Haunted by memories of the Great War, failed academic Frank Nichols and his wife have arrived in the sleepy Georgia town of Whitbrow, where Frank hopes to write a history of his family’s old estate—the Savoyard Plantation—and the horrors that occurred there. At first their new life seems to be everything they wanted. But under the facade of summer socials and small-town charm, there is an unspoken dread that the townsfolk have lived with for generations. A presence that demands sacrifice.
It comes from the shadowy woods across the river, where the ruins of the Savoyard Plantation still stand. Where a long-smoldering debt of blood has never been forgotten.
Where it has been waiting for Frank Nichols....
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
This is how it started.
Eudora and I pulled up the drive with the sound of gravel under the tires. When the house came into view she squealed.
"Is it ours, Frankie? Is it really all ours?"
"That's what the paperwork says."
"It's such a fine yellow. I think I'll call it the Canary House. Will you call it that with me, or will you feel silly?"
"The Canary House suits me fine."
She grinned and gave me a flash of her mismatched eyes; one lake-grey, one shallows-green. The most bewitching eyes I ever saw, or will ever see.
"Let's just sit here and look at it for a moment. We'll have some gay times in that house, but we don't know what they are yet, so let's just hold on to that. The potential, I mean."
"Or, better yet, let's imagine all the things we want in that house. Can you imagine making love to me on the staircase? Within the hour?"
"Will you carry me across the threshold?"
"Let's save it for the wedding. And only if nobody's looking. We're already married, remember? At least as far as our neighbors are concerned."
"Neighbors. How soon will our neighbors be our friends, I wonder. Can you see us having friends over for dinner?"
"What about as old marrieds sitting on the porch? Holding hands with our closer hands and swatting flies with the free ones. Can you see that?"
"Not at all." I laughed.
"Well, perhaps I don't care to swat flies with you, either."
And then she kissed me so hungrily that we never made it to the staircase.
The movers came not at the hottest part of the day, but about an hour after that, when the heat had built up so that it stood under the eaves and porches and made the moisture in the ground steam underfoot. The truck, beaten-up and rusty, with a dent in the front fender, pulled up just behind my own car. The moving truckÕs paint had once been white. That was why the blood stood out. Just a little of it, no more than a paintbrush would flick, but fresh.
That dent hadn't been there in Chicago.
The driver, an affable Negro with a broad frame and a wide, handsome face, saw what I was looking at as he cut the motor. Black smoke farted behind the truck. He stepped down from the cab. His smaller partner got down, too. Stuck close to him.
"We done hit a dog. He come quick from under a house. Crawled back under the house slow."
"Was the drive okay otherwise?"
"Oh, I done worse, yes I have. But the roads around here pretty rough."
I saw from his eyes that he saw Eudora come out of the house. Everybody looked at Eudora a beat longer than they should. Even before they noticed her eyes.
She came up beside me and offered the men coffee mugs full of water.
"There's no icebox or I would give it to you cold," she said.
They drank it down fast and thanked her.
She took their mugs and went back up to the house and the big man wiped sweat out of his eyes with the heel of his hand just to keep himself from watching her go. The little man was not so artful.
"Shall we get started?" I said, retiring my shirt and glasses.
"Oh no, Mr. Nichols. We paid for this. You jus show us where you want the boxes."
"Nonsense. Three will finish faster than two. And then we can eat."
The moving-in was hard, mostly because of the tight turn around the top of the stairs. My rolltop desk was the worst. I could have let the hired men do it, but I felt guilty. A man has to work for his extravagances. I mashed the Holy Ghost hellfire out of my fingers negotiating around that corner, though. Perhaps this was the required sacrifice for all the good writing I hoped to do. I caught the big Negro chewing on the inside of his cheek, trying not to laugh at the funny face I must have made when I hurt myself. I do make funny faces. Then he looked at my hand. It was the first time he noticed the missing finger. He looked away.
I went outside, shaking my hand, and found Dora lying across the hood of the Ford. She had poured herself deerishly across it, upside down, letting the hot metal sting her back through her thin dress. Her eyes were fixed where the sun hung forked in the trees. Her hat slid off her head, the hat with the dried rose on it, and now the light made the gold in her hair catch fire.
"You're going to pass out and fall right into the apples," I said.
