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Exclusive excerpt: Couple build their own haunted house in Jennifer McMahon's The Invited

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Apr 29, 2019

Haunted house stories come in an infinite variety of flavors, from urban tales of poltergeist mischief and demonic possession to decrepit mansions besieged with moaning phantoms. But rarely do we hear of innocent landowners unknowingly building their dream house only for it to become the residence of restless spirits.

New England author Jennifer McMahon's (The Winter People) ghostly new novel, The Invited, envisions this precise premise, as an upscale Vermont couple purchases a tract of wooded land to construct a historic saltbox-style house only to realize their parcel was once the site of some disturbing supernatural events.

SYFY WIRE has turned down the lights and is offering up an exclusive chapter excerpt from McMahon's latest chiller and a short chat with its creator.

Invited Cover

Credit: Penguin Random House

The engaging plot finds Helen and Nate Wetherell abandoning their safe teaching jobs in the calm comforts of suburbia to move onto 44 acres of mountainous rural land with a spooky bog where they'll embark on the ultimate do-it-yourself project building their dream house. When they discover that this beautiful property has a paranormal past, Helen becomes obsessed by the local legend of Hattie Breckenridge, a psychic woman who died tragically there nearly 100 years ago.

Utilizing local artifacts injected with history, Helen discovers special materials to incorporate into the interior: an antique beam from an old schoolroom, blackened bricks from a destroyed mill, a handcrafted mantel from a farmhouse, all objects that draw her deeper into the haunted tale of Hattie and her descendants, who all perished under strange circumstances. As their construction plan progresses, Nate and Helen's passion project becomes a disturbing place of menace and unfinished business that beckons them and their neighbors toward deadly danger.

Jennifer McMahon

Credit Drea Thew

This unnerving story was born from an event in McMahon's life when she attempted a homesteading project that frightened her active mind.

"Years ago, my partner and I moved to 36 acres of land in the woods of Vermont and decided we were going to build our own house, grow a garden, have animals, and live off the land much like Helen and Nate," she tells SYFY WIRE. "It was quite an experience. I'm really drawn to writing creepy stuff, but I'm actually an easily frightened person. If you put me way back in the dark woods with no telephone or electricity, you hear things. Screams and grunts and whistles."

McMahon cites author Jay Anson's The Amityville Horror as her gateway drug into the genre and recalls reading it shivering under the covers late at night.

"The thing that got me was that it was supposed to be true, and my 10-year-old brain believed that. Jody the Pig, the flies, and the red room. It was terrifying! For this chosen excerpt, this is their first night on the land and Helen wakes up in the middle of the night and hears something terrible. This was based on a real-life experience. I went into town the next day and was told it was a fisher. It's a large member of the weasel family, and they're nasty. They're one of the few animals that can kill a porcupine!"

The Invited Promo

Credit: Penguin Random House

Now enjoy our enjoy our exclusive chapter excerpt from Jennifer McMahon's nerve-jangling novel The Invited, from Doubleday and tell us if you'll open the door to its shocking surprises when it arrives on April 30.

M A Y 1 9 , 2 0 1 5

Something was being eviscerated.

That’s the only way she knew to describe the sound she was hearing: a horrible, keening screech. A creature being tortured, split open, and gutted. It was a desperate, high-pitched scream. At first, it sounded like it was right outside the trailer; then it seemed to move—or was it being dragged off?—farther back into the woods. Out in the direction of the bog.

She’d been awake for hours, unable to sleep in the cramped bed, listening to every strange sound—breaking branches, howling dogs, hooting owls—so unlike the hushed buzz of highway traffic that she’d heard at night back at the condo.

Now there was this terrible scream that made her chest tighten, heart pushed all the way up into her throat.

And Nate was sleeping through it. Typical. She gave him a hard shove.

“Nate!” she whisper-yelled, trying to control her breathing, to not sound totally panic-stricken. “Nate, did you hear that?”

She sat up, bumping her head on the ridiculous shelf on the wall above the bed in the tiny bedroom of the trailer. The bedroom was wide enough only for a double bed. No closet, so there were shelves everywhere. Making the bed was a nearly impossible feat involving acts of contortion Helen hadn’t imagined herself capable of.

