Hearts Strange and Dreadful
By Tim McGregor
Off Limits Press — February 2021
ISBN: 9780578840512 — Paperback — 276 pp.
What a delectable novel to read in the dark, cold, waning days of winter, as they give way to the gray-slushed thaw of early spring! What a fitting story for the current plagues of the past year and our near future. What an impressive dawn for the new Off Limits Press, with Hearts Strange and Dreadful serving as the novel debut for their catalog. What an exceptional voice Tim McGregor has created in his protagonist Hester Stokely. What a stirring, heart-wrenching tale of familial devotion and feminine fortitude. What a successful rendering of a classic horror staple into a historical setting, which somehow also reads fresh and relevant for the present: timeless themes in genre fiction that could just as easily pass for conventional literature with a supernatural twist.
It is 1821. While daily life remains full of struggles, New Englanders enjoy relative peace and prosperity, but still recall recent wars past, and a season of strange weather and abnormal darkness. After the tragic death of her parents in a house fire during that gloomier period, orphaned Hester Stokely moved from the Rhode Island town where she was born to the nearby Wickstead to live with her paternal uncle Pardon, his wife Katherine, and their six children. Though welcomed into the family there and feeling deeply appreciative, Hester cannot help but also feel secondary to the primary offspring; she feels the weight of added expectations and responsibilities around the home and land, as if to earn her keep not assured by direct birthright. While proud and confident in her intellect, domestic abilities, and common sense, Hester cannot help but feel inadequate in her spiritual resolve compared to her pious and devout sister cousin Faith. With a deep scar marring her own face, Hester can only look at the beauty and social success of her other sister cousin Prudence and dream of the joy, comfort, or ease for which Pru seems destined. Despite such doubts in herself, Hester persists in doing what is necessary, of doing her best, and being as kind and grateful as she can manage. While some Wickstead residents mock Hester’s appearance and abuse her ready willingness and aptitude to help, others come to her support, particularly her steadfast friend Will, who also bears disfigurement (a lost arm) and comes from a less affluent Wickstead farming family. But Hester’s yearning is directed toward Henry, the handsome son of the town innkeepers, who shows occasional kindness to, and notice of, her.
The life of Wickstead’s residents becomes unbalanced with the arrival of an injured and raving man on a near-dead horse. Taken in by Pardon’s aid and nursed by Hester in the family barn, the half-crazed man, a resident of Hester’s nearby birth town, reveals frightening, nigh unbelievable news: a plague of galloping consumption appeared in the town, rapidly raging from homestead to homestead, felling countless and driving survivors to fear and paranoia. Spinning out of control with superstition, grounds were torn up, graves desecrated; mobs looked to the cleansing power of fire, but could not contain the chaos. Utterly burnt to the ground the town is no more. The man has fled carrying talismans of protection that bear the reek of vile idolatrous Catholicism to the puritan-descended residents of Wickstead. Though apparently the only survivor if his tale bears true, the man also attempts to flee his caregivers despite his serious injuries, lamenting of a dangerous force in pursuit that will kill him, and which could bring destruction to all.
As the town leaders (with Pardon among them) debate what to do about the man and his dire news, a wealthy, widowed Lady also arrives in town at the Inn as a refugee from the nearby town, damning the man as the cause of its destruction and offering a generous reward for his capture and punishment. However, returning to the barn, Pardon finds the raving man has escaped and fled, apparently, not without leaving something behind. That next morning, Hester finds Prudence sprawled on the floor by the entry, returned after a clandestine night-time rendezvous with her fiancé, racked with a cough and symptoms of consumption. As Hester and the family deal with their tragedy, fear and paranoia begin spreading in Wickstead, just as the stranger said occurred in the nearby town. Unable to discern the plague’s exact nature and ill-equipped to defend against it, Hester nonetheless perseveres to do everything that is in her power and resolve, even as the threat reveals itself to be far darker than normal consumptive contagion.