"It's your own fault, Orville Francis Nichols. Had you not prohibited me from helping with the boxes, I would have something better to do with myself than lay here watching the world go by. You know, it goes by more interestingly upside down. That's a fact."
I walked over towards her.
"Besides, I am nearly one hundred and twenty-five pounds in weight, and if I follow your instructions not to lift anything heavy, I may not lift myself."
"I'll lift you."
"Not with those sweaty donkey-arms, if you please."
I lifted her anyway, braying like Nick Bottom, and she laughed and play-slapped at me.
"You handsome, dripping thing. You with your shirt off, trying to be a socialist."
I turned back towards the house.
"And your fine Italian shoes," she called after me. "Who's going to carry all your pointy shoes upstairs, Professor?"
I made muscles for her as I went in.
The next time I found her she was kneeling in the kitchen, using her thumbnail to slit the tape on a cardboard box. She pulled out a set of silverware from 1871, a wedding gift of her grandmotherÕs. Benton Harbor money was in that silver, from her grandfatherÕs vast Michigan orchards. All the pieces had engraved roses and the tines of the forks were so delicate they seemed to be made for children. She looked at herself in a teaspoon, upside down again. I melted away before she knew I was watching her. Good God, I was in love. Had been since I saw her in class all those years ago. The married girl who sat up front. The stubborn, funny one who was studying to be a teacher. The rich girl who didnÕt want DaddyÕs money if it came with rules.
I left her in the kitchen and, in the living room, nearly ran into the larger man who was cradling my cannon in his arms. It wasnÕt really a cannon, per se; rather a sort of oversized shotgun first used on the deck of an eighteenth-century ship, and then bastardized into a crude Confederate field piece in the StatesÕ War. They put grapeshot in it and sawed through men and horses at close range. A clever carpenter had even mounted it on a small wheeled carriage so a mule could pull it. I shot it off on the Fourth of July sometimes. I didnÕt mind loud noises so long as I was the one making them.
". . . war, Mr. Nichols?" was what I heard the driver say. As was my habit, I answered the question he seemed most likely to have asked. When your hearing goes, you'll learn that trick, too.
"Yes, I was," I said. "Infantry. Thirty-third."
"Oh no, sir, I asked was you goin to war with this here cannon. But I done served, too. They wouldn't let me near no gun, but they thought I'd make a good enough stevedore. Guess the only time I ever sat by and let someone else do the unloadin was the day I was born."
I laughed with him even though he'd probably said that a thousand times before. Stevedore. He was probably in Brest when I shipped in on the Mount Vernon, just another black face we all ignored on our way to glory while Uncle Sam made all the Sambos into pack mules. A rotten deal, I thought at the time.
"Where you want this? And that tub a powder?"
"In the study upstairs, please."
All the naughty masculine things went in the study. If it exploded, fired a projectile, had a sharp edge or contained more alcohol than wine, it went in the study. If it was made of wood or leather or was more than fifty years old without any sort of lace or floral design, it went in the study. Typewriter. Globe. Books. Binoculars. Drambuie. I was going to love that goddamn room.
Our dinner guests werenÕt used to being invited to sit at white tables. At first they were reticent, especially the little man, but it was clear they were hungry. The big man-was his name John? James? I think it was James-ate two plates of corned beef and tinned beans and drank the last of our beer. I was glad to give it to someone who was so pleased with it. I ate the beans, but just bullied the beef around on my plate.
"Since when don't you like meat?" Dora said.
"I prefer the beans."
It wasn't worth telling her about, but I couldn't stomach corned beef since I had to choke back so many tins of that in France. "Old Charley" we called it; the same goddamn thing every day, and then whistles blowing and mud and mud and mud. Everything associated with that time had a pall over it, even seventeen years later.
After the men left-after their warm thank-you-ma'ams and good-luck-to-yas and their awkward backing out of the gravelly drive, bound again for Chicago-(Was I the slightest bit sad I was not going, too? Even before everything improbable and worse fell on us? Did my guts tickle just a little for my city on the lake?)-Dora grabbed me above an elbow and hauled me up to christen the bed.
It was a squeaky old bastard of a four-poster, but there was no one to hear us. Our closest neighbors would have heard nothing short of a scream. Halfway through it she pushed me off her so she could open a window and let the trapped heat out of the room, but I took her where she knelt and dripped sweat on her back, and she panted out that window, like a greyhound bitch as the French say. And then she smoked a cigarette, blowing smoke into the leaves of the elm tree that grew just outside, unmindful that the sheet she wrapped around herself only covered one of her small, thick-nippled breasts.
