‘Once you start Catherine Burns’s dark, disturbing, and enthralling debut novel, it’s hard to stop. The Visitors is bizarrely unsettling, yet compulsively readable.’ Iain Reid, Internationally Bestselling Author of I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Marion Zetland lives with her domineering older brother, John in a decaying Georgian townhouse on the edge of a northern seaside resort. A timid spinster in her fifties who still sleeps with teddy bears, Marion does her best to shut out the shocking secret that John keeps in the cellar.
Until, suddenly, John has a heart attack and Marion is forced to go down to the cellar herself and face the gruesome truth that her brother has kept hidden.
As questions are asked andsecrets unravel, maybe John isn't the only one with a dark side.
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IN THE NIGHT — 1
Like a white bird, the scream flew up from the depths of the cellar, then became trapped inside Marion's head. As it flapped its wings against the inside of her skull, she wondered how it had got through three floors of the big strong house to her dusty little room in the attic? If the scream managed to reach her, surely it could find a way to someone else: Judith next door or old Mr Weinberg opposite, who liked to walk his little Pomeranian dog along Grange Road in the small hours. Lying on her side made her hip bone ache, so she turned onto her back, but this position strained her knees. The sheets had wriggled to the bottom of the bed, so the woollen blankets scratched her skin, but when she pushed the blankets off, she was freezing cold. She tried to stop herself from wondering what had caused the person to scream and what it might be like down in the cellar in the middle of the night. Don't think about it, she warned herself, or you'll go mad, just like Great Aunt Phyllis. They'll send you to one of those places with bars on the windows, and you'll have to eat your dinner with a plastic spoon.
Then she heard Mother's voice: John is doing what is best for them; you have to trust him — he is your brother and a very clever person, an Oxford graduate, no less. If you can't trust John, your only living family, then who can you trust?
But what if Judith or Mr. Weinberg did hear the scream? What if someone called the police and they came to the house in the night? Would they bang on the door and wait for someone to answer, or just knock it down and come right in? Would they be dragged from their beds? You heard people say that sometimes: "They dragged them from their beds in the middle of the night." But surely the police allowed a person time to get up and get dressed, didn't they?
Perhaps you ought to have something decent ready just in case, suggested Mother. Those baggy black trousers with the jam stain on the knee and that scruffy brown jumper you dropped on the floor before getting into bed would hardly do.
While she and her brother were taken off to the police cells, the home she had lived in all her life would be ripped apart in search of evidence. The thought of strangers running around the house horrified her. What would they think of all the mess? The mould on the bathroom wall, all those broken appliances that John refused to let her throw away, yet never got round to repairing, the tins of food piled in the kitchen, and years and years of newspapers blocking the hall? And that Tupperware container on the top shelf of the fridge, the one full of black slime and greeny-blue fur; she wasn't even sure what it had in it to begin with, and now she was too frightened to open it. If I weren't already dead, I would die from shame that you let things get into such a state, added Mother.
She saw herself on the front page of a newspaper (Marion had never taken a good photo; even in her eighteenth-birthday portrait she looked like a matron of forty), that frizzy brown hair sticking out in all directions like a madwoman's, all the world judging her. What would Judith say? That she had always thought Marion and her brother were odd? And Lydia? The shame of Lydia finding out about all of this would be too much to bear.
"It won't happen, Marion. Nobody heard the scream. Nobody's coming. Who'd be looking for them anyway?" said Neil, holding her in his arms and stroking the hysterical hair.
"But they will, if not tonight, then another night," replied Marion. "And no one will understand that John only wants to help them."
Marion Zetland was eight years old when she first discovered she was plain. If she'd had friends, someone might have pointed this out sooner, but Mother's nerves, delicate as a glass cobweb, couldn't stand the strain of other people's "snotty-nosed scamps" cavorting around the Grange Road house, dirty feet clattering down the oak staircases, squeals bouncing around the large wood-panelled rooms, the possibility of someone breaking or even stealing one of the many "heirlooms", so aside from her brother, John, Marion rarely saw other children outside of school.
Sarah Moss's mother was young and pretty. She dressed in clothes bright as sweetie wrappers and her shiny blonde hair bounced as she bent over to talk to Marion outside the gates of Saint Winifred's Primary School one Friday afternoon. Marion's own mother's hair was set into a mass of interlocking iron and steel curls at Pierre Micheline's once a week and could withstand Northport's sharpest seafront breeze without shifting.
"Would you like to come over to our house tomorrow?" she asked with her smiling voice.
