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Looking for some summer reading? If you’re a horror fan, Kristen Dearborn’s novella Woman in White might be up your alley.
The story opens with a man, Dennis, driving through a winter storm in the small town of Rocky Roads, Maine. He sees a woman standing in the road. She has no coat over her white dress and her feet are bare. He pulls over and offers her a ride.
His car is found the following day, its interior coated with blood. His boots are inside the car, but his body is missing. He is the second man to disappear in such a fashion. Over the following days, men and boys continue to vanish one by one, leaving behind only blood and footwear. It is up to the women to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late.
The story is told primarily from the perspectives of three women: Mary Beth, Angela, and Lee. Mary Beth, an overweight, self-identified “gamer girl” is reeling from the loss of her partner Dennis. Angela is working as a waitress at the local diner until she heads off to college in the fall. She has just left her abusive boyfriend Nate and is struggling to keep it together as the small town judgment rolls in after he starts telling people about her abortion. Lee is a forensic chemist based out of Portland, Maine who is called in to investigate anomalies in the blood samples. She is hoping for the chance to spend some time alone with her married state trooper paramour, but the trip soon proves to be anything but romantic. When the town’s remaining men wander off after the woman in white, Mary Beth, Angela, and Lee must work together to try and save them.
Dearborn intentionally chose lead characters that fall outside the mainstream in certain ways. In an interview with io9, she said, “I wanted female protagonists who came from the margins of society: an overweight woman, someone who’s had an abortion, a woman sleeping with a married man.” However, it’s worth noting that while Dearborn’s protagonists may be nontraditional leads in certain facets, they all appear to be white, heterosexual, and able bodied. While none of the characters are wealthy, they also don’t seem to be facing the desperate poverty that many rural Mainers face. Based on the demographics of Northern Maine, it’s not inconsistent to have a white cast of characters, but the lack of class analysis feels like a missed opportunity that could have added to the depth of the story.
The brilliance of Dearborn’s story is in its framing. While the mysterious woman in white is a clear threat, much of the horror comes from the actions of Rocky Road’s citizenry. The moments in this story which were really unsettling and distressing for me involved domestic violence and other physical abuse. We like to believe that our neighbors are fundamentally good people, but there are abusers living in every community and they tend to blend right in. Dearborn starts the reader off with glimpses of unhealthy relationship dynamics: the husband who insists on ordering for his wife, Nate painting Angela as cruel and uncaring for choosing to get an abortion. Then Dearborn pulls back the curtain and the reader is forced to see how these “little” things build and the ruthless side of human nature. The woman in white is scary, but she’s not nearly as terrifying as Nate.
Woman in White is an engaging horror story with compelling characters and some social analysis. If you’re a feminist horror fan, it’s worth checking out.