I went for a walk. The tree shadows stretched long and fingerlike on the dirt road that led into Whitbrow as the last light of the day spilled from the west. The few houses that lined the road were really little better than shacks, but even they looked worthy of portraiture with that amber glow washing over their pine-board and tin. Sometimes a dog would bark. Sometimes a face would appear and then recede behind the mosquito screen of a window. Once, a bony hand struck a match whose jab of flame then twinned itself on the wick of an oil lamp.
A barn owl sat on a branch pretty high up and turned its head to watch me. It noiselessly flew off into the deeper woods. Maybe I was so handsome it just had to tell somebody.
Even at twilight this place was hot. This wasn't my first time in the South; Camp Logan in Texas had been hotter, but I had also been drilling in full kit and crawling and shooting on the range. On the other hand, I was nineteen, and that makes a difference. On this first day in Whitbrow I was thirty-six and starting to feel it. I had always been trim, but lately I had gotten just a little thicker around the waist. The sweat from my back was beginning to sop my shirt and trickled tentatively down the crack of my backside. Look away, Dixieland.
I was hungry.
I had little hope of finding anything open in this burg, but there was light coming from the general store. It sat just off the main square, up on blocks like the houses, asymmetrical in build-almost a trapezoid-and leprous with flaking white paint. A single kerosene lamp, wild with moths, backlit a sign that the failing light outside still allowed me to read: closed. please call again! Sign or no sign, people were moving around in there. I put my face up to the greasy front window and saw some men bent over a checkers game, and another man hovering over them. He was missing an arm.
One of the checker players, a very fat man, noticed me and came to the door, the top corner of which struck a small, tattletale bell when opened.
"You must be Dottie McComb's kin," said the big man, who seemed to float like a zeppelin in his apron.
"That's right. Orville Francis Nichols, but Frank's just as good."
I gave the fat man my hand and knew when I saw him swallow it in his that he intended to give me one of those unfair, porterhouse steak squeezes around the fingers that doesn't allow a proper grip in return. I was right, but I made a point of not wincing.
"Paul," he said.
"A pleasure, sir. Are you all closed up, then?"
"Yeah, but it don't matter when the boys are over."
Two very old boys looked at him from mismatched chairs and nodded in acknowledgment. A younger, round, tough-looking fellow sat near the iron stove, which had sand around its base.
"Mind if I look around?"
"Suit yourself," he said, holding the door open for me while I brushed past his belly on the way in.
The shelves were mostly bare. Hard times here like everywhere else. Molasses. Lard. Rice. Eggs. Flour. A few cheeses. The tobacco shelf was well stocked, though, with Prince Albert and Red Man and bags of roll-your-own from local farms. A stack of straw hats on the counter leaned towards a jar teeming with pickles. Tongs sat in a green puddle on a plate.
On a shelf behind the register, a stuffed badger rearing up to do battle with an unseen foe neighbored with a serene-looking stuffed bobcat. Next to them, a stuffed dog had somehow been manipulated so it looked as if he were seated cross-legged on a stump, playing a small banjo. A deer's head stared above everything as if omnipotent. All had penciled-in price tags hanging from them.
"Sir, I don't see any wine here," I said.
"Don't see none cause I don't sell none. Like to, but cain't. You in a dry county."
What People are Saying About This
“One of the best first novels I’ve ever read.”—Charlaine Harris, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author
“What a treat. Terrible and beautiful. As much F. Scott Fitzgerald as Dean Koontz. A graceful, horrific read.”—Patricia Briggs, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“Wonderfully eerie from start to finish—a novel sure to enthrall readers of all stripes.”—Grant Blackwood, New York Times bestselling author
“An unsettling brew of growing menace spiked with flashes of genuine terror—do not miss this chilling debut. Christopher Buehlman is a writer to watch. I look forward to hearing from him again. And soon.” —F. Paul Wilson, New York Times bestselling author of Fatal Error
“Lures you into a different era, seduces you with eloquent prose and sensual period details, then clamps down on your jugular…An outstanding debut.”—Hank Schwaeble, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Diabolical