“Hear what?” Nate asked, rolling from his side to his back. “It was a scream. An awful scream.”

He sat up, bumped his own head on the shelf, mumbled, “Shit!”

They were going to have to do something about the shelves before one of them concussed themselves or split open their head and needed stitches. The nearest hospital was forty-five minutes away. She tried not to think too hard about that when imagining all the work they were about to do: how easy it would be to slip with a saw blade, to topple off the top of a ladder set up on unlevel ground.

Nate reached up now, fumbled around on the shelf until he found the lamp, and turned it on. The little room came to life in a lightning-like explosion of brightness. Helen blinked, turned away.

“Turn it off!” Helen ordered. “What? Why?”

“Because,” she said in her best are you an idiot or what? tone, “whatever’s out there will know we’re in here.”

She realized how foolish she sounded. Her fear was getting the better of her.

He gave her a really, Helen? look and left the light on, reached for his glasses. During the day, he wore contacts, but they were now soaking in their little plastic holder by the tiny bathroom sink.

“Helen, what you heard, it was only an animal,” he said in his most soothing voice.

“An animal screaming? It sounded like someone being fucking gutted, Nate.” If he’d heard the noise, there was no way he’d be this calm.

He put a comforting hand on her arm. “Probably a fox. A fisher, maybe. They make horrible screaming sounds.”

“That’s not what this was.”

“I’ll find an audio file online and play it for you in the morning,” Nate said. “You’ll see.”

Off in the distance, an owl called, seemed to say Who cooks for you? over and over.

“That’s a barred owl,” Nate said, excited. “Is that what you heard?” She blew out an exasperated breath. “No, Mr. Science. That’s an owl. I know what a damn owl sounds like! What I heard was something or someone being tortured.”

“I bet it was a fisher. I’ve never heard one, but from what I understand, it’s a terrifying cry.”

He turned out the light, set his glasses back on the shelf, and lay down.

“What?” she snapped, incredulous. “You’re going back to sleep? Seriously?”

“It’s three thirty in the morning, Helen. We’ve got a busy day ahead of us.”

Nate had this uncanny ability to sleep no matter what. He’d be out in no time, and once he was asleep, it was nearly impossible to wake him. Alarms never worked. He proudly said that he once slept through a magnitude 6.5 earthquake in El Salvador when he was on a research trip in grad school.

Helen just wasn’t wired that way. She was a terrible insomniac, especially when in a new place. And now that there was something out there screaming, her chances of falling back to sleep were slim. And it was probably best that way: One of them had to stay awake in case whatever was out there came back.

She lay there in the dark, listening to the wind, to Nate’s gentle snoring. The owl hooted again. But no more screams. How, she wondered for the thousandth time, had she ever let Nate talk her into this? She remembered Jenny teasing her, saying, “Think of all you’re giving up! And for what?”

Now here she was, lying awake in bed, listening for the sounds of a mysterious screaming animal—just the sort of thing Jenny had warned her about.

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to imagine what it must have been like here when the settlers first came. When there were no electric lights. No internet to research animals that made terrible sounds in the middle of the night. When she couldn’t sleep, she thought about history. Of research she’d done, of facts she knew about the past, because somehow, looking back always made the present seem not so bad, no matter what was going on.

She imagined a woman who might have come to settle in these same woods three hundred years ago, listening to the sounds for the first time: the crack of breaking twigs, the forlorn call of an owl, the wild and terrifying screams of some unknown creature. Had that woman’s husband slept beside her, too, snoring and oblivious? Had she cursed him quietly in the night, wondered how she ever let him talk her into such a thing? The thought made her smile, feel not so alone. Around 4:30, Helen gave up on sleep and scooted down to crawl over Nate’s feet and out of bed. She pulled on the robe hanging from a hook on the door and walked down the narrow hall into the kitchen. The trailer was small and cramped and smelled like mice. It was basically an aluminum shoebox with tiny louvered windows, dark wood paneling, and an iffy electrical system. When you turned on a light, others dimmed. The linoleum floor was peeling up (they’d covered it with throw rugs where they could), and the fake wood paneling on the walls was buckling. There was the closet-sized bedroom that barely fit their full bed, a tiny bathroom, and a living room and kitchen that were really one not-so-big space. The kitchen was galley style, with old metal cabinets that were rusted through in places. Helen had tried to brighten them up by sticking contact paper on them, but it peeled and hung like bits of unattached skin.

