The dead won’t bother you if you don’t give them permission.
In Hester Fox novel, THE ORPHAN of CEMETERY HILL (Harlequin) Tabby has a peculiar gift: she can communicate with the dead. It makes her special, but it also makes her dangerous.
As an orphaned child, she fled with her sister, Alice after their parents were killed in a carriage accident. Their charlatan aunt Bellefonte, wanted only to exploit Tabby’s gift so she could profit from the recent craze for seances.
Now a young woman and separated from her sister, Alice, Tabby works with her adopted father, Eli, the kind caretaker of a large Boston cemetery. When a series of macabre grave robberies begins to plague the city, Tabby is caught up in a deadly plot by the perpetrators, known only as the “Resurrection Men.”
In the end, Tabby’s gift will either save both her and the cemetery—or bring about her own destruction.
I haven’t read much Gothic fiction, but this novel was a good place to start. I think I’ll explore Hester Fox backlist.
Here’s an excerpt:
IN WHICH WE MEET OUR YOUNG HEROINE.
Tabby’s legs ached and the wind had long since snatched her flimsy bonnet away, but she kept
running through the night, her thin leather shoes pounding the cobbled Boston streets. She didn’t know
where she was going, only that she had to get somewhere safe, somewhere away from the bustling
theaters and crowds of the city. Every time someone shouted at her to watch where she was going, or
ask if she was lost, she was sure that they were one of her aunt and uncle’s friends. Would they drag her
kicking and screaming back to Amherst? Tabby shuddered. She wouldn’t go back. She couldn’t.
Her weary feet carried her up a hill lined with narrow houses, and gradually she left behind the
streets choked with theatergoers and artificially brightened with gas lamps. After cresting the hill, she
paused just long enough to catch her breath and survey her unfamiliar surroundings.
It was quieter here, the only sounds the groaning of ships in the harbor and the distant call of a
fruit hawker trying to sell off the last of the day’s soft apples. Going back down into the heart of the city
wasn’t an option, yet a wrought-iron gate blocked her way any farther, forbidding pikes piercing the
night sky. Pale headstones glowed faintly in the moonlight beyond the gate. A cemetery.
Tabby stood teetering, her heart still pounding. Dry weeds rustled in the thin night breeze,
whispering what might have been a welcome, or a warning. Behind her was the land of the living with
house windows glowing smugly yellow, the promise of families tucked safe inside. In front of her lay the
land of the dead. One of those worlds was as familiar to her as the back of her hand, the other was only
a distant fairy tale. Taking a deep breath, she shimmied through the gap in the gate.
She waded through the overgrown grass and weeds, thorny branches snagging at her thin dimity
dress and scratching her. Panic gripped her as she heard the hem tear clean away; what would Aunt
Bellefonte say if she found that Tabby had ruined her only frock? Would she smack her across her
cheek? Would Uncle lock her in the little cupboard in the eaves? Aunt Bellefonte isn’t here. You’re safe,
she reminded herself. As she pulled away to free herself, her foot caught in a tangle of roots in a sunken
grave bed and she went sprawling into the dirt. Her lip wobbled and tears threatened to overflow. She
was almost twelve years old, yet she felt as small and adrift as the day she’d learned that her parents
had perished in a carriage accident and would never step through the front door again.
This wasn’t how her first day of freedom was supposed to be. Her sister, Alice, had planned
their escape from Amherst last week, promising Tabby that they would get a little room in a boarding
house in the city. Alice would get a job at a laundry and Tabby would take in mending to contribute to
their room and board. They would be their own little family, and they would put behind them the
trauma that their aunt and uncle had wrought, making a new life for themselves. That had been the
When she and Alice had arrived in the city earlier that day, her older sister had sat her down on
the steps of a church and told her to wait while she went and inquired about lodgings. Tabby had
dutifully waited for what had felt like hours, but Alice never returned. The September evening had
turned dark and cold, and Tabby had resolved to simply wrap her shawl tighter and wait. But then a man
with red-rimmed eyes and a foul-smelling old coat had stumbled up the steps, heading right toward her.
Tabby had taken one look at him and bolted, sure that he had dark designs on her. She had soon
become lost and, in a city jumbled with old churches, hadn’t been able to find the right one again.
Another thorn snagged her, pricking her finger and drawing blood. She should have taken
shelter in the church; at least then she would have a roof over her head. At least then Alice would know
where to find her when she came back. If she came back.
Tabby stopped short. Toward the back of the cemetery, amongst the crooked graves of
Revolutionary heroes, stood a row of crypts built into the earth. Most of them were sealed up with iron
doors and bolts, but one had a gate that stood just enough ajar for a small, malnourished girl to wriggle
Holding her breath against the damp musk, Tabby plunged inside. Without any sort of light, she
had to painstakingly feel her way down the crude stone steps. Lower into the earth she descended until
she reached the burial chamber.
Don’t invite them in. As she groped around in the dark for a resting place, Tabby tried to
remember what her mother had always told her. Memories of her mother were few and far between,
but her words concerning Tabby’s ability remained as sharp in her mind as words etched with a diamond
upon glass. The dead won’t bother you if you don’t give them permission, if you don’t make yourself a
willing receptacle for their messages. At least, that was how it was supposed to work.
The only other thing she had learned regarding her gift was that she should never, ever tell
anyone of it, and the lesson had been a hard one. She couldn’t have been more than six, because her
parents had still been alive and had sent her out to the orchard to collect the fallen apples for cider.
