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About the author:
Wrenn McMaster is an American writer of dark psychological fiction. She was born and raised in the midwest and now resides on the east coast. Her first novel, In The Darling Dark, has elements of psychological horror, but it might surprise the reader to learn that Wrenn studies mysticism and metaphysics, and considers the novel to be an allegory. The reader, depending upon how they make use of their powerful mind, could view the story as a dark descent into madness; or alternatively, as possessing a deeper meaning for which they might view the outcome through the lens of a higher purpose.
What inspired you to write your book?
I began writing this book over ten years ago. At first, it was meant to appeal to the YA crowd, but as time went by, life offered its many distractions, and after the birth of a child, by the time it reached its conclusion, it had taken a far darker turn.
Here is a short sample from the book:
Even the most significant memory is a vulnerable one. It is a delicate treasure, like that of a robust phantom with elusive features. Over time the particulars become malleable, the details inexact. Memories are fragile that way.
My first memory is of my Aunt Libby. I was probably about three or four years old, and I can recall sitting underneath the clothesline on the back lawn, white linen flitting and flicking about all around me while the skies above threatened rain. Nina Simone’s Ne Me Quitte Pas filtered out through the open kitchen windows. This wasn’t atypical. Usually, if Aunt Libby was around, chances were she had Miss Simone’s music playing somewhere in the background.
Aunt Libby came tearing out of the house so swiftly it sent the screen door off the solarium banging back against its frame. If I’d had any life experience on my side at that youthful age, I might have reasoned she intended to get the laundry off the line before the clouds above us burst, sending sheets of rain down to douse the linens.
“Itchiswa!” she’d shouted, coming to a stop on the other side of the clothesline. That peculiar word, a familiar commandment: Halt. Stop. Come no further.
Sometimes Aunt Libby said bizarre things like this, gibberish I would come to recognize as specific to her unusual alchemical lexicon; but on that particular day, she’d said it with such force, it caused me to tilt my head toward her and watch as she glared out toward the gardens with a kind of intensity I’d never seen before. Her posture didn’t seem quite right either. She just stood there, downright rigid.
Tracing the path of her gaze, I saw the shadows of a dog and a young boy. They were crouched next to a bed of red cabbages, their features a mere blur. I remember feeling a cool, swift wind. The kind that carried with it the rich, complicated scent of the local hawthorns. Though I can’t explain it, that wind seemed to know exactly what it was doing. Aunt Libby had been lifted into the air, hovered there for longer than seemed natural, then landed with a thud.
“No!” Came her stern cry from somewhere near the edge of the gardens.
And that was that. The dog and the boy were gone, leaving my Aunt Libby to sit up slowly, dazed. She’d crawled over to me, hugging me to her body, which was warm and smelled of jasmine. In my memory, she might even have been panting a little.
“Not you, Glynis. Not you. Not you,” she whispered into my ear, rocking our bodies back and forth. She whispered that for a long, long time, continuing to do so long after the rain began to fall around us.
To be truthful, I’ve always questioned this memory I believe to be my first. It was the kind that makes you wonder what memories you can trust, and which ones you just sort of make up on your own, or maybe add things to as you go along. Maybe all I really remember was the laundry and Aunt Libby’s smell. Perhaps I dreamed the rest.
Aunt Libby was known to be a bit of an eccentric, who always dressed in grey and refused to wear shoes, even in winter. She kept her mousy brown hair tied up in an untidy little bun. This whole barefoot thing of hers might have been a problem, but for my grandfather, Maurice Vetter, who was also Aunt Libby’s dad. Somehow, he managed to find a way to appease the local business establishments by getting Aunt Libby to agree to wear shoe covers on her feet if she had to go into town. You know, the kind those professionals wear during crime scene investigations or when the cable guy comes to adjust your box.
She made these little lemon cookies, which she called Lemon Lally’s. Made them every day, in fact. Funny thing was, apart from their wonderful aroma, nobody but Aunt Libby liked them. They were too tart and made your tongue pucker and tingle in an unfriendly way. She insisted they’d been my mother’s favorite, and sometimes when she said this, I would peek over at my granddad who, when he found himself behind Aunt Libby’s back, would scrunch up his face and hold his nose, shaking his head violently, as if in the throes of some sort of fit.