When they’d first come to clean out the trailer (Nate carrying her over the rusty threshold like a silly newlywed), they found it full of stuff: ratty old furniture, food in the cupboards and fridge, clothes piled on the shelves in the bedroom; there was even a toothbrush at the sink.

“Anything worth saving?” Nate asked once she’d been over the place with her careful historian’s eye. In addition to loving research, Helen adored old objects and spent a lot of time visiting estate sales and flea markets. What she was drawn to most were the small personal things—old tintype photographs, letters written in smudged and faded ink. Nate didn’t understand her obsession with these objects or her reasons for buying them. “It’s not like you knew these people,” he said.

“No,” she said. “But I do a little bit now, don’t I? Now that I have a piece of their story.”

She felt an attraction to the objects and believed that as long as she held on to them, looked at them from time to time, the people whose lives were captured on paper and in photographs would not be forgotten or completely lost to time.

“Nothing. It’s all junk,” she said, disappointed that they hadn’t found any antique jelly jars, some milk glass, or one piece of well-made furniture worth keeping.

The strangest thing was the table: It was set for two, plates sticky with fossilized food remains and mouse droppings, an unopened bottle of wine and two dusty but empty glasses in the center of the table. “I guess Mr. Decrow wasn’t much of a housekeeper,” Nate had said. They’d hauled it all off to the dump (saving only the wine, which they stuck up on a kitchen shelf), Helen wondering what had interrupted that final dinner; what had stopped them from opening the wine?

They didn’t want to put much energy or money into fixing up the trailer: They’d be there only a short time while building the house. Then they’d have the trailer carted off. Or turn it into a chicken house, maybe. Helen liked this idea and imagined a chicken roosting in the metal cabinets she now reached into to get out the coffee.

She put a filter into the basket of the drip pot, measured in the grounds, then filled the glass carafe, looking out the window above the sink. It was a miracle the trailer had running water, drawn from a well on the property—the same well they would rely on for their new house. Nate had had the water tested and pronounced it safe.

It was still dark, but the early predawn chorus of birds had started. It was much louder than the birds in Connecticut ever had been. She could hear them through the trailer’s open windows as she sat down at the table and flipped open her laptop to check her email. And maybe she’d start researching—see if she could find anything online on the supposed ghost of Breckenridge Bog, something that might give her some insight into the history of the place. She’d meant to start looking into it while they were back in Connecticut but had been too busy with the house plans and finishing up work at the school. Better to start here anyway, where she had access to the local library, records at the town hall, and local residents who might be able to tell her more about the history of her land than anything she was likely to find in old records.

She listened to the birds, thinking they sounded too loud, almost frantic, as she waited for her computer to boot up.

But there was something else, another sound. Not the tortured screaming from earlier. Something quieter.

Twigs breaking. Ground crunching. It was the sound of footsteps.

Definitely footsteps. Coming from right outside the  trailer.

She stood up and dashed down the hall to the bedroom, grabbed Nate’s foot and pulled.

“Nate!” she whispered urgently. “Get up.” “Whas-it-this-time?” he slurred. “Another owl?” “Someone’s outside.” She kept pulling at him. “Animal,” he said. “Fox. Fisher.”

“Bullshit. There is a two-legged person out there. Now come on!”

She pulled the covers off. He reached up for his glasses, crawled to the foot of the bed.

“Get the flashlight,” Helen said.

Nate always kept a flashlight by the bed, even back at the condo.

He believed in being prepared. Nate scooted back, reached up to the shelf and grabbed the big high-powered yellow rechargeable spotlight they’d bought at the hardware store for their Vermont adventure.