Their neighbor, little Beth Bunn, had been there, picking wild asters, but she hadn’t been alone; there
was a little boy Tabby had never seen before, watching the girls with serious eyes from a branch in an
apple tree. Tabby had asked Beth who he was, but Beth insisted she didn’t know what Tabby was talking
about. Certain that Beth was playing some sort of trick on her, Tabby grew upset and nearly started
crying as she described the little boy with blond hair and big green eyes. “Oh,” Beth said, looking at her
askance. “Do you mean to say you see Ollie Pickett? He used to live here, but he’s been dead for three
years.” That was how Tabby learned that not everyone saw the people she saw around her. A week later
she had been playing in the churchyard and noticed that all the other children were clustered at the far
end, whispering and pointing at her. “Curious Tabby,” they had called her. And that was how Tabby
learned that she could never tell a soul about her strange and frightening ability.
But even in a place so filled with death, the dead did not bother Tabby that night. With a dirt
floor for her bed and the skittering of insects for her lullaby, Tabby pulled her knees up to her chest and
allowed the tears she’d held in all day to finally pour out. She was lost, scared, and without her sister,
utterly alone in the world.
Excerpted from The Orphan of Cemetery Hill by Hester Fox Copyright © Tess
Fedore. Published by Graydon House Books.
We also got the opportunity to ask Hester some questions:
Q: Why is historical fiction so popular, particularly gothic?
A: Historical fiction provides an escape. It transports you to another time, and with Gothic in particular, another atmosphere. Who doesn’t want to imagine themselves fleeing through a stormy night in a white nightgown, heart pounding and adrenaline flowing? Who doesn’t want to see good vanquish evil, and fall in love along the way?
Q: How do you approach your research?
A: I try to consume everything from the time period, from the music, to books, to even food if possible. Pre-Covid days, I would go to historic houses or museums to help me get in the right frame of mind. Beyond that, I like to research as I write, otherwise I can get stuck in a never-ending research rabbit hole.
Q: What was the most challenging part to write in The Orphan of Cemetery Hill?
A: This was the first time I wrote scenes set outside of New England, and leaving my comfort zone was both exciting and challenging. Part of the story takes place in England and Scotland, so I had to branch out and research things like dialects and local history for whole new settings.
Q: What was your most favorite part and why?
A: Writing the seance scene was probably my favorite. Can you imagine what it would have been like to attend a Victorian seance? It must have seemed like the pinnacle of scientific advancement, a heady promise of actually being able to make contact with dead loved ones. Even just the spectacle of a practiced medium would have been incredible to witness.
Q: What’s a typical writing day for you?
A: These days it’s just finding bits of time between household work and my baby’s naps. When I’m in the drafting stage, I try to write about 1000 words a day if I can get a good chunk of uninterrupted time. That said, there are some days when I don’t even have a chance to sit down and write, and those days are important too, as they give me a chance to rest and recharge.
Q: Where do you like writing and why? Favorite snacks and/or beverages?
A: We just moved, so I don’t have a dedicated writing space at the moment. I am dreaming of building a tiny writing shed in our yard, filled with books and art though. Pre-Covid, I did a lot of writing in coffee shops and I really miss that. Iced vanilla soy latte and a big pastry are my writing fuel!
Q: What was your last 5-star read and why?
A: Ghost Wood Song by Erica Waters. Atmospheric, haunting, gorgeous prose, and ghosts, ghosts, ghosts.
Q: How would your main character(s) fare with a stay-at-home order?
A: I think Tabby would do very well, and there’s probably nowhere safer to be than a cemetery these days!
Q: Is there anything you can tell us about the book that is not a spoiler and not on the blurb? Something you’d like to share with us?
A: The eponymous cemetery of the title is based on Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston’s North End, which you can visit to this day on the Freedom Trail. Tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood of brownstones, you can really get a sense of what it must have felt like over a hundred years ago.
Q: What was your inspiration for writing the book?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by cemeteries, and have spent more time than is probably healthy exploring the graveyards of Massachusetts. I really wanted to set a story in one, but wasn’t sure what that story would be. The answer came to me when I found a little informational plaque about a doctor in the 1800’s who was fined for having employed graverobbers to procure corpses for his medical dissections. I knew a little bit about the history of graverobbing in the UK, but hadn’t realized that it had happened in the United States, and so late into the 19th century. From there, I begun spinning out a story that incorporated all my favorite things: ghosts, graveyards, plucky young women, and of course, romance.
Q: What came first, the novel or the title?
A: The novel, but the title came shortly after. I wanted to stay with the theme of the SOMEONE OF LOCATION like my previous two books, The Witch of Willow Hall, and The Widow of Pale Harbor.
Q: Which character/s do you relate to the most?
A: I probably relate to Tabby the most because she is very concerned for the people around her, and feels things deeply. That said, Caleb was so fun to write because he had such a journey as a character, from deeply flawed and not a great guy, to someone soft and loving.
Q: What do you like most about writing?
A: I love the freedom it gives me to explore different times and places, and being able to write the books that I want to read. Sometimes the writing process can be tedious or difficult, but it’s never boring.
Q: What scene, in the book, are you most proud of?A: Caleb’s first scene when he is on his way to his father’s funeral. I just loved researching the funerary customs in the 1850s, and it was a lot of fun to write a scene that incorporated those details.
THE ORPHAN of CEMETERY HILL is available on-line and is in bookstores now.