Mixing deep Southern charm by way of Charleston and a creepy old house, Karen White’s latest novel is one that will leave you shaking in the knees.
Karen White’s The Guests on South Battery
Ghosts may be something that have yet to fully reveal themselves to Karen White, New York Times bestselling author of The Guests on South Battery, but that’s no indication that her stalwart main character (and new mom), Melanie Trenholm, is in for the same fate. We caught up with the author and asked the vital questions about the supernatural, Southern families and adding herself to the pages of her books. Tune in for her answers here, and then read-on for the first chapter of her latest page-turner.
If they make a movie about your life, what kind of movie will it be? And who would play you?
I’m guessing Southern coming of age–lots of angst and a large, crazy Southern family. I’d see Kyra Sedgwick playing me as an adult. She does Southern angst so well.
What advice would you give to your 18 year-old self?
Things will get better. And don’t worry so much about the small things. Also–start writing that first book (so I’ll be ahead later on and won’t have to sweat all my deadlines).
Do parts of your own story ever make it into your writing?
Probably. Although not intentionally. In my Tradd Street series, many of my friends believe that I’m actually Melanie (the main protagonist), but I refuse to say one way or the other.
What is your “not so guilty” guilty pleasure?
Video games.It’s a sickness.
Do you believe in the supernatural?
I think so. I’ve had a few minor experiences but not a full apparition, not that I really want to.
What is it about the South that is intriguing from a writing perspective?
The history! Place is as much of a character in my books as the living, breathing kind. The setting has to speak to me—via its history, architecture, ambiance—or I can’t write about it.
Read the first chapter of The Guests on South Battery below.
There is no escaping the dead. On the slender peninsula that is Charleston, we cannot help being surrounded by them packed as they are into ancient cemeteries behind ornate iron fencing. Beneath our streets. And under our homes and parking garages. Land is at a premium here, and it was inevitable that over the course of time the living and the dead would eventually rub elbows. Most residents of the Holy City are blissfully unaware of its former citizens who have passed on, but whose names and homes we share and whose presence lingers still. Others, like me, are not so lucky.
It’s one of the reasons why I’ve always been such a light sleeper. Even before I became the owner of a needy money-sucking historic home on Tradd Street, and then the mother of twins, I always slept half-awake, anticipating a cold hand on my shoulder, or a shadow by the window. For years I’d learned how to ignore them, to pretend I’d felt only a draft, had seen only a shift in the light as morning nudged the night. But that’s the thing with pretending. It doesn’t make them go away.
Which is why when the shrill of the telephone jerked me full awake, I was already reaching for the nightstand to answer it before I remembered that we no longer kept a house phone in our bedroom. Sitting straight up in bed, I stared at my nightstand where my cell phone lay, its face glowing with an unexpected blue light, the ring tone not my usual Mama Mia but identical to the tone of the now defunct landline handset.
Fumbling to pick it up before it awoke my sleeping companions, I slid my thumb across the screen to answer. “Hello?”
A distant, hollow sound, like a small rock being dropped into a deep well, echoed in my ear. “Hello?” I said again. “Grandmother?” She’d been dead since I was a little girl, but it wouldn’t have been the first time she’d called me since then. But I knew it wasn’t her. When she called I always had a sense of peace and well-being. Of love and protection. Not the feeling of unseen insects crawling over my scalp. And somewhere, in that deep dark space at the other end of the phone, was the sound of something heavy being dragged across wood, a tinny note, almost indecipherable, vibrating in the empty air.
I pulled the phone from my ear and hit end, noticing the local 843 area code but not recognizing the number. Replacing the phone back on the nightstand, I looked at the video monitor of my ten-month-old twins sleeping peacefully in their nursery next door, then turned to Jack. I was met with the wet nose and large eyes of my dog, General Lee. I’d inherited him along with the house and housekeeper, Mrs. Houlihan.
Despite my protestations that I didn’t like dogs, I now found myself the owner of three. Even in his advanced years, General Lee had proven himself quite virile and fathered a litter of puppies, two of which had been given to us as a wedding present the previous year. With the addition of a husband, two babies, and a stepdaughter, I barely recognized my life anymore and had to pinch myself on more than one occasion to make me believe it was true.