Marion saw Sarah over her mother's shoulder. She was standing by a yellow car, her new grown-up teeth bared at Marion in a way that said, "I'd prefer you to drop dead than come to play."
It was as if Sarah had grabbed her by one arm and the nice lady by the other, and they were trying to split her into two halves.
"They probably know my family owned Northport Grand until the war," Mother said loftily. "They're using her to get in with us."
But Dad insisted that Marion should go. "She spends too much time locked away in her own little world. She needs to get out and about, start making some real friends."
Dad drove her to Sarah's house on Saturday afternoon, smoking a cigarette with one hand and steering the Bentley with the other. The car was hot and leathery like the inside of a shoe, and with each jolting stop and start of the fifteen-minute journey, Marion felt as though she was about to be sick. They pulled up outside a new, boxlike house with huge stone snails crawling across a hump-shaped lawn.
"I'm popping over to the office now. I'll pick you up seven-ish," said Dad, biting on his black moustache. On weekends he often spent long periods of time at his office above the huge warehouse of Zetland's Fine Fabrics.
"But, Dad ... I don't know if they want me to stay that long."
"Well, just ask if they can let you wait until then." He crushed his dying cigarette, alongside the bodies of several others, into a little metal container attached to the car door and clicked it shut.
"It'll be all right, Chuckles, don't you worry," he said, pinching her cheek with ashy fingers.
The Bentley had already driven away before she reached the end of the gravel path. She rang the bell, and a shape appeared behind the bubbly glass door panels. When the door opened, a suntanned man with a brown side-swept fringe and blue jeans was standing there smiling at her. He crouched down so their heads were the same level.
"Hi, I'm Sarah's dad. You must be Marion." He let the golden-brown fringe fall forward, and Marion felt the urge to reach out and feel if it really was as soft as a silk tassel.
Marion's dad never wore jeans; he always dressed in a suit even when they went for walks along the promenade. Sarah's mum and dad seemed so young compared to her own parents. Marion's father had been fifty-two when she was born and her mother forty-three. They were the same age as most of her schoolmates' grandparents, and their lives had the sepia tinge of a bygone era when people rode penny-farthings and had kitchen maids.
Marion followed Sarah's dad into the house, which was remarkable for its lack of antiques, wood-panelling, and curtains with mad swirling patterns. Instead, everything was made from sunlit pine and crayon-box colours. Through the French windows she could see Sarah and her friends standing on the patio. When they saw Marion, they gathered into a group and began to whisper.
Sarah's mum came from the kitchen, wiping hands as small and soft as baby mice against her pale blue jeans. Sarah's mum and dad were like a pair of those fashion dolls you saw in toy shops. The ones that stood side by side in cellophane boxes, dressed in matching outfits with plastic leisure accessories like miniature bikes and BBQ kits.
"Hi, Marion." She beamed as if they were old friends. "The girls are out in the garden playing with Robbie. You go and join them while I get lunch ready."
Marion got a tight cold feeling in her tummy as if she were being sent out to fight in a battle.
"Please don't make me go," she wanted to say. "Let me stay inside. We can watch TV, and I can pretend that you are my real mum and dad."
Sarah's dad let her out through the French windows, and she found herself standing on some paving stones, all different jagged shapes and sizes that had been cleverly fitted together like a puzzle. Sarah and her friends were taking turns stroking the gray fur of a large cuddly toy. The creature's nose twitched as if in annoyance at Marion daring to step out onto its fantastical stone garden.
"How does it move? Is it a magic toy?" asked Marion.
"He is a chinchilla called Robbie, and he can move because he's alive," said Sarah in a tone that implied only an idiot wouldn't know that. "Don't let her touch him," she ordered the other girls. "She'll probably do it wrong and squish him to death."
Lucy Clements, by far the biggest of the girls, readied her walnutty knuckles to punch, then placed herself between the chinchilla and Marion. The others petted Robbie with exaggerated daintiness, sweeping their fingertips downward and allowing them to alight on his fur for just an instant.
Marion went and stood alone at the far end of the garden. "White trousers, twill — brushed cotton red trousers with flower on the pocket — rayon pink skirt — black pants, serge — no — canvas — pants — black — no, white pants — towelling — towel — towel," she said to herself, identifying the fabrics of items on Mrs. Moss's rotating washing line. She knew how from having spent so much time at Dad's warehouse looking through sample books.
