The Hush Sisters
by Gerard Collins Genre: Gothic Fiction
***49TH SHELF UTTERLY FANTASTIC BOOK FOR FALL***
Sissy and Ava Hush are estranged, middle-aged sisters with little in common beyond their upbringing in a peculiar manor in downtown St. John’s. With both parents now dead, the siblings must decide what to do with the old house they’ve inherited. Despite their individual loneliness, neither is willing to change or cede to the other’s intentions. As the sisters discover the house’s dark secrets, the spirits of the past awaken, and strange events envelop them. The Hush sisters must either face these sinister forces together or be forever ripped apart.
In The Hush Sisters, Gerard Collins weaves psychological suspense with elements of the fantastic to craft a contemporary urban gothic that will keep readers spellbound until the novel whispers its startling secrets.
Sissy fixed the tea—red mug for Ava and black one for Sissy—and brought it to the table where she took up her favourite seat in the entire house. From there, if she turned around, she had a view of the back garden and, in a natural sitting position, a perfect line of sight through the kitchen and down the hallway toward the curved staircase with its wide bottom step, past the exposed brick chimney opposite the stairs, and all the way to the red front door. “Sorry there’s no sugar or cream,” she said.
“Don’t tell me—you gave them up?” Ava flashed a cheeky grin. Sissy smiled and said, “Months ago.”
“You’re practically a monk,” said Ava as she drummed her scarlet-painted fingernails on the tabletop. “I don’t know how you stand it here with all this...oldstuff.” While she sipped from her dark mug, Sissy considered her response and wished for the drumming to stop. “It’s comforting to have all these connections to the past.” Ava’s red-lipsticked mouth appeared to form a question. But instead of speaking, she closed her eyes and tilted her head back. “Listen.” Ava paused, allowing the natural world to have its say—thecrick-crackof the walls and floorboards whenever the wind gusted, the long, inquisitive trill of a robin redbreast in one of the trees, and the chitter of a squirrel. “It’s like discordant music.” She smiled.
“The old place has its charms,” Sissy said. Ava composed herself, willing the humour from her business-blue eyes. “You know I couldn’t live here.”
“I’m not in favour of selling,” Sissy said as she fingered the handle of her mug. “I told you already.”
“But you can’t afford to keep it up. Not by yourself.” Ava sipped her tea. “I don’t know how you live in this old city.”
“Old, old, old,” said Sissy. “That’s all you ever say about things around here. The house is too old. The city’s too old. Our father was too old to keep living here—”
“I still think he would’ve been better off at the old folks’ home till the end.”
“We both would’ve been better off if he’d stayed there.” Sissy could feel herself hardening, on the verge of closing herself off and shutting down. “But I had nightmares about him, especially after Harry…anyway, now we’re decidingthistogether.”
“It’s an old house, Sissy. It’s too big for you. You told me yourself you can’t afford to run it, financially or otherwise.” Ava glanced past Sissy and toward the garden, out to where the bright yellow sunflower heads bobbed in agreement with the late-summer breeze. “It’s as much mine as yours. I have a say.”
“But I can’t see it as a bed and breakfast. People coming and going. No privacy. Always serving meals, making beds. It’s not how I want to spend the rest of my life.”
“Then come live with me.” Sissy caught a glimpse of the barefooted ghost girl, leaning out over the curved part of the stairwell that overlooked the entrance to the living room, her hair draping the shoulders of her white dress. Her hands grasped the railing in front of her.Hello, Clair.She didn’t respond, but Sissy could tell Clair was listening by the way she became very still.
“You know how I feel about Toronto, Ava. Youknow.”
“Yes, well, you’re not the first girl from St. John’s to hate Toronto.”
“It’s cold there. And dark. And money-driven.”
“And it’s not St. John’s. You might as well admit it. You hate change. You always have, and now when there’s an opportunity—”
“Opportunity? I have a life too, Ava. Look around you. Our parents, love them or hate them, lived here. Their parents built this house, and now I live in it too. Harry and I shared a marriage here. We were married in the backyard.”
“And you’ll be buried in the backyard, too?” Ava shrugged. “It’s just a house. I mean, sure, it’s big and glorious in its own way. In spite of everything bad that happened here, we had some fun times. I get it. My God—the big dinners, the fancy cars in the driveway. The Craigmillars. The Monroes. They all came here, didn’t they?”
