Tim McGregor takes readers back in time to 1820s New England in his new novel, Hearts Strange and Dreadful, due out next month from Off Limits Press.
The novel focuses on Hester Stokely, orphaned at the age of 12, who now resides with her Uncle Pardon and Aunt Katherine Stokely and their six children–Prudence, Faith, Samuel, John, Polly, and Hiram–in the village of Wickstead. Piety and superstition go hand in hand in their insular world, so when a strange man rides into town half-dead it naturally causes a stir.
Even more terrifying is the strange disease which seems to have followed the man. As villagers begin to waste away, Hester and her family find themselves at the center of rising paranoia over a seemingly supernatural contagion.
I appreciate an author who does their homework, and McGregor obviously spent a lot of time researching some of the stranger periods of our country’s history while writing Hearts Strange and Dreadful. That work behind-the-scenes shines through in the narrative, especially when it comes to the the village’s view of disease and their methods of treating it.
This worldbuilding is essential when asking contemporary readers to take on a period piece that can often seem foreign and unrelatable, and McGregor does a fine job of exposing us to the sounds, smells, textures, and taste of his landscape.
Hester, herself, is a brilliant character. Smart with a healthy dose of sarcasm and wit, her worldview colors the reader’s experience as we settle into Wickstead. We are outsiders, just as she is an outsider, and her invitation to experience the events of the book comes with no few caveats, some of which are not revealed until the final chapters.
Hester’s world is one of uncertainty. Her life is lived in service of others, her livelihood dependent on obedience. As a young woman and an orphan in 1821, there are only so many prospects she has within society, and so of course, we’re introduced to not one, but two possible suitors.
Will is the steadfast farmhand with whom she can be herself, speak her mind, and confide her secrets. Henry is the dashing son of the local innkeeper with a penchant for carousing, drinking, and occasional gambling, but his heart is usually–sometimes–in the right place.
Normally I would groan at the sheer romantic tropes of it all, but again, this keeps the novel in line tonally with the stories and books that would have been told and written during the time period.
What is most effective in Hearts Strange and Dreadful is McGregor’s sense of pacing. The novel is a more athletic read than some contemporary readers may like. The language is more dense which gives each turn of phrase more weight. The words feel as though they were carefully chosen to deliver an even, gradual escalation in tension and dread.
It’s rather like walking up a gently slanting slope. You don’t realize just how frightening this book really is until you turn and look behind you. Certainly there are moments when McGregor flexes his grip on the reader, but he releases them quickly, again, only hinting at what is to come.
A note about the ending: Some readers will no doubt find fault in the book’s resolution. I cannot tell you why without spoiling the plot, so I will only say this:
Was I totally satisfied with the ending? No. Did it end the way that I thought it should? No! Was I absolutely invested in the book enough that I felt some kind of way about the ending? You’re damn right I was, and that means Tim McGregor did his job as a an author. What more could you ask for?
It takes a careful hand to present a story that echoes so many modern sentiments without marring the veneer of a period piece. Hearts Strange and Dreadful does it beautifully.