Set in Massachusetts c. 1865, Aimee Parkison’s novel Sister Séance presents the haunted world of a family with many dark secrets, and how those secrets can rise unexpectedly and wreak havoc on the living. We are introduced to a family of four sisters—the Hayden girls—who, each very different from each other, carry the memories of a troubled past, a past of a slave-holding family from the deep South. Viv, a creative photographer, secretly pregnant with the child of a former slave, is an ardent proponent of racial and female emancipation; Grace, tall and regal in bearing, believes the only way to maintain her stability in life is through the use of corsets, which can never be tight enough; Aria, is physically very plain, but plays the piano beautifully, and is fiercely loyal to her sisters; and Belle, unusually petite due to a childhood illness, is a raven-haired beauty who uses the hair of the deceased to craft memorials.
The girls’ parents died under mysterious circumstances, and they’ve all come to live at the boarding house of a Mrs. Ruby Turner, who uncomfortably reminds them of a particularly vicious adult they knew as children in the South. The novel unfolds at Hallowe’en time, and various festivities are being planned in honor of that holiday. This was the Hallowe’en that had come down from millennia of Celtic observances, brought to this country by Irish, Scot, and English migrants, and would morph into the uniquely American night of witches, grinning pumpkins, and trick-or-treaters: in the beautifully-described prose of Parkison, we find bonfires, hay-rides, “love” apples hanging in the parlor from strings, and papier-mache mask-wearing, the latter most chillingly evoked with the strange couple who wear masks not made of papier-mache, but ones made of animal bone: “Disguised in elaborately carved bone masks, a couple tiptoed through Viv’s room. Shaken by their lack of courteous introduction, Viv stared at the bone masks framed in long wild wigs of horse hair. Accented with deep hollow eye sockets dark as shadow, the masks exposed real teeth in wide obscene smiles.” Viv, who is photographing Hallowe’en masquers, is pertrubed by the bone couple: “No polite person smiled in photographs. It was considered improper.” Nonetheless, Viv does photograph them.
The novel also involves the great wave of Spiritualism that swept the country at that time: the belief that certain gifted people could contact the dead. We are introduced to the strange women—the Usherwood Twins—who travel across the country, materializing loved ones in special séances. Maggie is the speaker, and Valerie, always veiled and in a wheelchair, is the medium who brings forth the visions.
The book is also about love—mainly unrequited—the characters are seeking. The male characters in the book, and there are a few, are not as sympathetic as the females, consisting of an often boorish collection of country oafs, who generally leave a lot to be desired. Along with the visionary Underwoods, it seems the boarding house, an old rambling house the author refers to as emphasizing the best of both worlds, “Grecian columns and Gothic arches—the perfect house for a Halloween party,” is beset by strange supernatural presences: mysterious screams, shuffling shadowy presences, and whispers. Throughout the book, the characters seek romantic fulfillment—often met with rejection and heartache—and all must attend Ruby Turner’s “Dumb Supper,” an actual reference to a spiritualistic custom of the time, where dinner guests must eat in silence, and leave one chair vacant, awaiting the arrival of a visitor from the “Other World.” As various unexplained occurrences bedevil the characters, the culmination of the novel arrives in a grand séance, where much is revealed.
Parkison is able to create a strange world of a half-remembered post-Civil War New England, and people it with human characters who must reckon with the consequences of their past lives. The author, like all good authors, is able to evoke something from our collective experiences. In her depiction of the uncanny séance, one is reminded of notable séance sequences in the world of film: 1944’s The Uninvited, where an upturned wine-glass, its base touched by the fingers of the participants, moves with a mind of its own; and Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957), in which a supposedly phony medium begins to speak in the voice of a guest’s recently dead uncle. The exquisitely portrayed autumnal Hallowe’en setting of Parkison’s novel also reminds one of Robert Mulligan’s The Other (1972), where ghostly horror is paired with a beautifully bucolic New England. Ultimately, in a house teeming with spirits, mostly unseen, or partially glimpsed, the novel finds a creative kinship with Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1962), where the borderline between the real and the unreal is effectively shattered.
Aimee Parkison is a gifted writer with the ability to evoke place and atmosphere in passages such as, “Moonlit alfalfa fields spread like green velvet blankets surrounding orchards and stables where jack-o’-lanterns glowed. Flames lured the last looper moths of the season, shedding golden light on mourning dresses. Hundreds of pale insects with flame-lit wings fluttered like snow in wind. Near the bonfires, women with gloved hands batted looper moths.” And her character descriptions are equally well-drawn: “With raven hair, long and straight, a delicate beauty mark on her chin, a shapely high bosom, and slender hips swishing in her skirts, Belle appeared to float were she walked. The singed dress made her more alluring by candlelight…Peach-colored lips and cheeks, blue veins on her wrists, pale translucent skin, she was called ‘the little girl’ for her tiny frame and delicate features.” Deftly weaving the landscape descriptions and her character portraits, Parkison plays the one against the other, arriving in a near-cinematic denouement taking place in the old Gothic boarding house, where strange sights and even stranger sounds become horrific.
Sister Séance, by Aimee Parkison. Hamilton, New York: KERNPUNKT Press, October 2021. 213 pages. $12.99, paper.
Los Angeles native Stephen Daly is a writer, actor, and film enthusiast. His magazine articles have appeared in Los Angeles Magazine, The ‘E’ Ticket, and Filmfax.