Today I’m excited to take part in the A Season of Whispers Book Blitz presented by Storytellers On Tour! I’m very much looking forward to giving this book by Jackson Kuhl a read, and I plan to do so shortly! So, while I don’t have a review for ya just yet, I do have the first chapter for you to check out. Keep scrolling to learn more about the book and author, read an excerpt, and enter the giveaway to win yourself a copy!
In the summer of 1844, Tom Lyman flees to Bonaventure, a transcendentalist farming cooperative tucked away in eastern Connecticut, to hide from his past. There Lyman must adjust to a new life among idealists, under the fatherly eye of the group’s founder, David Grosvenor. When he isn’t ducking work or the questions of the eccentric residents, Lyman occupies himself by courting Grosvenor’s daughter Minerva.
But Bonaventure isn’t as utopian as it seems. One by one, Lyman’s secrets begin to catch up with him, and Bonaventure has a few secrets of its own. Why did the farm have an ominous reputation long before Grosvenor bought it? What caused the previous tenants to vanish? And who is playing the violin in the basement? Time is running out, and Lyman must discover the truth before he’s driven mad by the whispering through the walls.
– One –
There is an indescribable sense of satisfaction, known only to a few, in committing a murder and escaping its punishment. We nod in thankfulness as the newspaper tells us about the arrest of some strangler or alleyway knife-man; we mutter to ourselves that justice has been served when we learn how the malefactor was marched up to the platform or thrown into a penitentiary cell. This is easier than the alternative, which is to consider in the recesses of our imaginations the number of villains who have not been arrested, who have not been executed or imprisoned. We assure ourselves they are fictitious or at least number a small minority simply because we assume a criminal can be identified by marks and tells. Yet nobody is truly familiar with his neighbor, nor can he account for every minute in a beloved spouse’s day; and while we suppose we know the life stories of our fathers and grandfathers, we can place no reliance in what transpired during the years before we departed our mothers. No, it is better to recognize that outlaws’ whirl around us in the streets and parlors. By definition the murder is perfect because everyone adjacent to the killer is blind and deaf to it.
Tom Lyman had no sooner hopped from the wagon’s seat and grabbed hold of his pair of bags than the driver, a taciturn farmer who had granted Lyman a ride from town, flicked the reins and wobbled on without good-bye or acknowledgment. For a moment Lyman stood dejected, bag in each hand, by turns watching the wagon recede and staring up at the old farmhouse. It loomed over him, a commitment made solid in whitewash and cedar shake, and Lyman’s gaze rotated between the two, between going forward or back. Once the wagon vanished and only a single course remained to him, Lyman stepped toward the stairs to knock at the front door.
Just then a man walked around the corner of the wide porch. He was dressed in shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, with a linen handkerchief tied around his bald scalp to catch an abundance of sweat. When he saw Lyman, his eyes lit up and a smile ruptured his thick beard.
“Mr. Lyman!” he said. “You’ve made it by hook and crook all the way from Norwalk.” He approached and offered a grubby hand. “I am David Grosvenor, your correspondent.”
Lyman regarded the extended palm, dirt caked beneath the nails and shading every line and whorl. Or at least he hoped it was dirt; though Lyman knew him to be a lawyer by profession, Grosvenor smelled of manure. But there and then Lyman acknowledged the lack of retreat from the road selected, for had he wanted a diversion from robust living there were countless byways and highways he could have chosen in the weeks prior, before his epistolary exchange with the other man.
He dropped a bag and grasped Grosvenor’s hand. “I’m so thankful for your generosity, sir, in having me.”
His host laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “There are no sirs or madams at Bonaventure Farm, Mr. Lyman—only brothers and sisters. Come inside and we’ll get you settled.”
For all his resolve, as Grosvenor turned away toward the door Lyman could not help glance in disgust at the dust and grime deposited on the shoulder of his coat by Grosvenor’s free hand.
