Goodreads Choice Award finalist for Best Horror
When David Caine, a celebrated skeptic of the supernatural, is invited by an old friend to spend a month in “the most haunted house in Virginia,” he believes the case will be like any other. But the Alexander House is different.
Built by a 1700s land baron to contain the madness and depravity of his eldest son, the house is plagued by shadows of the past and the lingering taint of bloodshed. David is haunted, as well. For twenty-two years ago, he turned away the woman he loved, and she took her life in sorrow.
And David suspects she’s followed him to the Alexander House.
FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launching in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.
About the Author
Since then Jonathan's work has been lauded by writers like Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, Tim Waggoner, Bryan Smith, and Ronald Kelly. Novels like The Nightmare Girl, Wolf Land, Savage Species, and Dust Devils prompted Thunderstorm Books to sign Jonathan to an eleven-book deal and to give him his own imprint, Jonathan Janz's Shadow Side.
His novel Children of the Dark received a starred review in Booklist and was chosen by their board as one of the Top Ten Horror Books of the Year (August 2015-September 2016). Children of the Dark will soon be translated into German and has been championed by the Library Journal, the School Library Journal, and Cemetery Dance. In early 2017, his novel Exorcist Falls was released to critical acclaim.
Jonathan's primary interests are his wonderful wife and his three amazing children, and though he realizes that every author's wife and children are wonderful and amazing, in this case the cliché happens to be true. You can learn more about Janz at www.jonathanjanz.com.
Read an Excerpt
David Caine motored toward the Alexander House, his Camry jouncing over a lane that was little more than twin wheel ruts. There was gravel here, but only enough to prevent the path from being washed out by a good rain. When he glanced at his phone, he was unsurprised to find the map of the area gone. He'd lost contact with the satellite. David signaled a right turn.
The next lane was even more primitive, with dense woods on both sides. Ahead, David spied hints of a broad river the color of Indian ink.
Nostalgic images clutched at him. He eased back in his seat, willed himself to breathe through the thickness in his throat. His college buddy Chris Gardiner appeared in a few of these images; several more were comprised of nothing more than the water, the trees, the lazy nights rolling past tobacco fields. But one figure, one face recurred more than any. This was the cause of his burning throat, the source of his throbbing chest and sweaty hairline.
The Camry bounced over a pothole. Jolted from his reverie, he discovered an elderly man peering at him through a screen door, the house around it white aluminum siding with red shutters. The Camry swept past, the trees less frequent now, and although David was afforded better views of the river, the man's craggy face hovered in his memory.
David shifted in his seat, noted how the forest to the right of the lane formed an unbroken jade wall. As if the woods weren't forbidding enough, its lower regions were clogged by chain ferns and thorny shrubs, a haven for poison ivy and other insidious plant life. No, David decided, this forest was not intended for exploring. More like a barrier to keep outsiders away.
To the left the woods thinned rapidly, the Rappahannock visible through the overgrown ryegrass and wildflowers. Then, a couple hundred yards distant, he spotted the white clapboard structure with a russet-colored roof.
Despite his eagerness, David slowed the Camry to a crawl and inspected the home. He'd studied the Alexander House in countless pictures, yet now he realized he'd never really seen the house at all. People said it all the time about famous landmarks: "You have to be there to believe it." And even if the platitude made him roll his eyes, he'd found it to be true. The Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building. Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.
In its own way, the Alexander House surpassed all of these.
Not in size, of course. Two stories tall with a peaked attic above, the house was a hair under three thousand square feet. From the pictures online, he remembered the structure having two dormered facades, one facing the lane, the other pointing south, toward the river.
David was pulling into the oak-canopied driveway when Chris Gardiner stepped out onto the porch. For a moment David sat there with his foot on the brake, his hand unable to work the gearshift. There was a look on his old friend's face that made him appear hostile, almost alien. During an interval that could not have lasted more than a few seconds, David was convinced his old friend wished nothing more than for David to die a slow, torturous death.
Then Chris smiled and David was able to move again.
Still, he couldn't help notice how his hand shook as he slid the gearshift into park and twisted off the engine.
David climbed out and gazed at the oldest haunted house in America.CHAPTER 2
"Sure you want to make this a rental?" David asked as he approached. "This is like owning your own island."
Chris looked around as if noticing the property for the first time. "It's not ready yet. It's hell getting the caretaker out here. You'd think we weren't paying him twenty bucks an hour."
David ascended the porch steps – eight of them, and steep. He supposed you had to build a house high if it was only a few feet above river level. Chris waited for him, no offer of a handshake yet. No sign of the wife either.