Which is why the phone call unnerved me more than it should have. The restless dead had left me alone for almost a year. It had been a blissful year when I’d begun to settle into my life as a new wife and mother without the distraction of spirits needing me for something. I’d even begun to hope that the dead had forgotten about me.
General Lee crawled on top of my pillow above my head, allowing me to see Jack’s face in the soft glow of the monitor. I still couldn’t believe that he was my husband. That the irritating, opinionated, overly charming and irresistible bestselling author Jack Trenholm was my husband and father to my children. He was still irritating and opinionated, especially where I was concerned, but that somehow added to his attraction.
“Good morning, beautiful,” he slurred, his voice thick with sleep.
He reached over and pulled me toward him, spoon position, and I melted into his warmth. His lips found my neck and the rest of my skin seemed to jump to attention, hoping to be next in line. “Who was that on the phone?”
“Hmm?” I said, forgetting what the word “phone” meant.
“The phone. It rang. Was it important?”
“Hmm,” I repeated, the sound coming from deep in my throat. I’d already started to turn in his arms, my hands sliding up his chest, any phone call long since forgotten.
“Because I was wondering if it was your boss, checking to see if you were still planning on coming in today. Before your maternity leave, you were always there by seven on Mondays.”
My eyes flew wide open, his words the equivalent of ice-cold water thrown over my head. I jerked up in the bed, receiving an unhappy groan from General Lee, and picked up my phone again. Five after seven. I looked across the room where I’d set three different alarm clocks, all the old-fashioned wind-up kinds just in case the electricity turned off in the middle of the night and my phone battery died and blinked.
I stared at them for a long moment before Jack sighed. “You really should keep your glasses nearby. I’ve seen you wearing them often enough that it wouldn’t be a shock.” He sat up so he could see better. “That’s odd. It looks like they’re all stopped at four ten.”
I leaped from the bed, not really registering what he’d just said. It was my first day back after nearly a year away on an extended maternity leave. It was supposed to have been only three months, but our inability to find a nanny who would stay longer than two weeks had proven not only baffling but problematic.
I ran to the bathroom and turned on the shower, then retreated to my closet where I had laid out my outfit—complete with shoes and accessories—the night before. I threw off my nightgown, a slinky silk thing Jack had bought for me and didn’t resemble the old high-necked flannel gowns of my single days, folded it neatly on my dressing table bench, then jumped in the shower.
Five minutes later I was brushing my teeth while simultaneously buttoning a blouse that didn’t want to be buttoned, and zipping up a skirt with an equally reluctant zipper. I stared at my reflection in the full-length mirror, too horrified by what I saw to allow my gaze to linger very long. I could hope that everybody in the office had gone blind and wouldn’t notice my unfastened blouse and skirt, or I’d have to find something else to wear.
I carefully rinsed off my toothbrush and then the handle then replaced it on the holder—only two tries to get it standing up perfectly straight—before marching back into the closet. “Damn drycleaners,” I muttered as I tried on outfit after outfit. I had no idea to whom Mrs. Houlihan was taking my clothes to be cleaned, but it needed to stop immediately or I’d be reduced to wearing my maternity clothes. The ones with elastic seams and stretchy fabrics.
When I finally emerged into the bedroom, I wore an A-line dress my mother had purchased for me around the fifth month of my pregnancy. The way it only hugged my neck and nothing else and its pretty green color that turned the color of my hazel eyes to something more exotic like jungle leaves were its only assets. I hobbled in my five inch Manola stilettos, my toes seeming to be folding in on themselves, wondering how my shoes had managed to shrink along with my clothes. Maybe there was something in the air in the newly renovated closet, something my best friend Dr. Sophie Wallen-Arasi, professor of historic preservation at the College of Charleston, might know about. She was the one who had supervised its historically conscious construction, along with the never-ending number of renovations and preservation projects that seemed to have no end in my house on Tradd Street.
Like the recent roof replacement that still had me dreaming of renting a bulldozer and being done with all of it. I had never liked old houses, mostly because of the restless dead who hated to leave them. And now that I owned one, and could even grudgingly admit that I occasionally experienced fond feelings toward it, I found myself torn more often than not between thoughts of hugging that rare slab of an Adams mantel and that of accidentally throwing a flaming torch through a downstairs window.