It made me a little sad I didn’t care for those cookies though. You see, deep at the heart of it, when it came to those cookies, I wished hard. It was the kind of wish that travels deep down into the pit of your belly and leaves you feeling off-kilter; all in the hope I might someday have something in common with my mother. If there was any truth to Aunt Libby’s claim they’d been my mother’s favorite, I really wanted to make them mine as well.
One of the strangest things my Aunt Libby did had to do with our stairs. We had two sets of staircases in our house, one in the front and one in the back. It was a house built by my granddad’s granddaddy, and on account of all the winding hallways, shocking intersections, and slanted ceilings, if you didn’t know your way around, it could seem like a maze. Every Tuesday, without fail, she would sit with a toothbrush and a jar of wood cleaner she mixed up herself and clean the seams of the front stairs. Not the back stairs, just the front. When I asked her once why she did this, she said they had an agreement, she and the stairs: they agreed to hold the house upright if she agreed to clean their seams. Like I said, Aunt Libby was known to be a bit of an eccentric.
Grandpa Vetter was also my mother’s father, the owner of Vetter Custom Construction, which was responsible for building a rather large number of the homes and businesses in Darling. Since Aunt Libby already lived with him, what with her peculiarities and all, it was a foregone conclusion I would come to stay with them after my parents passed. And while we had a large plot of isolated land, just beyond the seven rolling hills on the outskirts of town, covered with fruit trees and my aunt’s various gardens, which she laid out in a kind of patchwork quilt, I never felt lonely there. Rain or shine, there always seemed to be townspeople stopping by to consult with my aunt, or to deliver some such thing for which she might be in need.
And my granddad was a quiet and gentle man, sometimes dancing to the music of Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller in the parlor if he had the opportunity to steal the record player away from Aunt Libby, pulling me up to balance atop his feet, where I could smell the scent of the pipe he smoked from time to time on the front of his button-down shirts. My childhood was spent listening to the music of another era, though it would take a number of years before I would come to understand this fact.
Together, they would sit in the gardens and teach me the names of the various plants, shrubs, and herbs dotting the vast landscape of our property. Whenever grandpa would leave, Aunt Libby would educate me as to what she believed they could do to help people — or hurt them. Of course, if grandpa caught her, he would shake his head solemnly and patiently ask her to stop filling my head with nonsense.
If you can believe it, Aunt Libby fawned over her gardens more than she fawned over me. She’d planted one section that grew only pumpkins; pumpkins with vines so thick you would trip over them when you entered the field to go in search of her. She had a smaller section next to the pumpkin patch where she grew vegetables, herbs, and a few fruit trees, some of which bore the lemons she used to make her daily batch of Lemon Lally’s. An entire field of tulips and poppies grew off to the side of the house. She often worked tirelessly on a whole section filled with so many other types of flowers, an entire crew of master gardeners would need to be called upon in order to name them all. I only know my favorites have always been the exotic orchids, which she’d planted in odd places throughout the patchwork garden, as if by no rhyme or reason. I know many of the flowers and plants my aunt cultivated most likely shouldn’t have thrived here, but somehow, they managed to do just that. It must have something to do with the way she spoke to them.
It was in that same pumpkin patch, I met the little girl who would become my best friend. Knowing I wasn’t as uncomplicated as the other kids, all of whom seemed to go about their lives with a sort of effortlessness, it somehow stood to reason someone as contrary as Sabelle Sabin would come in search of me.
One of the first things I noticed was that Sabelle’s body was covered in little lacerations. That’s something I’ve never quite been able to understand about Darling. So many of the residents have similar little pink wounds and yet we never got them out here at the house or in our gardens. In fact, the town of Darling had once commissioned a researcher from some well-respected university, I forget now which one, but he came all the way out here to try to get to the bottom of why folks were getting them since there didn’t seem to be a soul who could remember how they got those marks in the first place.
After several months, that poor researcher left town; his departing demeanor notably dissimilar to the way he’d carried himself upon his initial arrival. Now more akin to a defeated athlete whose head hangs low in poorly disguised embarrassment, he left us with the all too simple explanation that those marks must be the result of some kind of insect, presumably one invisible to the naked eye, and to please send for him should we ever manage to capture one.
