Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People explores the origins of the urban legends of fictional West Hall, Vermont. Shifting back and forth between Sara, the tragic figure whose tale still haunts the town, Ruthie, the young woman who currently lives in Sara’s old farmhouse and uncovers Sara’s original diary, and Katherine, a woman on a quest for answers to help assuage her grief, the story investigates Sara’s mysterious death and its long-reaching consequences. The connections may be slightly forced at times, but they each contribute meaningful substance to the plot. Katherine in particular, being the lone outsider to the proceedings, binds past and present with her fresh grief and search for answers.
The beauty of Ms. McMahon’s writing, something with which she succeeds especially well in The Winter People, is how deftly she balances the line between creepy and terrifying as well as the line between campy and believable. The hints of supernatural she includes in her stories never feel overwrought or extreme. Rather, they align perfectly with the tone of the story to become another plausible happenstance rather than a piece of overt science fiction. The mood in The Winter People is tense, cold, and dark, but she never takes the story into full-fledged horror. Rather, she keeps it simmering at a level of uncomfortable spookiness that teases as it builds suspense. In that, the atmosphere is as much a secondary character as Katherine, Ruthie or even Sara.
The heartbeat of The Winter People is not love, as one might initially consider, but grief – a grief so all-encompassing that to call it a depression does not adequately address the amount of suffering occurring within the bereaved. This anguish is more than an intense longing to ease the pain. It also contains a profound greediness as well, one that seeks to flout the laws of nature and wrest control from those uncontrollable forces. Each of the three narrator’s stories is awful in the extreme, but it is how they react to their circumstances that make up the true tragedy.