“The Invited: a Novel” (Doubleday), by Jennifer McMahon
Jennifer McMahon again proves that the modern ghost story is more than things that go bump in the night. It hinges on reality, slowly building to a terror that seems real and sometimes personal, as it does in McMahon’s highly entertaining “The Invited.”
McMahon’s powerful novel supplies a plethora of frights that emerge from believable characters trying to navigate normal lives.
Helen and Nate Wetherell have good jobs at an elite private school in Connecticut. He teaches science, she teaches history. They live in a nice condo and try not to live outside their means. But Helen’s ennui is palatable — vanishing only when she volunteers in a “living museum” that recreates life in the mid-1800s for visitors. While happily married, the couple’s life seems set in stone until Helen inherits a large sum of money when her father dies.
The opportunity to change their lives is irresistible. They buy 44 heavily wooded acres just outside the small rural village in Vermont on which the avid do-it-yourselfers plan to build their dream home. That the land is believed to be haunted by Hattie Breckenridge who was hanged as a witch on the property in 1924 is a kind of a bonus, especially appealing to the historian in Helen. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she does believe in history.
Helen may have to rethink her views when strange things happen at the dilapidated trailer on the land where they are staying. Eerie packages are left on the doorstep; items such as cellphones, wallets and money disappear, and what looks like Hattie’s ghost hovers over the land’s bog. These supposedly supernatural happenings may be a way of scaring away the couple because legend has it that Hattie buried treasure on the land. One of the locals who most wants the couple gone is their 14-year-old neighbour, Olive Kissner, whose mother promised to find the treasure before the woman supposedly ran away.
McMahon keeps “The Invited” grounded in reality, even when spirits supposedly hover over the land. The Wetherells’ relationship is well designed with the building of their house serving as a metaphor for their marriage — with some construction going smoothly, collapsing at other times. Helen’s embracing their new home’s myths is nicely balanced by Nate’s skepticism. And McMahon doesn’t forget the little details of life. A ghost spotting pales when planning a household budget, especially when you’ve quit your job.