They did not loiter long inside; instead passing through the kitchen where labored several women, including Mrs. Grosvenor, to her husband’s small office. There Grosvenor produced a ledger and Lyman, as per their agreed arrangement, laid down five twenty-dollar bills from his wallet. Grosvenor recorded the transaction in his book.
“You now own a full share in our enterprise,” said Grosvenor, congratulating the newest member of the co-operative. “Rest assured the money will be put to good use, for improvements and equipment.” He tore off a receipt and handed it to Lyman. “In return you are eligible to all privileges and profits achieved by our communal efforts, including lodging and a guaranteed fixed dividend.”
“I hope that involves supper daily.”
“It does indeed! And breakfast and dinner besides. Now—leave your bags and I will show you the special project I mentioned in my letters.”
Lyman stiffened. “Why should I leave my bags here at this house? I imagined I would take up residency immediately in the other.”
Grosvenor shook his head. “You have not seen that house, Mr. Lyman. It requires significant work before it is livable.”
“But I thought you said there wasn’t room elsewhere? That all the beds here in the main house and in the cabins were spoken for.” Lyman suddenly suspected Grosvenor meant for him to sleep in a hay loft.
“That’s true. But as I told you, our intent is for the stone house to ultimately function as a men’s dormitory. When it is restored, the unmarried women of the farm—they sleep upstairs in this house, several to a bed—will emigrate to the cabins, which are currently populated by the farm’s bachelors.”
“Where will I sleep in the meantime?”
“Until then I’m sorry to say the best we can offer is a couch and a blanket in the parlor. But! Having read in your letters of your considerable skill in carpentry, I imagine the restoration will take a few weeks at most, upon which the ladies will migrate to their new homes and you can join the men in the stone house.”
An unease stirred Lyman’s abdomen and he regarded Grosvenor, who in that moment resembled another in his mind’s eye, with a strange and near-malicious light. The thought of living with a bunch of uncouth and smelly farm hands revolted him; he would have to use whatever influence he could accrue to move in with Grosvenor and his family in the main house. “If it’s all the same to you,” he said, “allow me to look over the house before passing judgment. Perhaps the assessment of my experienced eye won’t be as dire as yours? Assuming so, I may even sleep there tonight.”
Grosvenor shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
Lyman’s host—now his coworker and comrade—led him through the kitchen, and after a brief introduction to his wife, out the back door and between the barn and various sheds and outbuildings to a double-rutted road. They set off along this following a horse fence, and as they walked, Grosvenor the tour guide pointed out the contents of various fields, green and full in the late summer, where men hoed and weeded. The most common of these plantings were potatoes and corn and onions, the latter grown mostly as a cash crop in support of their community.
“Though I do hope you like onions,” said Grosvenor, “because the corn has been terribly wormy this year and by February, I assure you, another plate of potatoes on the table will be an almost unbearable sight.”
Lyman indicated a pen and shed opposite the fields. “And the hogs?”
“Again, largely for market. Though we eat what bacon we can spare.”
“All this food and yet you sound as if you starve.”
“We do not starve, Mr. Lyman. It is just that the cost of operations has—well.” He stopped himself. “In any event, I will be glad to see the old stone house be put right so that we can invite more young women to join our experiment. We have had a great imbalance of male applicants who seem attracted to Bonaventure mainly by some of, ah, Monsieur Fourier’s more French ideas, shall we say. Mrs. Grosvenor has been adamant since day one that for Bonaventure to shine as an example to the world, the labor and contributions of both men and women must be perceived as equally worthy—but in order to do so, we must have equal numbers of men and women themselves. Otherwise any success we achieve will be attributed to that imbalance.”
A spur led off from the main road. On either side of this cul-de-sac, eight single-room cabins faced each other beneath leafy branches, the maple logs of their walls blond and bright.
“We had the cabins built with capital leftover from the sum used to buy the property. Alas for you, room in neither inn nor manger there.”
“I take it those are the bachelors’ quarters.”
“Seven of them. The last is inhabited by the Albys, a married couple and their young daughter.”
“You had money remaining after the sale? So the cost was less than expected?”