I paused by the bed where General Lee was now spooning with Jack. Jack opened his eyes, those beautiful blue eyes that both twins had inherited along with his black hair and dimples—I’d apparently just been an incubator—and I felt my knees soften. I wondered how long we had to be married before that would stop.
I picked up my phone and checked the time—eight o’clock. On the monitor, I watched as Sarah began to fret in her pink-canopy-draped crib, right on time. She was more reliable than the bells of St. Michael’s for telling time, especially when it came to her feeding schedule. Her brother, JJ—for Jack Junior—continued to sleep peacefully in his own crib, flat on his back with all four limbs spread out like a little starfish. No matter what position we placed him in to sleep, he always ended up like that. Just like his father.
“I got this,” Jack said, reaching up to kiss me, his lips lingering on mine and making me regret my decision to get out of bed.
“I know. It’s just…well, I’ve been with them since they were born.”
“So have I. There’s nothing to worry about.”
I bit my lip. “I have their charts in the nursery and in the kitchen. Don’t forget to write down all their bowel movements—including descriptions, as well as what they eat and how much. And I’ve laid out their outfits in their room, including spares in case anything gets dirty. If they need a third, their hangers are color-coded so it’s easy to match different pants with tops.”
Jack stared up at me for a moment. “Sweetheart, don’t take this the wrong way, but do you think the reason we haven’t been able to hold on to a nanny is that things might be a little too…regulated?”
I straightened. “Of course not. Children do best when they’re on a schedule and live in an organized environment. It’s not my fault that I seem to know more about child-rearing than some of these so-called nannies. We’ll try a new agency with more stringent qualifications. I just need to ask around because I think I’ve already tried the ones that were recommended to us.”
“You might need to go out of state.” A corner of his lips turned up and for a moment, I thought he might be joking.
“That’s a good idea. I’ll make some calls this afternoon.”
Sarah started to fret in earnest while JJ continued to be oblivious. Jack was already out of the bed and padding toward the door. “I know it’s hard, but you probably shouldn’t go in to see them—it would probably rile you up more than them. You’ll see them when you get home, and I’ll Skype with you at lunchtime. We’ll be fine. I’m just working on revisions my editor wanted for my book, and I can do that while watching two little babies. I mean, how hard can it be?”
It was my turn to stare at him. “My mom said to call if you needed anything, and I’m just a phone call away, as well. Sophie said to call her if you got stuck, but between you and me, I’d use her as a last resort. Last time I called she mentioned a baby massage while listening to whale music.” I gave in to an involuntary shudder.
He walked back to me and gave me a long, deep kiss, one that left me not caring that I had to repair my lipstick. “We’ll be fine. Now go.”
His firm hand steered me toward the stairs as he headed to the nursery, briefly brushing my rear end before he let go. “And I just might have a surprise for you when you get home.”
His eyes definitely held that look and it took all my strength reserves to continue down the stairs.
Halfway down, Nola’s bedroom door opened and she peered out, a puppy in each arm—appropriately named Porgy and Bess—as she waved a front paw of each dog. “Say bye-bye, Mommy. Have a great first day back at work. Bring us back some kibble.”
Nola, Jack’s daughter whose surprise appearance after her mother’s death a few years before, was one of life’s unexpected gifts—and I never thought I’d be saying that about any teenager. A sophomore now at Ashley Hall, she was quirky, smart, an accomplished songwriter, and as much my daughter now as Jack’s. Like all of his children she was his spitting image, right down to the dimple in her chin. I’d come to the conclusion long ago that Jack’s genes were simply bullies in the conception department. She was a Vegan, and my self-appointed nutrition guru who liked to slip in tofu and quinoa on Mrs. Houlihan’s shopping list in place of creamed spinach and fried okra, but I loved her anyway.
“Thanks, Nola. Good luck on your French test. Alston’s mother is driving the morning and afternoon carpools today, so you can spend the time going over your flashcards.”
“Yes, Melanie,” she said, rolling her eyes.