When Mrs. Moss called them in for lunch, they ate things that Marion had never seen before: peanut butter and a drink called Lilt that had pictures of palm trees on the can and tasted like sugary sunshine. Sarah and her friends began being overly nice to her, but in a pretend way.
"Judy, would you most kindly pass the peanut butter sandwiches to Marion?" said Sarah with a sharp-edged smile stretching her pretty face. "She looks like she is almost dead from hunger."
"Would you like another Jammie Dodger, Marion? You have only had six or seven already," asked Lucy. The other girls giggled until a frown from Sarah's mum shut them up.
After tea, Marion and the other girls went upstairs to play. Sarah declared that they would pretend to be brides by putting a lace curtain over their heads and parading up and down the space between the frilly pink twin beds that served as a church aisle, holding a vase of plastic lilies of the valley borrowed from the downstairs loo.
"Who's next?" Sarah said, when everyone but Marion had a turn.
"Marion hasn't had a go," said Hazel Parkinson, who had so many freckles on her small nose that they melted into one big browny splodge.
"But she can't be a bride. She isn't pretty enough. Who would marry that fat potato face?" said Judy Blake. Hearing these words made Marion's insides burn like the time she ate the bad berries from the garden because they looked like candy.
"No, she must, everyone has to do it," said Sarah ominously.
Reluctantly, Marion put the curtain over her head and took the flowers that had the harsh, headachy smell of cheap air freshener. As she walked, Sarah began to sing:
Here comes the bride Forty inches wide They had to knock the church door down To get her bum inside.
The mattresses of the twin beds shook as the girls that were sitting on them began to giggle.
When she went home, she found Mother cleaning the Edwardian silver teapot. Beautifully decorated with exotic animals and birds and standing on four tiger paws, the pot was too valuable to be trusted to the meaty hands of Mrs. Morrison, the housekeeper. Mother listened to Marion's tale while carefully rubbing a soft grey cloth over the gleaming curve of the handle.
Marion wanted to be told that Sarah and her friends were wrong, that they were just saying these things to hurt her feelings, but instead Mother looked at Marion with an expression of vague disappointment, as if she were something that had lost its shape in the wash.
"It's not your fault, Marion; you take after your dad's mother. She was a very plain woman, but she was going to inherit the fabric business. That's the only reason Grandfather Zetland married her."
"Maybe I'll be pretty when I grow up, like the ugly duckling," Marion said optimistically.
Her mother said nothing but put down the teapot, lit a menthol cigarette, and exhaled. As the realization she might never be loved enveloped Marion with the cloud of bitter smoke, she wrapped her arms around Mother's angular hips for comfort. Physical affection wasn't encouraged, however, in the Zetland family, and she soon felt herself peeled off with extreme delicacy.
As Mother returned her attention to the teapot, Marion ran upstairs to her attic bedroom. She arranged all her soft toys in a circle on the floor, then got into the middle and curled up into a ball with her head tucked between her knees. She often did this when she was upset. It made her feel as though the toys were protecting her with their magical power. While she was still curled up with her eyes closed, someone came into the room. Marion did not look up, but she knew it must be her older brother, John, because she could smell strawberry shoelaces, and those were his favourite sweets.
"What's up, Mar?"
"I'm not pretty. I'm never going to get married because I'm far too wide." The sob that came deep from Marion's chest sounded like a saw being dragged across wood. "I expect I will die alone."
She heard John snap a shoelace between his teeth.
"Who told you that?"
"Sarah Moss and her friends. And they wouldn't let me touch Robbie in case I squished him."
"He's a chinchilla — that's a cuddly toy brought to life by magic."
"Where does she live?"
Marion sniffed. "It's called Copperdale Estate. Near to that place Dad takes us, you know, Frank's Yard. They have giant snails in the front garden. Pretend ones, though."
When she lifted her head, John was gone, but a slick red strawberry sweet lay next to her inside the protective circle. Marion picked up the strawberry stick and put it in her mouth. As soon as the pink-flavoured sugar fizzed on her tongue, she began to feel a little better.
A few weeks later Mrs Moss was about to drive Sarah and her little brother to school when they found the skin of Robbie the chinchilla spread across the windscreen of the car. No one knew how the skin had got there or what had happened to the inside bits of Robbie. Marion did not go back to Sarah's house again. If ever she was invited to things, she pretended to be poorly. Instead, she preferred to stay in what Dad called her "own little world" with the door firmly locked against intruders.
