"Jenny's eyes closed and her hands folded. I decided I couldn't wait forever. I stepped over the sleeping child and sat where Jenny was sleeping. The ringing sound of crystal vibrating was all around me. I felt like I had pressed myself into cold marble. I stayed in her, and in a moment I started shaking. It was frightening, but I wouldn't let myself run. I tried to see James in my mind's eye, smiling at me. The ringing stopped with a popping sound. I felt like an ice sculpture starting to crack into pieces. Then it happened. I felt the shape of her, the shape of myself, inside the fingers and shoulders and knees of her."
In the high school English class of a teacher she has been haunting, Helen feels them: for the first time in 130 years, human eyes are looking at her. They belong to James, a boy who has not seemed remarkable until now. And Helen terrified but intrigued is drawn to him, a ghost living in the body of a teenage boy. The fact that he is in a body and she is not presents this unlikely couple with their first challenge. But as the lovers struggle to find a way to be together, they begin to discover the secrets of their former lives and of the young people they come to possess.
This (literally) haunting debut novel grips readers from the first page. For years, Helen has avoided the sweeping pain of her hell by attaching herself to various hosts, but when she meets James and realizes she could possibly inhabit a human body, she leaves the lonely security of her invisibility for the chance to feel again. James and Helen's struggle to remain together as the worlds of the contemporary teenagers they inhabit begin to fall apart is a powerful story of love, forgiveness, and redemption.
Plan B Productions has optioned A Certain Slant of Light for a feature film, with Academy Awardnominated Mark Andrus (As Good As It Gets) slated to adapt.
Laura Whitcomb grew up in Pasadena, California, in a mildly haunted house. She received her English degree at California State University at Northridge in 1993. She has taught language arts in California and Hawaii. Whitcomb has won three Kay Snow Awards and was once runner-up in the Bulwer-Lytton writing contest for the best first sentence of the worst science fiction novel never written. In her spare time she sings madrigals with the Sherwood Renaissance Singers and plays a wench in the pirate reenactment group BOOM. She lives in Portland, Oregon. A Certain Slant of Light
is her first novel. For more information, please visit www.laurawhitcomb.com
A Conversation with Laura Whitcomb
How did the idea for this book originate?
A few years before I wrote this book, I had an idea for a short story that would be told from the point of view of a spirit who doesn't know she's dead. I thought it would be very moving to experience that ghost's fear and sadness when she realizes she was not her host's beloved companion but had been, all those years, an unheard and unseen haunter. I put the idea on a back burner in my mind. Then one day I was listening to an Anne Rice book on tape (I'm sorry that I can't remember which one) and enjoyed the way the narrator's voice was infused with the past but was reflecting on the present. Vampires can do this because they live so long. And I thought my ghost character would have the same style. I decided to change the concept so that the ghost was clinging to a human host but was quite aware that she was dead. I tried to think of whom I would want to hang out with if I had to choose, and decided it would be someone who was surrounded by literature I chose an English teacher to be her host. Next I thought, What would be the weirdest thing that could happen to her? If you've been invisible for 130 years, being seen would be mighty disturbing. Now, who sees her? Then, why can he see her? And that's how the story started.
What is the significance of the title?
The title is a line from an Emily Dickinson poem that is filled with a longing reminiscent of hauntings. Also, my ghost's first host is a poet very similar to Emily Dickinson. And the word light is significant in the story because it's the term the ghosts use for being in the spirit form. Instead of the quick and the dead, it's the quick and the light.
I have to ask: Have you ever seen a ghost?
I think I have seen a ghost. The house I grew up in, in Pasadena, California, was mildly haunted. Lights would go on and off by themselves now and then. You'd hear footsteps when no one was there. A certain window would open itself. But it wasn't an angry or frightening experience. I loved that house. One night, when I was about five or six, I saw a figure in the doorway of the bedroom I shared with my sister, Wendy. It was the outline of a man. The head was only a shadow, but you could clearly see his bare feet and that he was wearing cotton pajama bottoms with cuffs and blue-gray stripes. You could see right through the figure. He didn't move or speak. The visitation lasted only a few seconds. I was very scared at the time, but later thought it might have been my grandfather checking in on my sister and me he had died in that room a couple years before.
How did you come up with the mechanics of the afterlife in the novel?
I suppose a lot of what current authors write about ghosts is a mixture of what we've experienced in books and campfire stories and movies all our lives. I pulled together the elements that seemed real for me, the concepts that felt the truest. I've heard many "true" stories about ghosts walking through houses as if the living people aren't there. It seemed to me that these kinds of ghosts don't know they are dead. And I've also heard stories about helpful ghosts warning people of danger and watching over small children. It seemed to me that these kinds of ghosts know they are dead and wish they could interact with and communicate better with the living. The idea of walking into an abandoned body, of ghosts being able to move through walls, of some spirits being attached to places and others to people none of these is a new idea.
At the risk of sounding strange, they all seem like common knowledge to me.
The idea of forgiveness and hell permeates the stories of all the characters. Can you discuss that?
I think one of the easiest things to embrace, and one of the hardest things to release, is guilt. This novel is peopled with imperfect protectors. Like these characters, we are usually mistaken about our sins. In the same way that a child assumes his parents' divorce is his fault, I believe a lot of hauntings, and a lot of human angst, is caused by misinterpretations of the tragedies in our lives. The older we get, the harder it is to let guilt go; self-blame becomes a habit. Young adulthood is a passionate and sensitive time an important time to learn to forgive ourselves and ask for help if we are stuck. We are powerful beings, and quite capable of creating our own versions of hell. But we are also capable of creating heaven. God doesn't say suffer. God says let go.
What are you working on now?
I'm very private about a novel before it's ready to be read, but I will say that, like A Certain Slant of Light, my next book centers on a relationship and has a supernatural element.