Author Charis Cotter walks on the spooky side – “The Ghost Road” is one recent novel. “Screech!” is a collection of 10 stories, each supplemented with notes as to place it occurred, the entity featured, and the situation’s origins. In each case she has taken a story sourced from local lore, often through school research projects, and adapted it. She is careful to note any changes she made.
They are organized by place and time, roughly though not strictly chronologically, concluding with a latter-day personal experience of her own.
These are not a scream-fest. Nobody’s running around in a hockey mask.
Instead these are tales meant to be shared in the kitchen, low light, weather outside, youngsters packed together on the daybed. They emerge from the lives people led, their experiences and history, evoked by fishing, berrypicking, going off to sea or a war, working to sustain and protect a family.
In “The Terrible Light: Bay de Verde Barrens, 1933,” Bonnie Murphy is selected to accompany her father, George, on a shopping trip to Old Perlican. It’s a real treat, as not only does she get to miss a day of school, she also has her father’s attention all to herself as they travel side by side in their horse and cart. Hopkin’s store is a treasure trove, “rubber boots, overalls, shovels and picks, wool, scissors, and pins; barrels of flour, sugar and oatmeal, jars of candy.” On the trip home the wind picks up and “George dug down beneath the seat and came up with a scratchy woolen blanket to tuck around their knees.” They’re looking forward to being out of the dark and into their warm home, supper waiting, when they approach a bridge and their horse, Bert, stops so suddenly “Bonnie nearly fell off the seat.”
George takes the lantern and goes to investigate. The wind blows it out. And, in the night, Bonnie sees “a soft, white light … too low to be the moon. Too low, and not the right shape.”
In other stories, the protagonists (often children) witness phantom ships, spectres of loved ones, lost souls searching for lost pennies, or (delightfully) “Skylarking Ballerinas.”
Cotter contextualizes all this, both the particular stories and Newfoundland ghostlore in general, adds tips for conducting some spooky storytelling of our own (create an atmosphere, build on details), and a glossary of words and terms (“Dinky cars,” “tinned milk”). Genevieve Simms’ black and white drawings are eerily supportive.
As for Cotter’s own … encounter? It was … well, “there’s no dark like the Newfoundland dark.”
“The Wall & The Wind,” Written and illustrated by Veselina Tomova; Running the Goat Books & Broadsides; $12.95; 40 pages.
This is an autobiographical story, inspired by Veselina Tomova’s growing up in Bulgaria, where her family lived in a village and kept a farm. She dreamed of adventure and exploration, but there is a barrier.
“The Wall” is the Berlin Wall, constructed in 1962 “and it was there to stay … forever.” It separated families, and overshadowed dreams. To a little girl, it appeared insurmountable.
But escape it she did, to a new place where “no wall could withstand the might of the wild Wind.”
The text is embedded in Tomova’s artwork, which has such movement, colour, pattern, and texture, with the surfaces scratched and flurried and outlined. The palette is realistic, but emotional too; pessimistic greys, nostalgic pinks, and vibrant, positive blues.
“A Newfoundland Maple,” written by Samantha Baker, illustrated by Dawn Baker; Pennywell Books; $14.95; 32 pages.
When Daniel walks in the western Newfoundland woods with his grandfather on a fishing trip, he discovers a maple tree. His grandfather uses it to guide their trek, but Daniel also learns what creatures visit it, for food and shelter, throughout the four seasons of the year: a moose calf, blue jays and chickadees, even a “lazy lynx” amongst them.
The depictions are both realistic and engaging.
“Because We Love, We Cry,” by Sheree Fitch, design by Heather Bryan; Nimbus Publishing; $17.95; 26 pages.
The artwork starts with the cover, a small solid rectangle embossed with blue and silver. The poem inside unwinds literally in a thread: “Sometimes there is no sense to things, my child / Sometimes there is no answer to our questions why,” with the title as refrain, “Remember, there is so much love / Because we love, we cry.”
In an author’s note Sheree Fitch explains the words come as a response to the happenings of this year, including the mass shooting “in my beloved province of Nova Scotia … a portion of the book’s sales will go to the families affected.”
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.