Hi today this is Sonya. This is a normal day for me I clean/fed everybody all morning. Sometimes I play with the white rats and they don't eat my fingers now because they know I am friends. Many children come to the store to look at the puppis. The Mrs Boris tells me I am ask them what they want and if they do not buy I must stare at them with angry eyes until they leave. But I am not as good as Mrs Boris at making angry eyes and the children do not leave. They poke their fingers through cage and scream making the puppis bark, then the parrot make Kaakaaakaa sound and the cats hisssss and my head gets so big with noise I think it might pop.
At night I watched TV show about horses. One day I like I will work with horses. Big animals better they can run free not like the little things in cages. Sorry for not so good English I will try harder please be patience with me!
This day is hot very and daddy gecko died. I cry because I am sad it died but also because I am sad about many other things. Boris says it is my fault because not enough water for daddy gecko. Boris says daddy gecko cost a lot of money. The Mrs Boris says the money must come from me.
Again very hot and my hand hurts because I was bitten by the bad puppi. Even with bitten hand I have to clean and feed and clean more. Boris says it is my own fault. Everything is Sonya fault. Puppi is growing very big. Someone must buy him soon because if he gets too big he is not cute enough to be loved. We must not tell anyone he bites. Even the fishes look scared when the bad puppi barks.
Excerpted from "The Visitors"
Copyright © 2017 Catherine Burns.
Excerpted by permission of Legend Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
This readers group guide for The Visitors includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Marion Zetland, a timid, middle-aged spinster, lives with her authoritarian older brother in the decaying mansion of their childhood on the edge of a northern seaside resort. Marion tries to live by her brother’s rules: doing the shopping and the laundry, preparing their quotidian meals, and staying out of his business. With only her teddy bears and imaginary friends for comfort, Marion does her best to shut out the shocking secret that John keeps in the cellar.
But when John becomes suddenly ill, Marion must open the door to the other side and come face-to-face with the gruesome truth—and her own darkness.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Consider Marion’s warning to herself about the noises from the cellar on the novel’s opening page: “Don’t think about it, she warned herself, or you’ll go mad, just like Great-aunt Phyllis” (p. 1). Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy? Does Marion go mad?
2. How does Marion’s childhood, particularly her parents’ old-fashioned and aloof parenting styles, affect her later in life? How do Marion and John take after their parents?
3. Is John a good brother to Marion? How would you characterize their relationship? Are there any redemptive qualities in John’s actions toward Marion?
4. What was your first impression of Marion? What was your first impression of John? How are they similar and different from each other?
5. Is Marion as unlovable and unintelligent as her mother, John, and the other school children seem to think? How do you know?
6. Is Marion a reliable narrator? Why or why not?
7. What role do Marion’s daydreams and her imaginary relationships play in her life? Consider this passage: “In the same way a starving man might swallow rags to stuff his belly, Marion found it was possible to fill the emptiness inside her with daydreams” (p. 158).
8. Misfortunes seem to befall those who cross Marion—Juliet, for example, found “lying unconscious in the frozen mud of Albert Park” (p. 39). How did your understanding of these events and Marion’s role in them change throughout the novel? Do you think Marion is aware of her own role in these events? Why or why not?
9. Discuss the significance of the title—is there another, more apt word for the so-called “visitors”? Before you read the book, what did “visitors” in the title invoke for you?
10. Marion’s true nature starts to come out through her interactions with the lady in the grocery story and Brendan O’Brian, the psychic medium. Were you surprised by what is revealed about her?
11. How does the reclusive and antisocial Marion manage to maintain a relationship with Lydia, and tangentially Judith, over twenty years? Why is Marion’s relationship with Lydia so important and unique to Marion?
12. What prevents Marion from helping Violetta and the other visitors? Is Marion a heroine, villain, or accomplice?
13. Whose transgressions are worse: John’s or Marion’s? Why?
14. Does Marion get what she deserves in the end? Why or why not? How is she transformed from the beginning of the novel?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The dilapidated mansion of Grange Road and eccentric cast of characters would make a fascinating film adaptation, in the vein of the infamous Grey Gardens documentary. Who would you cast as John, Marion, Judith, and the other characters in the film version of The Visitors?
2. The novel is told through the eyes of Marion Zetland. How would it be different if the story was told from John’s, Judith’s, or Sonya’s perspective? Reimagine the novel’s telling with your book club; discuss how key events would change when told from the other character’s points-of-view.
3. The Visitors is Catherine Burns’s first novel. Learn more about the author by following her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/cburnsbooks/) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/c_burnzi).