David made it to the top and smiled. David was just under six four, a few inches taller than Chris, who up close appeared a bit beaten down by life. Chris jolted, as if remembering his manners, and began to extend his hand, but David muttered, "Come on, man," and wrapped him in a hug. Chris's body remained stiff, and when David pulled away and squeezed Chris's shoulders, he noticed a blush creeping up his friend's cheeks.
"Want to come inside?" Chris asked.
David made a show of looking around. "I thought I'd camp out the first night. You know, get to know the native fauna a little better."
Chris stared at him for a moment before his ruddy face broke into a grin. "You're an idiot."
David clapped a hand on Chris's shoulder, moved him toward the screen door. "I want to meet this wife of yours. I still can't believe I didn't get to stand up with you at your wedding."
Chris opened the door, a look of panic flitting across his face. "It was a small ceremony, David. I had family members who didn't get invited."
Chris led him through a long hallway that bisected the house. The clapboard continued down the corridor, the wood painted a faded aquamarine. The walls were festooned with fishing poles, crab buckets, tackle boxes, plastic bags containing colorful lures, orange lifejackets, and sheet-metal maritime-themed signs. One read 'EDUCATION IS IMPORTANT BUT FISHING IS IMPORTANTER.' Another: 'WHAT HAPPENS ON THE RIVER STAYS ON THE RIVER.'
Chris followed his gaze. "I know they're tacky, but the agent says they help add local flavor ... ambiance ... whatever."
"Your wife pick them out?" David asked.
"I did," Chris said. "If Katherine had her way, this place would be done up like Halloween."
David shot him a look. "Don't tell me she's one of those ghost fanatics."
Chris went a shade redder, his face reminding David of an oversized turnip.
"Right through here," Chris muttered, leading David toward the screened-in porch and a breathtaking view of the river. They stepped onto coarse green outdoor carpet, and David saw Chris's wife.
She was facing the backyard, gazing out over the water beyond. The house had no doubt been constructed with this view in mind. To the right, where the river bent, the water was only a football field wide. But straight ahead, where Katherine was looking, the farther shore was only vaguely discernible. There were houses over there, but they were merely white splotches, errant brushstrokes on a rustic nature scene.
"David Caine," Chris said, "this is my wife, Katherine Mayr."
David nodded. Half the married female professors at Purdue retained their maiden names, although most of those chose hyphenates. That Katherine hadn't taken Chris's name meant nothing. Less than nothing.
Still, for reasons he couldn't explain, it surprised him.
Her grip was warm enough to conjure thoughts of fever. She beamed at him, showing white, sharklike teeth. Her chestnut hair was arranged in a series of cloudlike whorls that framed her attractive face, reminding him very much of the nighttime soap opera stars of the eighties, women like Linda Evans and Joan Collins and that blond lady from Falcon Crest.
Susan Something. He couldn't remember, perhaps because he'd hated the show, only pretended to like it because his mother let him stay up past his bedtime to watch it with her. Anything to avoid going to bed.
Anything to avoid being alone with the night.
She eyed him up and down. "You never told me your friend was so tall, honey." Her expression changed, grew hungry. She didn't let go of his hand. "You feel something, don't you?"
David's smile became strained. "I'm not sure —"
"The energy," she said, pale blue eyes boring into him. Jesus, he thought. She could find work as a mesmerist with those eyes. She nodded as if they'd just agreed on something. "I felt it the first time I stepped inside. Chris experienced tremors even before we reached the property.
Didn't you, honey?"
Chris opened his mouth but said nothing, and David was forcibly reminded of the younger man Chris had been back at William & Mary.
Never good at thinking on his feet, every remark directed his way a curveball he couldn't hit.
David contrived to break Katherine's grip, but she clung to him a moment longer, scoured his face in a way that reminded him of a scientist examining specimens. "You will do it, won't you?"
David raised his eyebrows, glanced at Chris, who was studying the floor.
Katherine shut her eyes, her brow beetling. "Oh, please tell me you let Mr. Caine know our wishes when you spoke to him."
"I...." Chris began.
"Your husband asked me to stay here a month," David said. "I'll prove the place is free of ghosts, so the property can begin making you money."
Katherine's smile was gone, in its place an expression not of scorn, but of pity. She interlaced her fingers before the woven gold belt cinched around her black dress. Her pale blue eyes burned into him.
"Mr. Caine," she said, stepping nearer until they were close enough to smell each other's breath. "You know the story of John Weir."
He struggled to quell the surge of annoyance her tone elicited. She'd spoken the name like Weir had been a carnival sideshow freak rather than the most respected debunker of the twentieth century.