I heard Mrs. Houlihan in the kitchen and tiptoed toward the front door to avoid her. Sophie had detected wood rot in the kitchen windows and had them removed so they could be restored and then reinstalled. That had been six weeks ago, prompting me to suggest replacing them with new, vinyl windows. Sophie, a new mother herself, had clutched at her heart and had to sit down, looking at me as if I’d just kicked a puppy. I’d let the suggestion drop. But I was tired of listening to Mrs. Houlihan complain about how dark it was in the kitchen with boarded- up windows, and how it was impossible for her to continue to work in such conditions.
I pulled on my coat before opening the front door, silently shut it behind me. I drew up short at the sight of the van parked at the curb, Hard Rock Foundations painted on the side, and my father’s car behind it. My father, with whom I’d recently reconciled, had made it his mission to restore my Loutrel Briggs garden to its former glory. He’d done such a good job that both his re-marriage to my mother as well as my own wedding had both been held beneath the ancient oak tree in the back garden surrounded by roses and tea olives.
But that didn’t explain why he and Rich Kobylt, my plumber, foundation repair technician, and general handyman, and even erstwhile counselor, would be there so early in the morning. I remembered my conversation with my father the previous evening, him asking me when I planned to leave for work. As if he’d been secretly scheduling something with Rich Kobylt that he didn’t want me to know about.
Probably because Rich’s presence upset me. Not because of his penchant for low-slung and overly revealing pants, or even the sound of fluttering dollar bills and the ringing of a cash register I usually heard right after he showed up on my doorstep. His presence upset me because Rich had the uncanny ability to uncover things that I’d preferred not to deal with. Like foundation cracks and crumbling chimney bricks. And buried skeletons.
I looked with longing at the carriage house where my Volvo station wagon was parked next to Jack’s minivan, wanting nothing more than to pretend that I had no idea I had visitors and head into work as planned. But I was an adult now. The wife and mother of three. I was supposed to be brave.
Mentally girding my loins, I headed down the recently rebricked pathway to the rear garden, past the silent swing hanging from the oak tree, and the fountain, recently relieved of two skeletons, burbling in the chill winter air. I stopped when I reached the rear corner of the house. I must have made a noise, because both my father and Rich turned to look at me.
They were standing in the rear garden where the famous Louisa roses had been blooming for almost a century. But where there had once been rosebushes, there was now only a deep, circular indentation on the ground.
My father took a step toward me, as if trying to block my view. “Sweet pea—I thought you’d be at work.”
I frowned at him, then directed my attention toward Rich, then quickly averted my eyes when I saw he was squatting at the edge of the indentation, his back to me. “What’s happened?”
Thankfully, Rich stood. “Good mornin’, Miz Middleton, I mean Miz Trenholm.” His cheeks flushed. “I think with all this rain we’ve been having, this part of the yard sank. Looks like there might be some kind of structure underneath.” He squatted to look more closely into the crevasse and I quickly averted my eyes.
“A structure?” I waited for him to say the word “cemetery”. I’d seen Poltergeist after all. And it wasn’t as if that sort of thing hadn’t happened before in Charleston. The recent construction of the new Gaillard Auditorium had unearthed a number of graves that had been there since the Colonial era.
“I’m sure it’s nothing, sweet pea,” my father said as he took another step toward me. I made the mistake of meeting his eyes, and knew he was also thinking about the anonymous letter that had been sent into the Post and Courier and printed right after the twins were born by intrepid reporter and staff writer Suzy Dorf. Something about more bodies to be found on my property.
I hadn’t realized until now that I’d been holding my breath ever since, waiting for just this moment, and knowing that even though I claimed to be done with spirits and the dead, they would never be done with me.
I sidestepped them both to stand near the deep indention that looked like a navel in my garden, old bricks now visible through the soggy earth and ruined rosebushes. My phone began to ring again, the old-fashioned telephone ring that didn’t exist on my phone. I ended the call, then turned off my phone, knowing I’d hear only empty space if I answered it. Somehow this chasm in my garden and the phone call were related. And the clocks in my bedroom, all stopped at the same time. I didn’t know how, but I suspected that I’d eventually find out whether I wanted to or not. There was no such thing as coincidence, according to Jack. And when my phone began to ring again, I had the sinking feeling that he was right.