My initial mission was to write a ghost story. Something with Canadian roots, for preference – ideally, something I could set in my own neighbourhood, which at the time was Britannia Village, a little peninsula sticking out into the Ottawa river. It’s spooky there at night: very quiet, except for the distant sound of the river.
The exception was the story of Esther Cox.
What stood out to me was the vicious, inexplicable hostility of the ghost, which slapped Esther, poked her with pins, threatened to kill her, and even stabbed her once: whatever it was, it hated her. And it was never entirely clear exactly what it was, what caused it, or what finally made it go away, although commenters on the case had plenty of theories.
I didn’t come across this book until I was two or three drafts into my own, but one fantastic recent take on the so-called “Great Amherst Mystery” – and the only one I saw from women – is Haunted Girl by Laurie Glenn Norris and Barbara Thompson. It gives a detailed account of the full story, quotes lots of contemporary responses to it, and paints a vivid picture of the time and place. Of the reading I did, it was the only book that pointed out the gender dynamics of the mystery and the conspicuous absence of Esther’s own account of what happened:
It is, moreover, the voices of men that are heard throughout this case, whether in Hubbell’s pompous, self-congratulatory tone or in the quasi-scientific musing of local editorials. Esther herself is silent. Her only apparent words are heard through the filter of the Reverend Robert Temple and her brother-in-law…but she was never totally without power, nor without the desire and ability to use it.
Reading up on poltergeists, I discovered that the people they plague are most often teenaged girls, which puts a whole different creepy angle on the varyingly Freudian explanations from male supernaturalists. And my god, some of their comments about Esther Cox were downright obnoxious, sniping about her shoddy housekeeping and her “sullen” demeanor when asked years later about the haunting.
Interestingly, though, when you read poltergeist stories, you never seem to hear from the person being haunted. It’s all accounts from witnesses and investigators. I think the narrative purpose behind that might be to retain some mystery about whether the person in question is somehow doing it themselves.
That silence was the start of The Dark Beneath the Ice: what’s it like, being at the epicentre of something like that?
During revisions, as dance became more significant in the story, I got to thinking about a fairy tale I’d heard of several times but had never actually read. My recollection was that it had something to do with a girl with enchanted red shoes who danced herself to death. “The Red Shoes,” Hans Christian Andersen’s actual story, turned out to be fascinatingly horrible – and still relevant in a weird, inverted way, which makes it even worse.
She was terribly frightened, and tried to take off her shoes. She tore off her stockings, but the shoes had grown fast to her feet. And dance she did, for dance she must, over fields and valleys, in the rain and in the sun, by day and night. It was most dreadful by night….And when she danced toward the open doors of the church, she saw it guarded by an angel with long white robes and wings that reached from his shoulders down to the ground. His face was grave and stern, and in his hand he held a broad, shining sword.
"Dance you shall!" he told her. "Dance in your red shoes until you are pale and cold, and your flesh shrivels down to the skeleton. Dance you shall from door to door, and wherever there are children proud and vain you must knock at the door till they hear you, and are afraid of you. Dance you shall. Dance always."
Andersen puts dance and torment together in “The Little Mermaid,” too, where the heroine amazes her prince and his court with her graceful dancing despite every step feeling like she’s treading on knives – and there's something about that expressed frighteningly, rivetingly well in this video of literal dancing on knives that my amazing sibling sent me.
Andersen’s message to young women seems to be, to quote the mermaid’s grandmother, “pride must suffer pain.” Jess Zimmerman’s essay “Hunger Makes Me” cuts so close to the heart of a whole constellation of related cultural messages that it’s kind of scary to read.
The attention whore is every low-maintenance woman’s dark mirror: the void of hunger we fear is hiding beneath our calculated restraint. It doesn’t take much to be considered an attention whore; any manifestation of that deeply natural need to be noticed and attended to is enough. You don’t have to be secretly needy to worry. You just have to be secretly human....
Fearing hunger, fearing the loss of control that tips hunger into voraciousness, means fearing asking for anything: nourishment, attention, kindness, consideration, respect. Love, of course, and the manifestations of love. It means being so unwilling to seem “high-maintenance” that we pretend we do not need to be maintained. And eventually, it means losing the ability to recognize what it takes to maintain a self, a heart, a life.
And, on the flip side, a girl who throws off that restraint, who gives in to voraciousness, is a monster.
When you can pause for a moment between waves of stomach-churning heebie-jeebies, you realize that not only are these women sympathetic characters, but they're all the more terrifying because they have every bit of anger that makes living women sources of fear, but none of the societal restriction.