Nate shuffled down the hall in his T-shirt and boxers. With his round glasses, he looked like a grown-up Harry Potter, minus the scar.

“Hurry!” Helen said. She stopped at the kitchen to grab the biggest knife she could find.

Nate watched her, almost amused. “What are you going to do with that?” he asked.

“We don’t know what’s out there,” Helen answered.

Nate shook his head. “Just be careful. Don’t cut yourself in all your excitement,” he said as he opened the door. He stood in the doorway, shining the beam of light around the yard while Helen perched behind him, watching. The yard was all clear. The concrete slab foundation was there, looking like the landing pad for some large spacecraft.

Or a door, she thought. A giant door.

“There’s nothing,” he said, turning to give her a you really got me out of bed for this? look.

“But there was,” she said, pushing past him, heading down the trailer’s rickety wooden steps. She kicked something, sent it rolling.

“Shine the light down here,” she said, looking down at the steps. The beam of light swung down.

There was something at the base of the steps. A small wrapped bundle of cloth.

“What the hell is this?” Helen asked. She reached out. “Looks like a cat toy,” Nate said.

Helen picked it up. “It’s not a cat toy,” she said. It was an old piece of white fabric, something with a touch of lace or embroidery at the edge. It had once been a dainty lady’s handkerchief maybe, but now it was tattered and stained and was bundled up, the four corners pulled up and wound around with dirty string that had been tied in a neat little bow, like a present. There was something inside the bundle. Something hard.

Her stomach clenched.

“Why don’t you bring it inside and we’ll take a look?” Nate suggested.

“I’m not bringing it inside,” Helen said. “No way is it coming into the house.”

She held the bundle, fingers plucking at the string, thinking she just needed to give it a tug, unwrap it, see what was inside, but did she really want to know?

No. She did not. She did not want to see what was inside. Whatever it was, it was awful. She knew that. She could feel it: danger flowing through her fingers like venom from a sting. “You want me to open it?” Nate said.

“No,” Helen told him. “I can do it.”

The bundle, she believed, had been left for her. For her, because she was the one who’d heard the scream.

She took a deep breath, reminded herself that she was the new Helen. The Helen who was going to live in Vermont and build her own house, learn to kill her own chickens, wield an ax, grow her own food. Helen with the strength of the pioneers. The brave Helen. She could do this.

She tugged on the string, untied it, gently pulled back the folds to see what was inside as Nate shone the light on it.

“What the fuck?” Helen gasped, nearly dropping the bundle (not just dropping it, but throwing it to the ground, trying to get it as far away from her as possible).

But she held tight.

There was a bit of dried grass making a small nest, and in the center, two objects rested: a rusted old square nail and a yellowy-white tooth.

Nate leaned in, reached for the tooth. “A molar,” he said. “From an ungulate.”

“A what?” Helen said.

“A sheep or a deer, maybe.”

“Well, what’s it doing all wrapped up on our front steps?” Helen demanded.

Nate thought a minute, rubbed at the stubble on his chin, which made a faint scratching noise. “I don’t know,” he said, leaning back in and picking up the nail. “This is old. Looks like hand-forged iron.”

“Again, I ask, ‘What the hell is it doing on our front steps?’ ” Helen said.

“Maybe it was here all along,” Nate suggested. “In the trailer. And we kicked it out.”

Helen shook her head. “We cleaned. We swept. We would have noticed it.”

“Maybe it’s a gift,” Nate said.

“A gift from whom? Who would leave us something like this?” Her voice rose in pitch, alarmed but not quite hysterical. She wondered how Nate could be so calm—as if someone had left a batch of welcome-to-the-neighborhood muffins on their front steps.

Nate rubbed his stubble again. Scratch, scratch, scratch. “Someone who’s trying to freak us out?” He looked at her, saw the mounting panic on her face, and pulled her into a tight embrace.

“Well, they’re doing a damn good job,” Helen said, looking over his shoulder, scanning the tree line again, sure that someone (something) was out there, smiling a wicked little smile.

Copyright © 2019 by Jennifer McMahon. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC

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