Have you traveled around New England much? Visited old farms and other relics of the region's history? In today's guest post from Tempa Pagel -- whose second mystery They Danced by the Light of the Moon releases tomorrow (Feb. 19; review here) -- it's clear that the writer's eye finds mystery and suspense in that landscape ...
Derelict Buildings as Muse
by Tempa Pagel
I’ve always been fascinated with vacated buildings. I think many people are. We can’t resist peaking into an abandoned house and wondering about its former inhabitants. Faded wallpaper around an outline of a bureau, smoke smudged walls above an old stove, imprints of lives lived here and now gone. Who were they? Where did they go? Why? Mystery hangs in the air.
Once, a long time ago—I forget the circumstances—I was walking along a remote sandy strip of beach that separated woods and the rolling waves of Lake Michigan. I came upon a house, no more than thirty feet from the water, almost swallowed up by trees and brush. It had been a stately place at one time, but was now in a serious state of deterioration: roof partially gone, windows broken out, walls falling down. A large room looking out onto the lake was now open to the elements, its elegant black and white tiled floor merging with the sand. I lingered there, at first trying to envision it the way it had been. And then, pondering the mystery of it: Who had lived there? What had happened to cause its owners to desert it?
During my teen years there were stories—perhaps urban legends, but believed non-the-less—of an old deserted tuberculosis sanatorium out in the countryside somewhere. Everyone knew somebody who had broken into the TB San, as we called it, and had found creepy things and (of course) felt the presence of ghosts. Despite the fact that I never ventured near it, vivid stories of the TB San’s lab, with its shelves of glass jars containing human organs floating in formaldehyde, created images that fooled my memory into believing I had seen it all for myself. A vacant house holds secrets of a family, but an institution holds the intersecting stories of numerous individuals who have been isolated from society. How did they come to be there? Did they survive?
|Danvers State Hospital: http://opacity.us|
When I moved to New England, two iconic buildings in my general vicinity quickly became known to me: the Danvers State Hospital, its gothic silhouette high on a hill reigning over Route 1 in Danvers, Massachusetts, and the Wentworth Hotel overlooking the Atlantic Ocean near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A mental institution and a grand hotel, they shared nothing in common other than the fact that both were prominent examples of 19th century architecture on the decline. Within a few years of each other—shortly after I learned of them—they closed. Then, because what to do with them could not be resolved, both were boarded up and allowed to deteriorate through the years.
I became fascinated with them in the same way I had been by the house on the beach and the TB San years before. When I drove by Danvers, traveling south to the mall, or passed Wentworth while meandering north along the coast, I thought of the stories distilling within their respective walls. My imagination was nurtured by tales of those who had snuck into the deteriorating Danvers hospital and scared themselves silly, as well as by stories of those whose parents had known the opulent Wentworth during its heyday. I knew I wanted to put these places in novels someday. I envisioned an historical mystery for the Wentworth. For Danvers, I didn’t yet know.
Over time, I read about grand hotels, visited one in the Midwest, and let ideas stew. When I finally started writing They Danced by the Light of the Moon I set the first scene in 1901 at a hotel inspired by the Wentworth Hotel. Immediately, my historical character, Marguerite, took over, creating some surprising twists along the way, the most unexpected being the incorporation of Danvers State Hospital. I had not planned on putting Wentworth and Danvers into the same book, so I resisted at first. But then, since both buildings had been at their peaks during that time period—in prestige and architecturally—I decided to go with it.
I began researching facts in which to imbed Marguerite’s story. There was an abundance of information on Wentworth, including a wonderful pictorial history by Dennis Robinson, but I found little, other than online articles with small black and white pictures, on Danvers.
Then I came across an intriguing website. Before it was torn down, an urban explorer had done something I’d yearned but hadn’t dared to do: he had sneaked into the crumbling buildings of Danvers. And better yet, he’d documented them. His spectacular pictures highlighted architectural features inside and out and even atop roofs. He photographed rooms, hallways, tunnels, stairwells, basements, auditorium, and sometimes just objects: a torn curtain, a chair, a rusty metal bed, a 1970’s calendar, news clippings on the wall. This virtual tour raised the hair on the back of my neck, and gave me goose bumps. Inspired, we set to work, my present-day protagonist and I, climbing through a basement window, circumventing debris in underground tunnels, ascending a caged-in staircase, sidling around rotting floors, getting lost and terrified, seeking answers to the mystery of Marguerite. How did she get here? What happened to her?
Meanwhile, the real fates of the Wentworth Hotel and the Danvers State Hospital were playing out. After a number of wing amputations, the main section of the Wentworth finally had a buyer with a plan to restore it. Danvers was not so lucky. Its buildings, one by one, were demolished. Attempts to save the last and most distinctive one, the Kirkbride, failed, and only a small section of the entire complex survived the wrecking ball to be incorporated into the new condominiums that now sit atop the hill.
They Danced by the Light of the Moon
Five Star/Gale, Cengage, 2014