Andrew Pyper is joining us today to talk about his novel, The Residence. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In this gripping and terrifying horror story based on true events, the President’s late son haunts the White House, breaking the spirit of what remains of the First Family and the divided America beyond the residence’s walls.
The year is 1853. President-elect Franklin Pierce is traveling with his family to Washington, DC, when tragedy strikes. In an instant, their train runs off the rails, violently flinging passengers about the cabin. But when the great iron machine finally comes to rest, the only casualty is the President-elect’s beloved son, Bennie, which casts Franklin’s presidency in a pall of sorrow and grief.
As Franklin moves into the White House, he begins to notice that something bizarre is happening. Strange sounds coming from the walls and ceiling, creepy voices that seem to echo out of time itself, and visions of spirits crushed under the weight of American history.
But when First Lady Jane Pierce brings in the most noted Spiritualists of the day, the Fox sisters, for a séance, the barrier between this world and the next is torn asunder. Something horrible comes through and takes up residence alongside Franklin and Jane in the walls of the very mansion itself.
Only by overcoming their grief and confronting their darkest secrets can Jane and Franklin hope to rid themselves—and America—from the entity that seeks to make the White House its permanent home.
What’s Andrew’s favorite bit?
I’ve never written a historical novel before, in part because history has always daunted me – the responsibility of “getting it right,” the blizzard of dates, the sense there will always be people out there who know so much more about it than you do – and in part because it never really excited me much. Sure, I found the past interesting in a pamphlet-browsing sort of way, but the idea of going through the trouble of transporting myself (and the reader) to a distant time failed to thrill me as it seemed to for a different kind of writer and different kind of audience. In short, it felt like a lot of work.
But then you find something that sinks the hook in and you realize that history (at least from the fiction writer’s perspective) is not about the past at all, but the ever-present life of imagined consciousness. Getting into someone’s head. For me, that irresistible consciousness belonged to First Lady Jane Pierce, wife to Franklin Pierce, the president who was, until now, arguably the least distinguished in American history.
I stumbled onto Jane Pierce through one of those Googled rabbit holes we all fall down from time to time. It wasn’t presidencies I was kicking around at, but haunted houses. Which led me to the White House. And then, somewhere way down past the touristy ghost lore, I found Jane. A woman who endured the loss of all three of her children, the last of whom, Bennie, being the sole fatality in a freak trail derailment just weeks before her husband’s inauguration.
When she moved into the presidential mansion Jane kept to herself in a room on the second floor where she wrote letters to Bennie, pleading with him to return to her. And according to her letters, he did. Not just as a comforting spirit, not an “idea,” but her child in material form, standing in her room, addressing his mother by her bedside.
That’s real. That’s history. But to me, it was also the way into a novel.
While the main action of The Residence takes place in the White House of President Franklin Pierce’s administration (1853-1857) I needed Jane to bring something with her to the mansion. An entity – a demon, I suppose, though it is deliberately never described as such – that had clung to her all her life.
In childhood, Jane Pierce was known to be frequently ill with a variety of ailments, regarded as pretty but less robust than her older, livelier sisters. She spent a lot of time reading, playing piano. Imagining.
She was the sort of girl who not only believed in ghosts, but wished to summon one into being.
On the day of her little brother’s funeral, Jane fakes being sick and stays home in the family’s house on the Bowdoin campus (her father was college president). Once she’s sure the place is empty, she takes a pendulum and plank with painted letters on it – a kind of Ouija board – down into the cellar and asks for a message from the spirit world. Instead, a being of an altogether different sort appears. Because it has no name, when asked, it suggests Jane call it “Sir.”
Jane attempts to resist it.
“I didn’t invite you.”
“That,” it said, and without it gesturing Jane knew it meant the pendulum. “That’s like a knock at the door. Yours and mine. And both of us answered.”
For me, it’s a frightening scene because Jane is only a child, and she’s presented with a threat that is ancient, powerful, unstoppable. But what makes the moment my favourite bit of the novel is how personally involved I felt in writing it.
I didn’t invite you.
As distinct as our superficial differences make us, I think of myself as Jane in many ways, none more intimately than in this moment. We’re both summoners of the past, pushed by dangerous curiosity. But the problem with conjuring evil – whether imagined or actual – is that the invitation works both ways.
You become involved in the book. And the book becomes involved in you.
Andrew Pyper is the internationally bestselling author of The Demonologist (2013), which won the International Thriller Writers Award for Best Hardcover Novel. His most recent novels include The Homecoming (2019), The Only Child (2017), and The Damned (2015). Three of his novels, including The Residence, are in active development for television and feature film.