“I used to hide in my closet till they were gone.” Clair turned her head slightly toward the kitchen.
“I know you did,” said Ava. “I assumed it was just too much for you.” Clair suddenly sat down on the fifth step and started to rock, as she often did, a motion Sissy could vaguely detect.
“They all loved you. You were the cute one that sang and played ‘Silvery Moon’ on the Steinway.” Sissy nodded toward the living room where the Victorian grand piano, with its reddish-brown mahogany satin finish, sat facing the wall.
“It was expected.” A shadow crossed Ava’s face, which caused Sissy to study her older sister, the unexpected softness of her features, especially the crow’s feet. The blonde hair suited her, she supposed. “You could have played, too,” Ava continued. “You play beautifully.”
“I didn’t want to.”
“That was your choice.” Ava grinned. “‘Amazing Grace,’ I remember. You played lots of hymns and Irish music.” Sissy shrugged. “I’m just not as comfortable with attention as you are. I played for myself.” She sauntered to the living room and stood beside the piano. “You have even more memories here than I do.”
“Mostly bad ones.” Ava turned and watched Sissy as she caressed the edge of the closed key cover of the piano. Sissy lifted the cover, which made its usual soft thump, and peered into the keyboard. She jabbed at a black key, a sombre A-flat that travelled and lingered, till at last it fell to a whisper and then became silent.
“But we’ve barely even talked about the bad ones.” Ava followed Sissy into the living room as the note vanished. She sat down on the piano bench, as Sissy drifted away. “We’re a family of mutes,” said Ava. Sissy closed her eyes, feeling as if she were leaving her body. When she turned and opened them, she found herself looking at the Rostotski portrait over the piano. “What’s done is done. Talking about it wouldn’t serve any purpose.” Ava looked up at the same portrait. Through the upper corner of the living room window, sunshine streamed in and struck a mirror on the opposite wall above the fireplace, which reflected toward the piano and divided the photograph—the older sister awash in amber light, the younger one shrouded in darkness. The sisters thought of it as their own private Stonehenge, when the sun struck that mirror at the precise time of day, during a certain time of year, to light up the half the Rostotski.
“I remember when that was taken.” The conviction in Ava’s eyes intermingled with sadness. The waning sun shone on the left side of her face as well as that of her youthful likeness. For a moment, she seemed suspended in time, halfway between fact and fiction. Reality and dream. Present and past.
GERARD COLLINS is a Newfoundland writer whose first novel,nbsp; Finton Moon , was nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award and won the Percy Janes First Novel Award. His short-story collection,nbsp; Moonlight Sketches , won the NL Book Award, and his stories have been published widely in journals and anthologies. He lives in southern New Brunswick.
What inspired you to write this book?
I saw a TV interview about a dozen or so years ago in which a woman had inherited a castle that she couldn’t afford to keep. I didn’t suddenly think, I’ll write a story about that. But the situation interested me and stayed in the back of mind, apparently. A few years passed before I wrote a 1200-word story for the Cuffer Prize competition, and the story did well. That story, written in a couple of hours, was about two sisters who had inherited a house together after their parents have died. But it was only after a few more years – after Moonlight Sketches and Finton Moon came out – that I started to think seriously about that premise. Those first two books took place in rural Newfoundland, and I wanted to write something in the urban part of the province, where I’d been living for quite a few years. It wasn’t until I’d written quite a bit of the first draft that I realized that Sissy, one of the two sisters in the book, sees ghosts. I don’t force my characters to do or say anything – I simply take dictation as they tell their story, or I observe them. So, I came to understand that the house was haunted – either that, or Sissy is haunted. You’d need to read the story closely to figure that one out.
What can we expect from you in the future?
