Sister Séance by Aimee Parkison

On Halloween at a boarding house a group of fourteen sits around a table at a “dumb supper,” a tradition for which dinner guests eat without speaking in the hopes of inviting a spirit to occupy the 15th chair, which remains empty. We’re in Concord, Massachusetts, just after the conclusion of the Civil War, and ghosts — those of soldiers and slaves and women who die in childbirth — are everywhere.

Unexpectedly, twins, former slaves from the Turner plantation who are likely the daughters of the Master, arrive and cause a sensation. One twin speaks to spirits and stands while the other, completely veiled, remains in her wheelchair and functions as a vessel for spirits. Someone, or something, begins to haunt the boarders at night. The only way to eliminate the possible spirits and get the twins to leave is if the owner of the boarding house lets them hold a séance.

Sister Séance by Aimee Parkinson is a character-driven historical fiction novel. The author uses the real fascination with the occult after the Civil War as the lens through which she writes. If you’ve ever read about this time period, you may be aware of the tricks folks would use to suggest ghosts are real, such as ringing a bell under the table with one’s shoe. In Sister Séance, it’s less clear what’s real and imagined. Let’s start with some of the characters: twins are everywhere in the novel, and they come from the Turner Plantation, which is dubbed Twin Oaks. The plantation owner had twin daughters and twin sons, and when their mother abandoned the plantation, she took one girl and one boy with her, creating a rift. Her set of children grow up in the north and oppose slavery, while the father’s pair continue on at the plantation and torture slaves. I’ve also mentioned the spiritualist twins born of the owner and a slave woman.

The other set of characters come from the Hayden family tree, which has four daughters who are orphaned without husbands and taken in by the owner of the boarding house, who knew their mother and pities them. Viv is the main character out of the four sisters and is secretly pregnant by a slave from the Turner plantation. While she does not believe in slavery, Viv does believe in the power of photography, so she agreed to marry the Turner twin who stayed on the plantation and surreptitiously took photos of slaves to show how gruesome the practice was. Her husband is at the “dumb supper,” but he has agreed to let her separate from him quietly.

The last group of characters are soldiers of the Civil War. I found the most horror in their bodies, as Parkinson describes what happens to men who participated in a violent battle during a time when medical care was not so clean. She writes, “Every amputation was a story waiting to be told, a sort of mystery, he supposed, and wounded men bled riddles because a soldier’s body belonged to everyone.” When one soldier’s arm amputation is described, readers get graphic details of the bone protrusion, what fluids run out, how it continues to bleed. Each wounded soldier sees himself as useless man, one who couldn’t gain the favor of a woman because he’d be unable to support a family.

Each character, family group, and type of character has his or her own backstory, which doesn’t necessarily move the plot forward, but does create ambiance, a sort of “feel” as to what we’re supposed to understand in Parkinson’s novel, perhaps what sort of emotions were meant to experience. All the twins are purposely confusing, making readers wonder if the twin who is supposed to be dead really is, or if she escaped a life she hated. Are the spiritualist twins always the same person, or do they switch roles as voice and vessel of the dead? We can’t even see the veiled twin’s face. Since one half of the Turner twins owned slaves, the abolitionist half of the twins still haunt with their faces and presence the newly-freed slaves who gather at the boarding house.

I did struggle with the time frame of everything. In one scene it seems that Viv is going to give birth, but perhaps these are Braxton Hicks contractions. When she does give birth, it appears to happen in a matter of minutes. How much time passes in Sister Séance? Days? Hours? Perhaps that adds to the ghostly lost feeling readers may inhabit as they read, as if time itself is a spirit rather than the sun going up and down.

Sister Séance will be published October 31st of this year and will delight readers with all things occult, hay rides and bonfires, dancing and games, and terrifying memories of the worst period in American history. Thank you to Aimee Parkinson for sending me an ARC. Kernpunkt Press will be having a special pre-sale price until October 1st.

18 comments

  1. This does sound fascinating. And yes, getting injured during the Civil War times was an absolute nightmare – a horror story waiting to be told. That would make the setting of this novel even more intriguing though. Wonderful review!

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  2. I love how Hallowen-ish this is, and releasing it on that very same day is *chefs kiss*. I stand by my earlier comment that the cover of this book is uber creepy, and it sounds like the pages inside are just as good. This image of the girl in the wheelchair with her face always hidden in particular scares me, but I like this book sort of seems to touch upon the deeper human rights issues of the time as well.

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    • The interesting thing about that set of twins, the one in the wheelchair and the one who stands and speaks, is that people aren’t sure if they switch places or not. Can they both walk and speak? Who knows?

      What’s surprising me about the comments for this post is that I’m feeling like you guys are seeing deeper themes than I did! Perhaps because I was close to the book and wanted to be careful writing my review.

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  3. I had to Google slavery in Massachusetts. It involved African Americans and Native Americans and continued up to the late 1700s. But were there really ‘plantations’ that far north, or the Civil War for that matter? I’m afraid I don’t know any more than I’ve read in The Scarlet Letter.

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    • A fact that surprises many people in the North, even today, is that we had and have active KKK groups. Yes, there were slaves quite far north, and the last slave ship from Africa arrived in 1860. Illegally, but still it came. The path tended to be from Africa to the Caribbean to Florida and then up. Frequently, if a slave seemed too “problematic” (i.e. not compliant) they were threatened with being sent further south, where things were much worse.

      Here’s an article about plantations in Rhode Island: https://stories.usatodaynetwork.com/slaveryinrhodeisland/plantations-in-the-north-the-narragansett-planters/

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      • I’ve read the Rhode Island article now. That’s really interesting. It made me wonder why those plantations ended with the Revolution, but of course war with England meant the end of trading with English colonies in the Caribbean.

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        • I wonder if it was about neighbors and the community knowing someone still had slaves when it was outlawed and their willingness to turn the owner over to police. In the south, if a plantation owner and all his neighbors and friends still have slaves, and the local police don’t care, there are no consequences.

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  4. That is an exceptionally creepy cover. If any topic could tempt me to read horror, it would be medical history, so I like the overtones of that here (truly medical history is a rich setting for a horror novel given that so much of it is already horrifying), but this sounds too scary for me, I think!

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    • Medical history in particular is some of the most horrifying stuff I can think of, and I don’t seek it out. In fact, I avoid it if I know what’s coming. I remember watching the 2014 movie Madame Bovary with Mia Wasikowska and being UTTERLY HORRIFIED by this plot point around a young man with a club foot gets along fine but is pushed by a doctor who wants to pioneer a surgery to fix people with a club foot. There’s a horrible scene were a tendon snaps during surgery, during which I thought I was going to die, and later an infect sets in and the man has his foot amputated, making his life so much worse.

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