Megan Abbott: Beware the Woman

The Gothic is one of those adjacent genres that fed into the mystery torrent but still manages a fairly strong stream of its own. Many mistresses of mystery like Mignon Eberhardt and Daphne du Maurier mixed updated elements of the Gothic into their most notable books. An equally notable modern talent, Megan Abbott is nothing if not an aficionado of genre, but her take in her excellent new effort Beware the Woman is not just imitation, but an update and critique of these female centered but male dominated stories.

There’s a sly reference to DuMarier’s Rebecca here, what with the “ancestral” home, the secretive haunted husband and the ambiguous housekeeper, and the set-up is totally classic, a young woman alone in a strange, dark house, vaguely menaced and quickly discovering her lack of agency in the situation. Usually things are accelerated by some natural disaster, often a storm that knocks out telephone and power, plunging everything into a more perilous and less civilized world, with dangerous secrets unfolding in the dark. But Abbot doesn’t need all that – she has the U.P.

Yes, Beware the Woman is set in Michigan’s very own beloved Upper Peninsula, not exactly a natural disaster but certainly a natural challenge to cell phone use, consistent power and getting the hell out of the middle of it in a hurry. The beautiful setting and vast idiosyncrasies of the region are evocatively handled (after reading this book I tried Blue Moon ice cream for the first time and we’re talking about visiting Tahquamenon Falls) and, as readers know from Steve Hamilton, it makes for a vivid backdrop, often becoming a character itself.

Abbott’s Jacy is a modern woman trapped in an isolated timewarp, leaving the East Coast of today and taking a trip with her hapless husband Jed to meet his extremely patriarchal patriarch at a beloved family vacation home in a place where the boundaries between life and death seem a lot thinner. And, oh, she’s pregnant too, making travel more complicated, and since her father-in-law, the initially avuncular Dr. Ash, is in fact, a doctor and a friend of the only other doctor around, she finds herself losing control of her own body in the name of common sense. At first she’s just an outsider trying to decode the workings of a long running household in an unfamiliar place, but soon, while still trying to not make waves or seem demanding or paranoid, she determines that maybe it’s a place she shouldn’t be. The men do not agree, arguing for the wellbeing of the baby.

Megan is a great person and a skillful and intelligent writer who I have long admired, and she deserves a big time bestseller as much as anyone, but to market this book as “Summer’s Big Thriller” isn’t quite right, because it’s better than that. Although there are great plot twists here, she doesn’t rat-tat-tat focused scenes like those potboiler producers. Rather, one of her greatest gifts is creating a deeply textured atmosphere of ambiguous dread and some weird kind of pleasure, as evidenced by her audacious and deeply hypnotic TV show Dare Me.

Beware The Woman is a little more restrained, balanced by a dollop of her illustrious predecessors in this territory like Jane Eyre. I love this stuff, so if I can be forgiven one even more archaic reference to a book called Uncle Silas, an 1864 publication by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, described these days as a Victorian Gothic mystery-thriller, and the creepiest book I have ever read.  This one is right up there though, and Abott’s impressionistic prose creeps forward as everything gets creepier and creepier until all that has been repressed explodes into view. Uncle Silas could also be called a ghost story, although in the end (spoiler alert from 1864) there aren’t any real ghosts. Similarly Beware the Woman is about a region haunted by its now diminishing glory and exploitative past, and men haunted by very similar things. I’ve avidly followed Abbott’s writing from her first jaw dropping noir novels to her more recent contemporary cutting edge work, applauding at every step. She’s one of the handful of writers that I still run out and get on the day of publication, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. Don’t Beware the Woman – snap up her book!  — Jamie Agnew