chapters and piqued my interest.
The story takes place in rural Maine, where men have begun to vanish in horrifying, bloody ways, all while one character, Ang, is coming to terms with aftermath of an abusive relationship. Everything comes together during a massive winter snowstorm, one that will change everything for everyone.
I had a chance to chat with Dearborn about Woman in White:
You’ve set Woman in White in rural Maine, your home state. What is it about the state that’s so appealing for horror writers?
While I think all of New England is a fertile setting for horror, Maine in particular seems to stand out. Winters are long and dark, and when you have a clear day where the sun sparkles on the snow, or the full moon makes everything glow white, it’s amazing. But grey days where the colour of the dirty snow blends flawlessly with the grey of the sky give way to depression and cabin fever. Maine has the ocean, which is mysterious and brooding. The state hosts a blend of new money, tourists, and real old fashioned down-easters, which creates a compelling conflict.
What a lot of folks may not realise is that Maine is big. It’s not Montana, Texas, or Alaska big, of course, but the rest of New England pretty much fits inside it. People call Bangor “northern Maine,” but in truth you can get to Kittery and New Hampshire in less time than it would take to get to Fort Kent and Canada. There’s not a whole lot up there, north of Bangor. Nothing but woods. It’s here that I set Woman in White, in this big, empty green space on the Maine map. In space, no one can hear you scream? They can’t hear you in the north Maine woods, either.
While reading through Woman in White, I was struck at how I how much more terrifying some of the relationships were than the story’s monster, especially because they’re relationships that I know exist. What compelled you to focus on this?
Monsters are only as good as the cast they’re supporting. A monster that does nothing but kill and slaughter cardboard characters can be entertaining, but audiences get invested when the creator gives us something to care about. Audiences were invested in the crew of the Nostromo before the Alien started to slaughter them all. Author Dan Simmons made us care for the men of the H.M.S. Terror and Erberus before the monster picked them off one by one. It’s why people go back to Walking Dead week after week. Most of us will never see a monster like the one in Woman in White (unless you spend too much time in Northern Maine, then god help you), but whether we realise it or not, we all know someone who’s experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse. Grounding the horror here, in something depressingly relatable makes the monster pale in comparison.
Again, I hearken back to Dan Simmons’ The Terror: The two ships are frozen in the ice searching for the Northwest Passage. It’s agonizingly cold. They’re running out of food. Not only that, but the canned food they brought was soldered with lead, and is hastening the decline of the men’s health. Compared to all that, one almost doesn’t even need a monster. The addition of the supernatural zooms in the focus on how the characters will react, what kinds of men and women they will be.
It seems as though there’s a clash of generations when it comes to how these characters interact: there’s the elderly couple where they seem as though they have long established who’s in charge, while the younger couples are a) either trying to hold onto this sense of masculinity (and failing), or b) have escaped that dynamic altogether. I think in a lot of places, rural New England specifically as it’s the only place I’ve spent substantial amounts of time, there is a huge disconnect between the generations in terms of domestic interactions. Aziz Ansari talks a bit about this in his book Modern Romance, and how in the past people paired up based on geographical proximity and made do with what they had.
Now there are more options, and people aren’t staying in relationships as long. There’s a bit of a disconnect, I find, in these rural places where younger folks seem almost trapped between the two models. In Woman in White, Mary Beth and Dennis are both townies, but they exist as their true selves online. Angela and Nate have a different dichotomy because he’s clearly abusive…she can’t get out, and when she does, his sense of masculinity is compromised. This leads him to violence, as happens with many men like Nate. Beau and Eve are part of the old guard…she’s not going to ever leave him, she’s resigned herself to this fate, and he struts around like a rooster because he knows the relationship is safe. It’s his discretion that winds up freeing Eve in the end. I like to imagine a wonderful new life for her in his absence.
There’s certainly a ‘terror from beyond’ situation that you’ve set up in this story: what were some of the works that specifically informed Woman in White?
Around the time I visited the Maine State Crime Lab (I go into more detail on that bit of inspiration here) I read Christopher Golden’s Snowblind. It left me wanting to tackle the winter storm story. I’ve always loved that theme: Ronald Malfi’s Snow, King’s The Shining, the aforementioned Terror by Dan Simmons, and what I think of as the mother of all winter tales, John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing and the source material novella, John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There. I like to think that I lovingly plucked a bit from each of those stories (all well worth reading and watching, by the way) and smushed them up with something of a feminist treatise. I wanted female protagonists who came from the margins of society: an overweight woman, someone who’s had an abortion, a woman sleeping with a married man.
What are you working on now, and what do you hope to tackle in horror next?
Right now I have a few things up my sleeve. One is a dark, quasi-steampunk tale set in British occupied Egypt retelling the story of gods Apep and Bast. The other is set in the swamps of Florida, in which a veteran tries to discover what happened to some missing college girls, winds up uncovering a suicide cult and some skunk apes with the help of a plucky teenage prostitute.
These are both still in larval forms, though, so who knows when they will see the light of day.Woman in White is now out from DarkFuse publishing.