The Winter People
Posted by Holly
The Winter People
By Jennifer McMahon
Grief and isolation and popular recurring themes in horror fiction, for good reason: they bring out the dark sides in human nature. Time and time again, we see what people are capable of doing in the name of grief – and when no prying eyes are watching them. The Winter People takes these themes, with a dose of maternal love, and fosters them into a haunting tale of loss and desperation.
The Winter People follows three concurrent stories: that of Sara Shea, and her life with her husband and daughter in the early 1900s, mostly seen through Sara’s journal entries. These moments are interspliced with the point of view of Ruthie, a young woman who feels directionless in life, until she discovers that her mother has gone missing one morning, and finds Sara’s old journal among her things. There is also Katherine, who is grappling with the loss of both her son and her husband, and wants to resolve the mystery of her husband’s death once and for all.
The simplest way to put it is that this is an updated version of Pet Sematary. That’s not a way of dismissing this story at all, though – it shares many themes, and certain plot elements, but that doesn’t necessarily make it derivative of the original story. The first chapter in the book sets the scene beautifully, giving the audience a glimpse at the existence of a “sleeper” before we even necessarily understand its significance. It’s eerie, painful, and sad, and in that moment executes the idea with more of an emotional weight than perhaps King’s ever had.
By far the most fascinating angle of this story is the part that follows Sara, her daughter Gertie, and her husband Martin. There is a warmth cultivated in the relationship between these three characters that is charming, having Martin’s chapters ruminate on when he first met Sara as a feisty young school girl. It provides a contrast for both the character, and the audience, to see the kind of void Sara sinks into once she has lost her child. The desperation Sara feels, and how it dictates the rest of her choices is simple to understand, however tragically those choices may play out. Because Sara is so deeply relatable in those early entries, it becomes more unsettling as her character develops into the deep paranoia and violence she later displays.
Ruthie’s character is the one that most clearly pushes the momentum of the story forward. While we learn what becomes of Sara’s character early on, and simply are allowing the events unfold until we reach that conclusion, Ruthie’s story is current, and thus has more urgency to it. There are a few worn out tropes that are applied to her character as well, but she does see quite a bit of growth over the course of the novel; she transforms, ultimately, from someone who is very selfish (and not without good reasons), to someone who is willing to give up her own life and dreams for the good of the world. The idea of a woman giving up her dreams of independence and freedom in order to become a caretaker for another creature (one that resembles a child no less) creates a somewhat mixed bag. However, it helps to examine Ruthie’s overall arc, and her choice as a way to save her younger sister from the same fate.
Katherine is the character that seemed the least developed, and perhaps the most difficult to like. While her struggle truly is sympathetic, having lost both her son and her husband within a couple of years of each other, her actions are often frustrating and occasionally nonsensical. Her single minded focus on finding out if her husband was engaging in an affair is heartbreaking, but the fact that she focuses the entirety of her life around this single purpose becomes difficult to root for. She’s also the only character to see no growth by the end of the story; she receives her ‘happy’ ending, and serves her purpose as the one to ensure that the secret of bringing the dead back to life will more than likely be passed onwards, as she hopes to share it.
Something that needs to be addressed, mostly, is the character of Auntie. Auntie is a Native American woman who takes on a motherly role in Sara’s life after the death of her biological mother; she teaches Sara about many things, most of them magical, and seems to be the go-to mystic of the community. That alone is problematic: she is the only character of color in the entire cast, and her primary purpose is to be the “magical minority”, a very tired trope that seems to insinuate that by the very nature of her race, she is more in tune with supernatural aspects of the world. This only gets worse as the novel progresses, as the entire illicit process of raising the dead becomes linked to her culture, and then the sudden third act revelation that Auntie was a cruel and evil person all along, who is rightfully disposed of. Also, considering she’s only ever referred to as Auntie, the person she was closest to (Sara) either never bothers to learn, or never bothers to use, her real name. Honestly, the whole “evil Indian magic” angle of Pet Sematary has always been bothersome, and in a modern take on a similar story, I’m disappointed to see it used at all.
There are a lot of strengths to be commended in the narrative structure in this book. Character problems aside, the point of view swapping is handled fairly well, and the timelines are clearly maintained. The introduction of Katherine as a secondary point of view in the current time line also helps keep the narrative dynamic enough to push the story forward, and creates a sense of intrigue on how all three storylines will eventually merge. There is a real sense of dread cultivated, especially in the early chapters, when Sara’s story is still very much a mystery, and some of the images created are truly chilling.
This is a book that really should have been able to be better than what it ended up as. That isn’t to say that this book isn’t well-written, eerie, and even outright frightening at times. It is all of those things, and the inclusion of racial stereotypes and clumsy characterization are obstacles that keep it from being truly great on the merit of its writing. So while it is an interesting updating of the “dead should stay dead” theme, it is only with major reservations that I’d recommend giving it a read.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I wanted to give this a higher rating, because it’s genuinely creepy and enthralling when it’s on point. There are perhaps just a few too many tropes implemented, and problematic aspects to its characterization to go much higher in my mind.
Violence level: There isn’t anything too terrible depicted in detail, but there are a number of gruesome things discussed that are pretty explicit through implication. This is especially true of the skinless body discovered in the past time line, and the use of that plot element.
Scariness level: There is a sense of foreboding throughout the first half of Sara’s story that is actually quite effective. There is a moment in one of Martin’s early chapters that was so deeply chilling that I put the book down for a moment to process it.
Bechdel test: This book passes exceptionally well. Almost all of the relevant characters are female (with the notable exclusion of Martin, who is very plot relevant). There is a lot of rich discussion between female characters, about a variety of topics.
Mako Mori test: Ruthie’s storyline is the one that most clearly passes for this: her purpose is to find her mother, and all of her actions revolve around that main goal.