Emily Carpenter follows up Burying the Honeysuckle Girls with another family drama, this one based in cult horror.
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Southern Gothic is a mild way to describe Emily Carpenter’s new novel The Weight of Lies. Sure, it has all the usual elements: dysfunctional families, a moss-draped setting and a good mystery, but Carpenter takes the genre to the extreme and merges it with true horror.
Carpenter has said that she was inspired by Stephen King’s Carrie, in which a bullied high school girl uses her telekinetic powers for revenge. She read that King modeled his character of Carrie after a girl he knew in high school, and that was enough to plant a seed. Carpenter’s characters of Frances, a famous novelist who is estranged from her daughter, and Doro, the young girl Frances wrote about in her book, are both outcasts.
Frances spent a summer on remote Bonny Island at Ambletern Hotel, the home of Dorothy Kitchens, who was just eight years old when an American Indian girl was murdered there. Strange and reclusive, Doro is said to be the inspiration for Frances’s cult classic novel Kitten. Carpenter does something remarkable in writing a novel within a novel, interspersing her main story with short chapters from Kitten.
A third character, Megan, is Frances’s estranged daughter who travels to Bonny Island with plans of writing a tell-all book of her own. Carpenter says she had to wonder what was the “mega-famous book Frances wrote that would still be generating these ripples of interest in popular culture?”
She ended up writing both books simultaneously, and as Megan reads Kitten for the first time while staying on Bonny Island, she discovers just how closely the book mirrors Doro’s life. Young Kitten lives at the hotel with her parents, charms all the guests and is left in the care of her nanny most of the time. She befriends another young girl on the island, Cappie Strongbow, and eventually begins to play some dangerous games.
We drove between two slightly crumbling columns made of the pinkish-gray tabby concrete and down the sandy drive, which was lined with palmetto trees. Frances had described everything about the place, down to the most minute detail.” – Megan, Chapter Ten
So, where does the horror come in? Well, first of all, Frances is a nightmare of a mother to Megan, who describes herself as the “recipient of her rages, ravings, and preening.” Megan desperately wants to understand her mother though, which is what takes her to Bonny Island and straight into the loving arms of Doro. But Carpenter takes things to the next level with Kitten, a spoiled child who poisons hotel guests, scalps one who tries to escape and kills her best friend.
Kitten also thinks she’s the mico, or head of the tribe after Cappie’s death. “I’m the only one left on the island. So I’m the mico,” she tells her nanny. Carpenter’s element of Native American culture and lore adds to the horror and also the message she’s trying to convey. She says she researched the Guale Indians who lived along the Georgia coast, but not much is known about them because they were killed and their culture wiped out after colonization by the Spanish and English.
“I really wanted to deconstruct some aspects of a white person’s response to this,” says Carpenter. “I think it’s something we’ve all seen. That initial jolt of horror and empathy you feel when you’re confronted with the facts, but then what happens afterward can get weird.”
Things certainly get weird with Doro and Kitten, who take on the Guale identity. Doro hires Native Americans to work at Ambletern and wants to give the island back to them, while Kitten dons a red silk turban with a white ostrich feather for her killing spree.
But perhaps the best element of horror in The Weight of Lies is Carpenter’s setting. Fictional Bonny Island is a combination of Cumberland, St. Catherine and other private Golden Isles off Georgia’s coast. Carpenter says the untouched wilderness, wild horses and marshland intrigued her, and this remote setting certainly gives her characters plenty of places to hide.
“I was really drawn to the idea of a privately owned island where the owner had the freedom to do pretty much anything she wanted in complete and utter isolation,” she says. “She could invent history if she wanted, could create a narrative that benefitted her business and fed some of the public’s hunger for a real mystery.”
Even though Doro has closed her hotel, she still considers herself the mico of the island. Her houseguests are free to leave, but won’t get very far. If the swarming mosquitoes, pack of wild horses and venomous snakes don’t get them, then Kitten will.