In the eight years since Finton Moon came out, I’ve written three books. The Hush Sisters is the first one, the one that was most ready. Next up is a shorter novel, or a novella, called The River in Winter, which I hope will be coming out in the next year or two. That one is set at Christmas time, and the premise is simple – the president of a university is visited by a young woman who claims to be Death incarnate, and she tells him he’s going to die very soon. He’s in the middle of union negotiations, and he’s been recently widowed, and life has been hard lately. He’s naturally skeptical of the woman’s claim, but she persists, and we wonder right not so much about whether her claim is true as, will he believe her at some point? The bigger question, of course, is what would any of us do if we found out we had only minutes, hours, or even just seconds to live? At Christmas time, when we thought we had nothing much left to live for anyway, what really matters in life? Plus, he’s not a very nice man – plenty of room to grow, let’s say. In a way, I wanted to shed a light on the gig economy and how poorly-paid – impoverished, really – contract teachers are mistreated by the system. What Dickens did for blue collar workers of 19th century England by focusing on a character named Ebenezer Scrooge, I wanted to do for contract labour of the 21st century by focusing on a well-off university president who has a far, far better life than a great many of his employees and better than most of us.
I’ve also finished the first draft of a fantasy novel called Black Coyote and the Magic Café. It’s the first in a planned trilogy called Thresholds. It’s about a New York writer who comes to live in a cottage by a lake in the woods in southern New Brunswick after his wife dies in a car accident. He’s come there to heal and to lick his wounds, and he’s in a pretty dark place. Because of a massive concussion and some emotional issues, he’s unable to write anymore, but he’s visited one evening at twilight by a black coyote, who becomes his muse. Meanwhile, he drives into town one day and ends up at a coffeehouse run by three witches, and he gradually finds that there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface of this town than he realized, and they’ve been waiting for him. He finds a place he belongs, but, as Sissy finds out in The Hush Sisters, it’s a long ways back from being nearly dead.
Can you tell us a little bit about the characters in The Hush Sisters? Sissy and Ava are two sisters in their thirties, and they inherit a house from their parents who have died. Sissy doesn’t want to sell the house because it’s the only home she’s ever known, while Ava wants to sell it and use the money to start a new life. Sissy is younger and sees ghosts, while Ava can’t see the ghosts but wants to. She wants everything Sissy has, while Sissy wants only to have a quiet, peaceful life. They both play piano, and they both have suffered in their own way. They love each other and yet don’t quite know what to do with each other as, when they’re together, they argue a lot about many things. Their personalities are quite different, Ava being more volatile and flamboyant, while Sissy is more reserved and self-possessed. But they’re both intelligent, obstinate, and, in need of major change in their lives.
Where did you come up with the names in the story?
The name I had the most fun with was Angus, who is the major love interest. He’s an Irish musician but with some Scottish heritage, and he’s influenced by myths of “The Wandering Angus” and “Dream Angus,” both of which he embodies at the same time. His love in Irish mythology was Caer, and Sissy’s birthname is Cara; Ava nicknamed her Sissy when they were girls, and the implications are obvious, since Sissy spends her time avoiding – or dealing with – stressful situations, and the world is a difficult place for her. Ava is more of a leader, her name is a variant of “Eve,” suggesting someone who always goes first, and it means “living and breathing,” which seems poignant for who she is in the novel – very lively and hot-blooded. I had fun with the other names, such as Nigel the real estate agent and Britney the yoga instructor. Sometimes, I choose names that have meaning; other times, I choose names that just feel right. In some cases, the character simply appears and “tells” me their name.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
I enjoyed watching the characters just live their lives and do what they would do. I was like a fly in the wall or ghost in the room myself as I listened to their conversations, which I never directed at all; I just let them speak, and they had some pretty fascinating conversations, and I found that they had very different senses of humour. I enjoyed the bit with the ghost who, apparently, likes Great Big Sea, and the scenes all over St. John’s. I don’t live there now, and I have such a fondness and nostalgia for it that writing those scenes outside the house in downtown St. John’s were like a breath of salt air for me. In my mind, I revisited all the places I’d grown to love and had left behind. But I also enjoyed the late-night scenes in the house when the sisters’ nerves are on edge and the house and all its inhabitants are restless. The Cotton Hush scenes were also among my very favourites. I could go on. I think I enjoyed writing this whole novel because it was all a discovery, and nothing was forced.
Tell us about your main characters- what makes them tick?