At the breakfast table the morning this news was delivered, Grandpa Vetter had tossed the paper aside, calling out in exasperation, “Awe, just what guff is this?” He drank the last swig of his coffee, kissed my cheek, and then left for town. Same as most mornings but with a little extra flare.
Anyway, Sabelle had a few of those marks the first time I laid eyes on her. Standing in the pumpkin patch, I could see her picking her way down the side of the forest bank that borders the back of our property. She was crying and her strawberry blonde hair looked a real rat’s nest. There were twigs and pieces of leaves twisted throughout the matted strands. Her face was covered in dirt, clean only in the places where tears had struck a path down her cheeks. Her yellow cotton shorts were torn down the inside of one leg.
To this day, I don’t know how she made it through the pumpkin vines with such grace. She didn’t trip; not once! A few paces before she made it to me, she stood on her tiptoes and just sort of allowed herself to fall forward toward me. She wrapped her skinny arms around me so tightly I felt my breath catch in my chest. I sighed then, happy to know someone could trust me so completely without yet knowing my name.
We walked hand in hand back toward the house, and once inside, straight away she reached for the plate of Lemon Lally’s sitting on the table in the parlor. I heard a familiar creak on the floorboards and signaled Sabelle to put the cookie back, frantically making quick cutting motions in the air with my hands. Moments later, Aunt Libby rounded the corner, walking into the room with an air of purpose.
Aunt Libby took one look at Sabelle, slapped her hand gently, and said, “Look you, those hands are filthy! Let’s get you cleaned up. Then we’ll work on your sweet tooth.”
I never did find out what Sabelle told Aunt Libby about how it was she came to us looking in such a state, or how she’d managed to cut a path through the forest to our property. Aunt Libby had simply taken her hand and led her up the stairs. I wasn’t allowed to follow.
When Sabelle came back down, wearing my favorite cornflower blue summer jumper, her hair, removed of all tangles and mats, smelled of gardenia and spice. Aunt Libby handed her the plate of Lemon Lally’s, and to my complete dismay, Sabelle ate three! No hesitation, no pause to make the face that always accompanied a person’s ill-advised bite into one. She just ate them, one right after the other!
It wasn’t Sabelle’s ability to draw attention that stirred my jealousy, an emotion I so abhor for its ugliness it turns my stomach. It was the fact she enjoyed those cookies that were purported to be my mother’s favorite. Still, we were seven years old. How could I let a flash of jealousy come between me and the one person who had been able to spread her arms wide, and completely willing and without question, open herself up to be a part of my life? And Sabelle was different, too. Different in a way I couldn’t explain, but perhaps different enough that, given time, there just might be some hope she could accept me, despite the aversion others seemed to experience in my presence.
Sabelle was my polar opposite. She had light hair to my dark, and skin that soaked up the sun, while mine repelled it entirely. She was loud, while I was quiet; and forceful, though I remained meek. She was rough and ready, while I was gentle and subdued. Sabelle was a jagged edge, and I, a rounded corner. And her appetite? Well, that hunger of hers bordered on unadulterated passion. Goodness, you wouldn’t think such an appetite possible! She was a voracious eater, devouring just about anything you might put in her path. Me? I preferred my food basic and bland. Boring as that sounds, it was just the way I liked it. I ate out of necessity, while Sabelle ate with desire. She craved it all. That’s how she approached every moment of every day. Nothing existed she couldn’t have.
Despite our differences, I shared such a rare bond with Sabelle that, to this day, I feel a deep sorrow for anyone who lives a life without ever having known something similar. We adored one another. Did we ever!
From the day Sabelle appeared in our garden, she was one of us. A member of our family who arrived late to the party, but somehow managed to make us forget she hadn’t been there all along. She was Aunt Libby’s little helper. She was my grandfather’s best dance partner. She taught me how to do cartwheels, to ride a bike. We built forts in the limbs of the trees and then took our tea inside them, traipsing around in my mother’s old dresses and high heeled shoes.
If I were the roots that held a great oak solidly in its place, then Sabelle would be the branches that blew wildly about in the breeze. She was the catcher of all secrets, the vessel that spread the seeds of understanding. She was my one true confidante and friend.
Of course, time would reveal no amount of effort on my part, could save me from a seemingly never-ending string of sadness and loss. You see, when we were seventeen years old, my friend, my only friend, would go missing. And the real tragedy in this fact — is that she would stay missing.