For the Love of a Good Ghost Story by Terry Lynn Thomas
When the leaves start to turn and there’s a crispness in the air, I reach for a good ghost story. What better way to spend the cool evening than snuggled on the couch with a tale of haunted houses, a damsel in distress, or a woe begotten lover. This love of ghost stories coupled with a passion for the Gothic novels of the mid-twentieth century inspired me to write the Sarah Bennett Mysteries, modern gothics sent in California during World War II. The first book in the series, The Spirit of Grace takes place exactly one year after Sarah’s mother fell to her death at Bennett House, Sarah’s ancestral home. Sarah is a strange you woman who has a history of mental illness. She hears things and sees things, and the family doctor is convinced – and has convinced her family – Sarah is unstable. Given her family’s position in the small northern California beachside town, Sarah has spent her life sequestered and very much alone. She wasn’t allowed to attend school, instead her family hired a live-in governess and took other steps to ensure that Sarah never associated with children her own age. The three books in the series, The Spirit of Grace, The Family Secret, and The Drowned Woman let us see Sarah as she untangles hidden family secrets and learns to use her gifts to help others.
When I wrote the first book, The Spirit of Grace, I purposefully focussed on Sarah’s isolation, her strange behaviour, the way she didn’t conform to societal norms, and the difficulties this nonconformity caused her. As the series unfolded, especially the first two books, I was amazed at the way the actual houses became characters. Although Bennett House and The Geisler Institute (fashioned after the Whittier mansion in San Francisco) didn’t actually grow and learn a lesson as characters are required to do in a story, there was no denying the houses played a crucial role in both books. As I wrote, it occurred to me that the houses which featured in all the fabulous Gothic novels that I loved represented the memories of past experiences. When we read about the orphaned governess taking a job in an isolated house on the moors, the isolated house is what sets the actual tone of the book.
Bennett House, which was built by Sarah’s great grandfather when he settled in Bennett Cove (the fictitious California town fashioned after Stinson Beach), played a huge role as Sarah unravels the true facts surrounding her mother’s murder. Many residents of Bennett Cove think Sarah (Spooky Sarah as her neighbours call her) pushed her mother to her death. When Sarah returns to Bennett House after a year in an asylum, to clear her name and find out what really happened the night her mother died, the sense of the crime and the memory of Sarah’s mother lend an eerie sense of foreboding to the book.
In The Family Secret, Sarah takes a job at The Geisler Institute, a psychiatric hospital in San Francisco. The Geisler Institute is set in the Whittier Mansion in San Francisco, a stately home that is allegedly haunted. (Read about the Whittier Mansion here.) There’s nothing quite as spooky as a psychiatric hospital, especially when your boss has a secret interest in your childhood. Sarah’s time at The Geisler Institute pushes her to confront her true identity and forces her to figure out her place in the world.
I’ve moved on at this point in my career and now write more traditional mysteries, but the Sarah Bennett books will always have a special place in my heart. I hope you enjoy reading these modern Gothics as much as I enjoyed writing them.