Ava wants nothing more than to be close to her sister. She loves Sissy more than anything except herself. But she sees Sissy as an extension of herself, and yet her younger sister is always disappointing her. It’s as if Ava is really just disappointed by everyone because her expectations are so great, and her emotions are so big. Sissy just wants to be small and unseen, though she’s a tall woman with talents, smarts, and strong opinions. The ghosts see her, and she sees them, so she can never truly be as invisible as she would like to be. Deep down, though, she admires Ava and would love to be just like her – well, mostly, at least. But she lacks the courage to live out loud the way Ava does. For as much Sissy just wants to be okay, Ava just wants adventure – and yet Ava loves her quiet moments, just as Sissy wouldn’t mind a “small” adventure or two.
How did you come up with the title of your novel?
The name “hush” just came from the notion of quietude and of an impending racket that would shatter the silence. And there are many silences within the house, within each of the sisters, and for their entire family and neighbourhood. The house itself seems built on a hush. So the name of the family, whom Ava calls “a family of mutes,” is pretty significant, and I felt it should be part of the title. The editor at Breakwater who contracted the book wasn’t keen on the original title, so I immediately thought of The Hush Women, but they didn’t like that one either, so I just went with The Hush Sisters, which, now that it’s done, is actually perfect.
Who designed your book cover?
I’m proud to say that the talented Rhonda Molloy at Breakwater Books designed the cover of The Hush Sisters. I just tossed her a few ideas of what the novel was about, what some of the main images were, and particularly mentioned that I would like black and red as the dominant colours. She took some of those elements and wove magic with them; in a very short time, she came up with a cover that wowed me. Most people seem to really like that cover. I’ve read one comment that said it’s “an unusual cover for the genre,” but, really, to me, it’s more of a literary novel than a gothic one, though it’s really both, and even much more than that.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Maybe a few minor tweaks here and there, but not really. I like the characters to tell their story the way it happened, and I think that’s what they did. I wouldn’t mess with that.
Did you learn anything during the writing of your recent book?
I learned that writing about ghosts is hard, but a lot of fun.
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
Natalie Portman as Sissy because they both have that vulnerable but tough quality, as if they both can endure a lot without giving in our losing their spirit. Anne Hathaway would play a great Ava because she can play the over-the-top star of any show, but, deep down, she seems to just need to be loved and to learn how to love herself. I think with Hathaway, it’s those soulful eyes that contain so much emotion all once without her even trying. Ava’s got that, too. Her emotions are all right there in her face. She can’t hide them and doesn’t want to.
If you could spend time with a character from your book whom would it be? And what would you do during that day?
The easiest to spend time with would be Angus because he’s a musician and a talker, a fun kind of guy. Hanging out at a pub and playing music would be fine with me. Ava would be okay for a three or four hours, but I would be emotionally exhausted after more than that. Sissy is a good listener, but that would mean I’d have to draw her out and do a lot of talking. I think she’d be easier to spend time with than Ava, even though Ava is more fun. Cotton Hush might be the most interesting one of all – he loves to travel, talks to spirits, seems to respect everyone’s opinion, but has thoughts of his own. Not so different from Angus, though Angus seems untethered, almost like a ghost himself, while Cotton Hush is gentle but very present. Angus, having said that, is a bit too intense for me – everything has meaning to that guy, even if the meaning is that we should all just chill out.
Are your characters based off real people or did they all come entirely from your imagination?
I think they all have some origin in reality, but that’s about it. Nearly all the situations and dialogue are from my imagination. A few character traits are borrowed from real people. But, other than that, they’re totally fictional, and that’s true of all my books. I get inspired by real life, real people, real situations, but, ultimately, I let them do the telling and showing, and I just try to stay out of the way and get it right when I write it down.
Do your characters seem to hijack the story or do you feel like you have the reigns of the story?
I don’t try to reign them in at all. I learned a long time ago that that kind of writing doesn’t work well for me. I do much better – am more likely to get it right – if I just watch and listen, and try to get the nuances of language, action, gestures, and facial expression right. The one thing I wrestle with is language, which sometimes flows easily and sometimes requires patience and work. I want characters to speak precisely to me, according to who they are. I think I’m a pretty good listener and observer, and those who traits you need in order to be a writer.
Convince us why you feel your book is a must read.
It’s a darkly authentic take on the lives of two sisters who don’t live together but need each other, and yet don’t want to need each other. It features a house that might be haunted but might also be another character or even the third sister. Every review I’ve read so far has said this novel is full of suspense and tension that is maintained right to the very end. But, mostly, these are just two women who want more from life than what they’ve been dealt, and that’s about the most human story of all.
