THE RESIDENCE – Origin Story


I’ve been asked a few times recently where the idea to write a White House ghost story based on true events came from. So I figured I’d share the origins of the novel here in case you were curious.

I’d never heard of President Franklin Pierce. Why would I have? A one-term administration. A leader whose inaction set the course toward civil war. A slice of American history that even historians haven’t bothered with much.

What drew me to write The Residence wasn’t the history, nor was it setting a ghost story in the most famous house in the world. It was the mystery of a marriage.

I came to Franklin by way of Jane, whom I found by accident at the bottom of an internet rabbit hole. On the surface, her profile was the opposite of more celebrated or charming First Ladies. Jane Pierce wanted only to be a wife and mother in small town New Hampshire, yet fate kept pulling her and her husband to seats of greater power. Along the way, she lost all three of her children, the last of whom, Bennie, was the sole fatality in a bizarre train accident that occurred just weeks prior to Franklin’s inauguration. Forced to reside in a palace of grief, she hid on the second floor of the White House and wrote letters to Bennie, pleading for the boy’s return. According to her, he did.

The lore around Jane (dubbed “the phantom of the White House” by the press) includes seances, eccentric behavior, a life of unimaginably cursed luck. So why did the handsome Franklin Pierce choose her in the first place? How did they endure such tragic loss and yet remained devoted to each other both during their years in Washington and after? Why did Franklin refuse to swear his oath on a bible?

Ghost stories are as much about those who witness the supernatural as the spectres themselves. How do spirits – and demons – choose the ones they possess? The Residence is the story of a couple struggling with enormous loss while not being permitted to grieve. It’s also about a secret. A resistance to an ancient darkness that followed them inside the only haunted house whose inhabitants are forbidden to leave.

A Tale of Two Trailers

I’m no expert.  Which, in the blogosphere, entitles me to an expert opinion.

The field of study today is movie trailers.  Specifically, how this increasingly decisive aspect of the moviegoing process can be done skilfully – even artfully – and how it can also make you want to stick chopsticks in your eyes.  I have selected, for the purposes of comparison, two upcoming, mainstream, popcorn Hollywood flicks (so as not to apples vs. oranges things with, say, Transformers vs. There Will Be Blood).

The first is for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus which is, according to the protestations of its producers, not an Alien prequel.  (Side Note:  Why bother denying the obvious fact that it is an Alien prequel?  Especially when the movie looks as promisingly awesome as it does?)

Prometheus trailer

Now compare to Chernobyl Diaries, a new horror movie from the people that brought us Paranormal Activity (I’m a fan, BTW), about a group of young “extreme tourists” who get stranded in…Chernobyl.

Chernobyl Diaries trailer

Okay, maybe that wasn’t fair.  Or on the other hand, maybe it was.

Yes, Prometheus likely had ten times the budget of Chernobyl Diaries.  But that’s still no excuse for a trailer (presumably composed of the movie’s best bits) showcasing an idiotic premise (“Screw Moscow!  Let’s hit Chernobyl and get cancer instantly!”), laughable dialogue (“I’m not leaving without my brother!” etc., etc.) and worst kind of horror movie cliche after worst kind of horror movie cliche (the false shock at the pond, the van that won’t start, the dragged-off girl, the camera held by someone suffering the DTs).  As a horror fan, this sort of thing breaks my heart.  I’m not kidding.  It.  Breaks.  My.  Heart.

But there’s still Prometheus to look forward to…

Is There a Right Book for the Right Season?

The publishing industry is informed, in large part, by long-established truisms.  People only buy hardcovers at Christmas.  Summer reading means fluff.  Nobody buys books in January.  Only men like scary stories.

Some of these are verifiably true, of course.  Others not remotely so.  In particular, I have always doubted the “right book for the right season” approach to reading (and publishing, and bookselling).  Are we really hard-wired to crave sombre literary doorstoppers from November 1 to December 24?  Are low-brow thrillers best consumed on a beach in July?  Do we want romance in the two weeks leading up to the fourteenth day of February any more than we want romance any other time?  For me, it’s a no to all of these self-fulfilling “facts” of readerly habits.  All of them…except one.

If you live in a geography where there are pronounced seasons that include autumn you know the shivery magic of October.  There’s something about the coolness of the evenings, the leaves scraping down the street, the solitary walks home with the branches chattering your name overhead…

Ghosts didn’t invent the autumn.  But it may well be that the autumn invented ghosts.

This year, I’m currently curled up with a work of non-fiction that, while a serious work of scholarship, conveys its fair share of brainy chills:  Satan:  A Biography, by Henry Ansgar Kelly (University of Cambridge Press).  It’s research.  But utterly fascinating research (I feel another blog coming on, but will resist for now).

Naturally, this being an author’s website, I would recommend my own books for an October read.  (Didn’t you notice?  The Guardians is out in paperback in North America!)  But I would personally be interested to hear of any of your own scary recommendations.  I’m looking for a new Halloween read.  Something I’ve never heard of before.  Ideas?