“I was able to negotiate a lower price, yes. The farm had been abandoned for more than half a century. The estate was eager to sell. With the remaining difference we were able to make repairs to the main house—which we call the Consulate, by the way—and to build the cabins and buy some equipment.”
“The estate of the Garrick family. They were the original settlers of the area, sometime in the late sixteen-hundreds during the Restoration era. They came over from Dunwich—the old Dunwich, in England. A rather large city at one time, I believe, until it fell into the sea, or the sea fell onto it, I suppose. An ancient family much reduced. There was some scandal, so the stories say, some accusation of witchcraft or paganism centering around the familial patriarch—you know how it must have been in those days, Charles the Second back on the throne and all the knives unsheathed, settling grievances real or otherwise. So the Garricks had to flee their ancestral homeland for more salubrious shores. The stone house where I am taking you was their original dwelling until later, when the younger generations built other houses around the property and left the first to the grandfather. He lived to a ripe old age and then some. But their misfortune followed the family from Britain, it seems; the members expired one by one, or moved away, and finally the last Garrick died out west somewhere and the attorneys had to wait fifty years to close accounts and collect their fee.”
By now the grass growing along the sides of the road and in the median between the ruts had grown long enough to brush against their calves, while the ruts themselves faded. They had walked half a mile, the road curving gently to their left, before entering a shallow wood that appeared on the right hand. Lyman had a definite impression this land had been cleared at one time—they passed between the bookends of a low tumbledown wall—before springing up again, by slow saplings and creepers, to reconquer its stolen territory. In the shade of the trees the road became sandy and the grass subsided. Then the ground inclined slightly and at the top squatted a house of fieldstone blocks chinked with sand daub. It was a saltbox, its wooden roof sloping from a height of two stories at its centerline to one story in the back. Much of the roof was buried beneath leaves and sticks and branches, and part of it had cratered into the kitchen.
“Here we are,” he said. “Doesn’t look like someone’s been in the house since I last visited.”
To this Grosvenor added little, perhaps worried Lyman might reject the project, and they ducked their heads under the lintel of the heavy door frame to tour inside; the thick door, though sticky, was unlocked. The ceilings were higher than Lyman had imagined—“Apparently the elder Garrick was quite tall and thin,” Grosvenor said—and the stone kept the air damp but cool. It would be refreshing to live here in the summer months, Lyman reasoned, after one had lit a fire to dry the place. The fireplaces were massive, of course. But it would also be freezing in the winter—which was all the more reason for him to expedite repairs and decamp for the main house. They walked from room to room. Berms of mortar, dissolved into dust, lay at the base of every wall, creating gaps between the stones. The windows were narrow but the glass, with two exceptions, was intact; and the doors, though most without hinges and latches, stood propped beside their frames, waiting to be rehung. Leaves and twigs and nests of a menagerie’s worth of varmints lay in the corners or were stuffed among the rafters, though prodding with toe or stick hinted that none seemed to be presently inhabited.
“Mr. Grosvenor,” said Lyman, “you have greatly exaggerated the condition of this house.”
Grosvenor looked at him with some anxiety.
“I don’t see why I can’t take occupancy immediately. Some sweeping, reglazing of the panes, reattachment of hardware—the work of a few days. Repointing the walls and the roof will take longer, and a new sanitation pit must be dug, and to prevent further stavings, many of the trees and saplings around the house should be cut down. But these are straightforward tasks. I believe the young men could settle here before the last red leaf has fallen.”
Grosvenor beamed. “I knew from your letters you were the right man for the job, Mr. Lyman.” He shook Lyman’s hand heartily and Lyman, for the first time since arrival, carefully set down the bag in his left hand and sealed their bargain by clasping his palm over their mutual grip.