Have you written any other books that are not published?
I have ten completed manuscripts that I’m proud of but just need some heavy editing, but I’m too busy writing new stuff to go back and do that. They were all written before my first book was published, and while they were the works on which I cut my teeth and learned my craft, none have received the attention they deserve.
There’s one about a grad student who thinks he’s the reincarnation of Edgar Allan Poe, another about a writing retreat for women set on an island off the coast of Newfoundland, another one that’s about a youth who goes missing in a small town, another about a guy who leaves Newfoundland for Toronto in the 1970s right after high school and when he returns home upon the death of his father, he finds that it’s not so easy to fit back into that life he had. There’s a vampire novel that also takes place off the coast of Newfoundland. There’s one about a disturbing, messianic figure and a restless high school teacher that takes place in Tennessee. There are a few others besides that. Another one is called The Ghost of Emily Dickinson about a serial killer in downtown St. John’s. If I live long enough or ever run out of new ideas, I might revisit some of these and apply my newly acquired editing skills to them. For now, though, I have at least five more new projects to work on, besides the three novels I’ve recently finished.
If your book had a candle, what scent would it be?
Rain, drizzle, fog, and saltwater – whatever scent that would be.
What did you edit out of this book?
There was a whole section about Ava’s life and troubles in Toronto, working at the TV station that, after some discussion with my editor, I decided it didn’t need to be there. It wasn’t a difficult decision as I could immediately see what she was talking about. But it took a lot of work to smooth out the rest of the manuscript after I surgically removed that piece. It was the right call, though. It almost always is the right call to remove something from a manuscript that your editor says is unnecessary and distracting.
Is there a writer whose brain you would love to pick for advice? Who would that be and why?
I’d love to sit and chat with Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, or Margaret Atwood, and while I’m sure it would be entertaining and I would likely learn something, I’m not sure I’d seek “advice,” per se. I have a pretty solid idea of who I am as a writer and what I want to achieve with each book. The best advice comes from my editors or anyone I allow to read it before it’s published. Unless one of those three was willing to read the manuscript and offer some insight, a general sit-down chat wouldn’t serve the purpose of giving advice, but maybe offer some wisdom on the writing life in general. Honestly, I’d rather hear them talk to each other while I listened in and maybe asked the odd question. There are few things I love more than listening to writers talk about writing, as long as they’re writers whose work I admire.
Fun Facts/Behind the Scenes/Did You Know?'-type tidbits about the author, the book or the writing process of the book.
The main part of this novel was written while I lived alone beside a lake in southern New Brunswick. In summer, there was someone living at a cottage very close to mine, but only on weekends. In the fall and winter months, and well into spring, I was there alone, and that’s where I wrote these last three novels. I was in a dark, dark phase of my life – the dark of the moon, I suppose – and, in some ways, it was a spectacular life for six strange years.
Some writers I’d meet would tell me it was “the perfect writer’s life.” Maybe it was, except that during those years, I was dealing with some terrible losses and challenges – besides divorce, moving, job change, etc., I suffered a massive pulmonary embolism that doctors said should have killed me on the spot, and it might only have been the fact that I was a runner that allowed me to survive, although we all agree it was mostly luck – especially since the PE was misdiagnosed as pneumonia and cost me precious days.
The following year, I suffered a major concussion which robbed me of the ability to write for quite some time. And then, two years later, emergency kidney stone surgery went from minor to major when I developed complications that were quite horrible. And then, this past year while I was working on edits for The Hush Sisters, my partner and I moved in together into her big old farmhouse, which is nice, but another major adjustment. So, the notion of “the perfect writer’s life” might have some validity, but nothing is as perfect as it seems from the outside. I think I’m a better writer and person for having endured these things, some of which were just pure bad luck, while others were incredibly good fortune. I’m just glad to be here and happy to be alive and writing.
I should also add that there were scenes of The Hush Sisters that, while I wrote them late at night, alone in the cottage in the woods, I couldn’t edit them because I knew what they contained and they were too scary. I edited most of the book in the light of day, at least when I lived alone. The writing, though, took place at all hours because I wanted to maximize the feelings that came from working late at night with no one else around.
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