Supernatural horror + timeless misogyny = a compelling creepshow.
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)
Dreamt I to-day the dream of yesternight,
Sleep ever feigning one evolving theme,
— Of my two lives which should I call the dream?
—George Santayana, “Sonnet V,” 1896
Took a stick and beat her friend.
Should she die?
Should she live?
How many beatings did she give?
If I hadn’t been a psychologist—if I didn’t find the idea of reincarnation so absurd—I would have wanted Violet Sunday to exist.
A female mathematical genius.
A Victorian female mathematical genius.
What an absolutely delicious idea.
A school psychologist, Alice Lind spends her days traversing the western United States, administering psychological and intelligence tests to children and advising the Department of Education how it can better help students who are being under-served in their communities. While the work certainly goes to Alice’s desire to help kids – especially troubled ones like her younger self – too often she feels trapped, suffocated, and bored.
After obtaining her Master’s degree, Alice applied to multiple doctoral programs, with the hope of one day studying human memory – and its malleability and resilience, particularly where repressed memories are concerned. Despite her obvious skill and passion, Alice was rebuffed at every turn, only to watch her less qualified peers move on to bigger and better things. The year is 1925, you see, a time when higher education for women was considered a quirky anomaly at best – and a sinful rejection of one’s “God given” role as a woman at worst.
Our first glimpse of Miss Lind comes as she steps off the train and into her latest two-week placement at Gordon Bay, Oregon – by the special request of the schoolteacher, Miss Simpkin. Among her pupils is a precocious seven-year-old named Janie O’Daire (to whom Miss Simpkin is also known as “Aunt Tillie”), an exceptionally bright student and apparent math prodigy, who seems to experience memories of another life. A past life.
Ever since Janie learned to speak at the age of two, she’s shared memories of her life in Friendly, Kansas – even though she’s never traveled further east than the Oregon Coast Range. Janie claims to have been a young woman named Violet Sunday who lived and died, tragically young, around the turn of the century. She tells of a younger sister named Eleanor – who would be in her 50s now – and a dog called Poppy. She has terrible nightmares of drowning, as the “man from the other house” looks on. She scribbles mathematical equations on her bedroom walls and is vexed by the number eight. Above all else, Janie is often overcome with a terrible homesickness for a place she’s never been, and begs her parents Michael and Rebecca to take her back to Kansas.
The O’Daires, who are divorced, have drastically different ideas of how best to deal with Janie. Rebecca, fearing that Janie will be institutionalized like her mother, prefers to turn a blind eye to Janie’s eccentricities, while Michael believes that the way forward lies in the past. To help Janie, Alice must contend with her warring parents, as well as her own scientific bias against parapsychology – not to mention, her struggle to be taken seriously in a man’s world.
This is only my second Cat Winters book – the first being last year’s The Uninvited – but I’m quickly becoming a fangirl. Some other reviewers noted that Yesternight is different from her previous novels, but I find it pretty similar in tone and style to The Uninvited. Winters primarily writes historical horror, and she’s got a real knack for setting the tone, with a keen eye to period details. True, she is on the verbose side, and this can sometimes make the story drag; but overall it seems to work. Her writing as also atmospheric AF – perfectly suited to supernatural horror.
Every time you think you’ve nailed down the plot in Yesternight, Winters throws another wrench into Alice’s story. It’s twisty and turny and will keep you guessing to the very end. Speaking of which, that last chapter? Gave me chills. (I’ve never wanted to murder a child before, but. Baby Hitler excepted, natch.)
The story’s structure left me with the distinct impression that Winters is toying with us. It’s divided into four parts, each focused on a character: Janie, Violet, Nell, and John. Janie and Violet are kind of obvious, but Nell and John are guaranteed to be the subjects of much speculation as you plow your way through the book. It’s a delicious kind of frustration, okay.
Alice and Janie/Violet are complicated and compelling characters; all share an irrepressible spirit that the world seems hell-bent on quashing. Michael and Rebecca are a little more enigmatic, and I have a real love/hate relationship with the twist that made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about their strained relationship. Did I mention that this book is rife with plot twists and sly little detours?
Winters strikes the perfect balance between realism and the supernatural. Yet, for me, this is less a story about reincarnation than the many ways men screw women: literally as well as figuratively; individually and through the social structures they create and maintain. We see it in Violet’s parents barring her from higher education, even as they benefit financially from her mathematical prowess; in the way Alice was forced to “wed [herself] to a ‘female-appropriate’ stratum of a male career” (i.e., school vs. clinical psychology); in Dr. Osterman’s refusal to fit unmarried women for diaphragms (and a general lack of access to contraception thanks in part to the Comstock Laws); in Bea’s closeted relationship with Pearl; and in the many double standards regarding sex and pregnancy.
Honestly? I rooted for adult Alice when she flipped her shit. Those guys kind of had it coming. In a world that punishes women for enjoying sex – especially outside the bounds of marriage – and treats unwanted pregnancy as a righteous punishment for “loose” women, her reaction seems, well, reasonable. Measured. The least of what those dudebros deserved. (Especially since both incidents would be considered a form of sexual assault in certain countries circa 2016. See, e.g., Julian Assange.)
In many ways, A. M. Lind is an early, Prohibition-era prototype of another favorite anti-hero of mine: Alex Craft from Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species. (If you were firmly Team Alice, you need to read this book!)
Yesternight is a safe bet for fans of supernatural horror, psychological suspense, and feminist fiction. It does drag a little here and there, but it’s still a page turner.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Ever since childhood, Alice has suffered from nightmares (mostly about being murdered), paranoia about being spied on, and a fear of vegetables. When she was four, Alice attacked several neighborhood children, seemingly without cause or provocation, bashing them in the head with a stick. As an adult, two of the men she slept with promised to “pull out” (lacking any other means of birth control in the 1920s). When they failed – and expressed zero concern for her possible plight – she similarly beat them with the heel of her shoe. Both instances resulted in a pregnancy, the first of which she miscarried at four months (the trauma of which went unacknowledged).
The book has many feminist threads, many of them quite overt; see my review for more.
Alice’s older sister Bea is a lesbian; she lives with her girlfriend Pearl, but their relationship remains a secret. Bea takes enough flack from her family for dressing “like a man,” e.g., waering trousers and bow ties and sporting a close-cropped haircut.
Alice seems to be attracted to Miss Simpkin, but nothing comes of it. I read the character as possibly bisexual.
Tillie’s fiancé Sam served in WWI but came back with “shell shock.” They’ve since broken off the engagement, and he’s homeless (when not staying with his parents).
Rebecca and Michael’s first child was stillborn.
Animal-friendly elements: n/a