Later Grosvenor arranged for some men to drive a cart full of supplies down to the house: lamps and lanterns and oil, a broom, a hammer and some hooks, a few dishes and cups and a pot and a pair of fire dogs, firewood, a water jug and a bucket and rope for the well, an old bedstead they wrestled out of the attic of the so-called Consulate, a mattress stuffed with fresh straw, a blanket, a wobbly dresser, and a lunch of cold ham and onions on bread. Lyman spent the rest of the day cleaning and sorting, and he claimed a bedroom for his own based on the size of the hearth rather the room itself. The fire, once lit, did as predicted and chased away the damp. In the late afternoon an exhausted Lyman paused his chores to sit on the edge of the bed, studying the flames; soon he lay back, his eyelids heavy, and dropped his chin to his chest.
He awoke engulfed in darkness. Stumbling through his mnemonic geography he managed to raise the fire and find and light a lamp. Outside lay impenetrable black and chirping frogs and crickets; Lyman had no conception of the hour but judged he had missed supper at the main house. Resolution would have to abide his stomach until daybreak. He poured himself some water from the jug and washed his face and hands and unpacked his clothes into the dresser. The other bag he stuffed under the bed. With log and poker Lyman built up the fire as high as it would safely go and sat staring at it, and gradually a snowfall of calm gathered in his hair and upon his shoulders, an accumulation of peace he hadn’t known for weeks. Finally he was secure: ensphered in a globe of night on the edges of civilization, as isolated as a Sandwich Island maroon, but not so alone as to be lonely. The purest bred hound, raised on a diet of nothing except dirty stockings and pinpricks of blood on grass, could not track his footsteps from New York to the little stone ruin perched on the periphery of Connecticut wilderness. He wrapped the blanket around his shoulders and dozed again.
The second time he woke to the sound of a violin. He couldn’t have been long asleep. the fire burned brightly; but the night beyond the house had gone silent, with only the scraping of the bow across strings. Lyman lay there a long time, icy needles stabbing him, wondering where the music originated. There was no wind to carry it from the house or some other building. Maybe someone fiddled while walking along the road? An approaching visitor. Then the playing, mournful at first, kicked up to a merry jig, and Lyman jumped to raise the lamp wick and push on his shoes.
He followed the sound from the bedroom to the stairs and descended. It was louder on the first floor, seeming to rise from the boards rather than out-of-doors. When he reached the basement door, it abruptly cut off.
It so happened that the basement door at the top of the worn stone steps, along with the front and kitchen doors, had not been stripped of its iron and thus functioned as intended. Additionally—and Lyman hadn’t thought this odd in the daylight, but now wasn’t so sure—the door was fitted with a crossbar, which, as there was no direct entrance from outside to the basement, seemed unnecessary.
He undid the bar, opened the door, held the lamp high. Nothing but shadow—the light failed to reach the floor below. Neither glimmer of light nor sounding of fiddle note wafted from the darkness.
The flame of the lamp leaned and flickered. Air brushed the hairs of his short beard: a breeze on his face. Something moved toward him at fast speed he realized, something large, its mass pushing the air ahead of it. Even now it noiselessly rushed up the stairs at him.
Lyman slammed the door, shot the bar through its cleat, threw his weight against the wood—steeled himself for the impact against the other side.
None came. After a long moment he looked at his lamp. The flame stood straight as a soldier.
He took a deep breath. Upon returning to his room it didn’t take him long to convince himself he had imagined everything, that the only music had been the cotton of a dream clinging to his sleepy skull. He tossed another log on the fire and lay back on the mattress, listening as the usual players outside again took up their instruments and played him off to sleep.
Jackson Kuhl is the author of the Revolutionary War biography SAMUEL SMEDLEY, CONNECTICUT PRIVATEER, and the fiction collection THE DEAD RIDE FAST. Kuhl has written for Atlas Obscura, Connecticut Magazine, the Hartford Courant, National Geographic News, Reason, and other publications. He paddles the waters of coastal Connecticut. For more information, visit www.jacksonkuhl.com.
Established in 2016, AURELIA LEO is an independent publisher and bookseller. Located in Louisville, Kentucky, we specialize in diverse speculative fiction, namely: horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Our flagship titles are Helios Quarterly Magazine, Selene Quarterly Magazine, and Invictus: Quarterly Comics and Illustrations.
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