A broken family of former slave owners. A pregnant woman awaiting her lover's arrival. A veteran that lost a hand in the civil war. A gathering with unexpected guests. In Sister Séance, a historical feminist horror novel by Aimee Parkison, a Halloween celebration brings together a range of characters in Concord, Massachusetts, and brings them face to face with their pasts.
Sister Séance is set shortly after the Civil War and centers around the history of two families: the Turners and the Haydens. A Dumb Supper, a meal where guests communicate without speaking, serves as the catalyst that gathers both families and most of the town along with two unplanned guests, the Usherwood Twins, a pair of mediums.
The book features a wide cast of characters including abolitionists, estranged families, former slave owners, orphaned sisters, wounded veterans, and Spiritualist mediums. As the past of each character is slowly revealed, a shared history connecting many of the characters is uncovered. Each perspective not only offers more insight into the characters, but offers new, and sometimes conflicting, memories that can recontextualize previously established events and create a clearer picture of their connected pasts.
Through the exploration of the characters, mysteries of both past and present come to light. Each of the book's three parts places the emphasis on a particular mystery while offering viewpoint perspectives from previously minor characters, bringing new observations and questions throughout the story. This helps to build up each character though getting to see their thoughts of the events occurring around them and their opinions of what occurred in the past. By the end of the book, there is a complete history of the families with most of the mysteries resolved.
The horror aspects are more subdued, coming primarily from the mediums and their use of the occult. Rather than attempting to scare the reader directly, the horror focuses on building fear and uncertainty in the characters such as a character entering a room to find they are not alone: "Moving from one corner to another, she suddenly stopped, filled with terror. Frozen. Not wanting to see what she felt was wrong. There was someone else in the room with her" (82).
Throughout the story, the characters are confronted by supernatural encounters ranging from mysterious noises, items appearing in unexpected places, and spirits of the dead. The book explores how different characters react to these events, challenging their beliefs and affecting their willingness to believe in the mediums. Some characters don’t hesitate to believe what they see while others, like Chris, come up with other explanations to justify their experience:
"Breathing fresh night air, searching for the woman, he glimpsed stars, deep blue sky. In the light of the moon, he saw her on the lower peak of the roof, the black web of hair now a veil camouflaging her face where she crouched. Chris worried she would fall. He held his breath as she approached the steepest, highest peak of the roof. She collapsed near the chimney, as if disintegrating into shadow, like a cloud of gnats, until she held no resemblance to human form. She seemed to melt into nothingness before morphing into a large bat-like creature with outspread wings. She turned towards him to reveal her cadaverous human face, glaring, and then flew away, blending into night.
The characters provide enough theories and explanations for the events that occur to cast doubt on the supernatural and the mediums. The ending has implications that lean to one side, but there is still ambiguity with how it resolves, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions.
The post-Civil War setting is well-realized from the technologies used to the expectations and actions of the characters. It is through these expectations and actions that the feminist theme shines through. The character's reactions to the norms of the period and the treatment from each other offer commentary on the treatment and expectation of women, such as Florence’s thoughts on doctors:
"In Florence’s experience, a young woman, unwell and hiding, usually suffered from mysterious complications because of male doctors who sought to cure her. The world needed more female doctors. But where would they come from? Florence thought of Kora, who often said she longed to become a nurse. So caring but without the means for a proper education, Kora seemed to sense discomfort, unease, and secret physical trials of others. But Kora had no way to pursue another profession" (99).
Some of the characters share views that oppose the standards of the time and sometimes other characters, but this is left mostly to thoughts than in conversations and actions.
While the book takes its time in developing the characters, some of the events that were built up as major moments pass by quickly. It would have been nice to have spent more time on the events and see them from multiple perspectives to delve further into the characters, their thoughts on the events, and how they interacted and reacted with what occurred. With so many characters and multiple perspectives, there were times when the transition between scenes was a bit hard to follow and during the larger gathering, it was hard to visualize where all the characters were and what they were doing.
Parkison manages to create a compelling, character-focused tale that reflects the era after the Civil War. The book does not shy away from the harsh realities of slavery or the treatment of women during the time while driving the story with its mystery weaved through the past of its characters.