With a narrative told from Hester’s first-person perspective, McGregor immediately establishes the tenacity of his female protagonist amid the hardships of 1820s New England rural society. The novel opens with a scene where Hester’s two older brother cousins have difficulty completing their responsibilities in butchering a lamb. Unable to handle the discomfort of the gore, the boys pass the most difficult parts of the jobs to Hester. Though she likes the task no more than they, she has the experience and maturity to follow the task through her discomfort. She does what is necessary. Unlike her brother cousins, she also has no power or privilege to refuse the job, for she lives in their household at their mercy and grace. This short introductory scene symbolizes the rest of the novel, with Hester showing that of everyone she is the most ‘adult’. No matter the difficulty or what it requires of her to let go, she will get the job done. What use is complaining? All other characters show some degree of this, but no one else embodies it to Hester’s degree. Yet, she also has moments of ‘weakness’ in the sense that she gives in to her desires or dreams. When she does, she feels slightly guilty, and prays or thinks of wanting to have more strength for future moments. Yet, one gets the sense she wouldn’t change those decisions even if she (and her society) don’t put value (or punish) such acts of self-care.
In this way, with this voice, McGregor writes historical fiction that realistically roots itself in the 1820s with its particular adversity and culturally imposed limitations for women without celebrating or extolling that. And with the plot featuring a plague, isolation, and additional care responsibilities, it serves as very potent reminder of how much this misogyny remains ever-present in today’s society as amid the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic women have been expected to make the greater professional sacrifices in child care and domestic maintenance. How many right now are doing what they’d otherwise find inconceivable or impossible, simply because there is no other option. Hard tasks need to be done. The only other alternative is loss to family, giving up life. This is the battle at the center of Hearts Strange and Dreadful, this is the core of Hester’s fortitude, the appeal of her voice, and the heart-breaking nature of her narrative.
Hearts Strange and Dreadful will be a gut-wrenching in many spots; not to spoil anything specific, it’s ending may particularly feel bittersweet to many. Though a sequel is by no means necessary, one finishes this novel knowing that it is not the actual end of Hester’s story, but it is the clear and proper end to this one. Hardship and discomfort continues. This is the 1820s for a rural woman with a scarred visage. But there is certainty that Hester will go on just as strongly, and that some happiness and betterment can be achievable even with that hardship. Everything that Hester looked upon with admiration and jealousy – what she saw as lacking or impossible in her life – has died; her perceived deficiencies actually gave her strength and have allowed her to survive. That will go on.
With this novel McGregor has done something that I’ve seen a lot of mainstream authors try to do under mainstream, conventional literature marketing: write a horror story featuring an iconic legend that everyone is familiar with, but leave it unnamed and somehow keep it essential and interesting. The first I can think to do this is one of the most famous horror writers in existence, and it worked fairly well. More recent ones I’ve seen were disappointing. They flirted with genre while trying to keep ‘respectable’ and clever. They failed at all that. Hearts Strange and Dreadful succeeds at this fantastically, first by doing the reverse: marketing as horror, but having the bulk of the novel present itself within pure realism. The historical setting makes this possible. To us, plague and disease is something relatively well-defined and real. Galloping consumption is tuberculosis, caused by a bacteria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. We can fight it (albeit with resistance looming) via antibiotics. For the characters of this novel, however, the plague that descends upon Wickstead is supernatural, uncanny. The treatments even by established groups of society (early ‘doctors’, barber-surgeons, etc) are seen as suspect with superstition and religious faith being more assured protections or hopes. By the time the novel gets to things that would be supernatural for we the readers, there is no change in the tone of the novel or its characters. If anything the supernatural (from our perspective) now presents a physical reality for them that the conventional, actual realistic cause of an invisible microbe, never could within this setting prior to the invention of the microscope. The novel just keeps reading like conventional historical literature.
This also makes Hearts Strange and Dreadful chilling in its horror, for it seems very plausible from that perspective of a plague, and we see bits of it in our lives now. Adding to the chilling atmosphere of it all is the rural isolation of the settings: towns near but still separated by significant distances. Even before our lives were so intertwined by easy travel, pandemic was a grave threat. That realistic, chilling horror behind the novel and its atmosphere slowly builds as Wickstead descends further into fear. By the novel’s close McGregor builds this to intense moments of visceral horror that fans of the genre will appreciate and will have been awaiting; gore presaged by the opening scene of Hester’s slaughter of the lamb.
I feel as though there is still a lot one could say about this novel, but I’ll finish things off before droning on too long. I’m not sure I could imagine this novel being written any better. I stupidly left my copy of the book at home or I would have put quotes in here to show the power of its language and Hester’s voice. It’s still rather early in 2021, but I can be certain that this novel will feature as one of my favorites for the year, and even more I can see it as a novel I could look forward to returning to reread; savor it a second time in a year to come. McGregor’s writing is new to me, but I’ll be keeping my eye out for future releases by him or copies of his previously published work. And I’m eager to start the next of Off Limits Press‘s offerings.