"You know I'm aware of him, Mrs. Mayr. You've read my books, after all."
She smiled delightedly. He could see her tongue. "Some of them, yes. You're quite skillful, Mr. Caine."
He glanced at Chris, but his friend was occupying himself by dusting a white metal table with an oxblood-colored rag.
"Since you've read my work, Mrs. Mayr —"
"You know I agree with Mr. Weir's philosophies."
"I'm aware of your pessimistic worldview."
David scratched the back of his neck. "Well, you know, Mrs. — Katherine ... some would argue it's more pessimistic to believe there are ghouls and demons around every corner yearning to prey on us. I'd say Weir's view is the rosier one."
"Then why did he die here?"
David stared at her. He wanted to believe his irritation was a product of the interminable drive, but deep down he knew it was hearing John Weir so contemptuously disparaged.
Chris surprised him by speaking up. "There's no evidence Weir died in the house, darling."
Katherine's answering laughter was light and easy, but because of that it jangled David's nerves all the more. "You're right, dear! No evidence at all. Only his every cherished possession found in the house, his last known whereabouts verified by half the neighboring town."
David longed to wipe the gloating smile from her face, but he held back. Remember Chris, he told himself. He's the one who has to go home with this woman. He crossed his arms. "Maybe you should spell out your expectations."
Katherine leaned toward him, eyes wide. "'Spell out my expectations'?
You really don't like me, do you, Mr. Caine?"
"Hey, I never said —"
"Doesn't anyone challenge you at that college of yours?"
"Purdue is a respected university, darling," Chris said.
Katherine spread her hands. "I'm not indicting your credentials, David. May I call you David? I'm merely questioning your imagination."
"Well, hell," David said, with as much of a smile as he could muster, "why didn't you just say so? And here I thought I was being insulted."
Katherine made a tutting sound. "There I go again, too loose with my tongue." She sighed, gathered herself. "You're the most respected writer in your field."
"There aren't that many writers in my field, Mrs. Mayr."
She made a pained face. "Please, Katherine." She bit a thumbnail, looked at him in a way that trimmed ten years off her age. "Can I call you David?"
"It's your house."
She exhaled. "Good. We're back to being friends."
David glanced at Chris, but his friend was staring at the floor.
"What my husband told you over the phone was true," Katherine went on.
"I think we interpret that word differently."
"And I know you're shrewd enough to surmise the real reason why we invited you."
"You want me to write a book about this place."
Her smile flared.
"Evidently," David continued, "you also want me to drum up a lucrative ghost-hunting trade as well."
"Oh, I'm sorry I gave you that impression. I don't presume to know the truth about the Alexander House. The fact of the matter is that no one knows the truth."
"Certain conclusions can be drawn," David said.
Her eyes gleamed. "But proving them is another matter entirely."
David glanced at Chris. No help there.
Katherine moved over to Chris, massaged his shoulder. "My husband and I view it as a kind of a wager."
"You view everything that way," Chris muttered.
Her pale blue eyes riveted on David. "I'm not asking you to label this site haunted. All I'm hoping for is a disinterested observer."
"Who'll write a book about it."
She spread her arms. "Who wouldn't want that? You're known the world over as the authority on all things supernatural."
"I can't promise a book, Katherine. I wouldn't get my hopes up."
She raised a forefinger. "Remember, David. No pessimism."
He glanced at Chris, saw the hint of a smile on his friend's face.
Unexpectedly, they both chuckled at the same time. Bemused, Katherine looked from one man to the other.
"I'll do my best to be imaginative," David said.
"That's all I ask," she answered. She eyed him for several seconds, nodded. "You might find it easier than you think."CHAPTER 3
Chris and Katherine having departed, David reentered the house, exhaled, and waited for the magic of the Alexander House to wash over him. Standing in the sunless foyer, David scented the slow-moving water, the vegetation around the property, the still-potent aroma of the hand-hewn oak beams overhead, and the walls themselves, from which radiated a whiff of mildew. So much history here, so much to study.
Why did folks have need of the supernatural?
Because, he reminded himself, they had trouble facing what was in front of them. He turned, thinking, It's all about escape, hence the overreliance on technology. Distraction is an oasis. The real world is a thicket of other people, of conflicts, of emotions.
The kitchen was just big enough for an eat-in table. The light filtering in from the single window was shaded by the giant trees, so that the room, at this dusky hour, lay steeped in bluish shadow. David considered switching on a light but decided it wasn't necessary, not yet. Though the notion of a house having a personality was antithetical to his beliefs, he did like to think of a house as possessing character. A home's character, he'd decided long ago, was best discernible in natural light, not a harsh electrical glow.
The kitchen was dingy, outdated. He moved on to the dining room.
David couldn't suppress a grin.
Though the kitchen had been updated several times, the dining room reminded him just how old the Alexander House was. The knotty pine table, although assuredly not original to the house, was in keeping with the broad brick fireplace, the exposed rafters the color of milk chocolate. There were hand-carved ducks on every surface. Mallards, buffleheads. A couple that looked like breeding experiments between Canadian geese and pelicans. David drifted over, plucked one of these larger carvings off the mantel, and caught sight of himself in a speckled rectangle of mirror. Though he was only forty-four, he looked a decade older in the jaundiced light. There were hints of crow's feet bracketing his eyes, deeper furrows in his forehead.
Disquieted, he turned away from the mirror, made his way through the rear of the dining room and back to the foyer. He paused at the base of the stairs, toyed momentarily with exploring the rooms up there.
No, he decided. First floor first.
David opened a six-panel mahogany door onto a room that was darker than a grizzly bear's asshole. Good God. The wood grain was so sooty it was impossible to discern the type, but whatever it was, it encased the entire ... what? Sitting room? Den? There was a chair-and-a-half in here and a couch. Both of them rich leather. There were windows on the northern and eastern walls, but the thick plantation shutters obstructed all but the feeblest suggestions of light. In the corner he found a door. He went in and discovered a bathroom. He'd begun to worry there wouldn't be a bath on the first floor. But here were a toilet, a sink, and a shower stall as narrow as a coffin standing on end. David moved back to the den and through a doorway.
And could finally breathe again.
The master bedroom was light and airy, tallow-colored walls, muslin curtains, the king-sized bed overlaid with a blue-and-ivory quilt. The room was maybe sixteen by twenty-two, large enough for a sitting area, but the excess space was left empty, making the room seem larger than it was.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Siren And The Specter"
Copyright © 2018 Jonathan Janz.
Excerpted by permission of Flame Tree Publishing 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.
What is the book about?
A famed debunker of myths travels to one of the oldest haunted houses in America to try to prove once and for all that the home isn’t haunted. A century earlier, my main character’s heroa noted skeptic from the early Twentieth Centurydisappeared in the home, so now my main character is attempting to solve that mystery as well.
What are the underlying themes?
The novel is about being complicit in evil and the lengths people will go both to condone evil or to fight it. It’s also about how love and innocence are often met with callousness or even exploitation. Also, it’s about forgiveness, both receiving forgiveness from others and forgiving oneself.
Did real life experiences bring about any of the plot of this tale?
My family stayed in a historical home in Virginia a few years ago. Even then, I knew this house had a novel in it. So I let the setting germinate for a while, and when I started writing the novel, it flowed beautifully. That’s how THE SIREN AND THE SPECTER was born.
What about the Virginia setting stimulated your imagination?
In addition to the house, the Rappahannock River proved a stunning, evocative setting. It imparts a sense of antiquity and inexorability to the region that’s ideally suited for a ghost story. There was also an island in the Rappahannock close to the house that became an important setting for the story. It’s on this island that a crucial scene near the end of the tale takes place.
What are some of your favorite books about haunted houses?
A couple that spring immediately to mind are Richard Matheson’s HELL HOUSE and Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. Another that really knocked me out was Michael McDowell’s THE ELEMENTALS. Additionally, Bernard Taylor’s SWEETHEART, SWEETHEART was a fantastic book.
Who influenced you most in the writing of the book?
It’s interesting, but the many authors I’ve read played roles in the writing of this novel. There’s a great deal of quiet horror hereRamsey Campbell and T.M. Wright, particularly. There’s a strong dose of Southern Gothic fiction present as well, including Michael McDowell, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams.
Is there any advice you can give someone starting to write?
You will only succeed if you love it, if you burn to write. If you’re not passionate about it, you need to get out, because that passion and determination will keep you going when things go badly. And they will go badly. You’ll be rejected, you’ll be discouraged, you’ll be told you’re not good enough. You’ll likely experience soul-sucking self-doubt. But if you love it enough, you’ll stay with it. That’s how you climb. By not quitting.
Where did you write?
Like most of my novels, this one was written in my home, in my writing room. It’s an inspiring setting filled with books and an aura of magic.
Did you write in silence, or to any particular music?
I write to Baroque music. It’s the perfect fusion of mystery, passion, and energy, and listening to it, the words just flow from my fingertips to the page. It also drowns out the ambient noise that I sometimes find distracting.
What are you writing now?
At the moment I’m editing a post-apocalyptic novel (the first of a planned series) and working on the second CHILDREN OF THE DARK book.