The Dead Have Risen in Philadelphia… To Entice You to Read This Book

Laurel HillThe Schuylkill River (un-intuitively pronounced “Skoo-Kull”) is a scenic Philadelphia waterway that winds its way past the Laurel Hill Cemetery, where, in Susan Dennard’s Something Strange and Deadly, the dead are rising, hungry and under the command of a sociopathic Necromancer in the mid-1870s.

It is rare for me to read paranormal historical fiction, particularly one featuring zombies.  I loathe being scared by books or movies — it’s not the pleasant escape I’m looking for in literature — and so only a very compelling factor could outweigh my reluctance to read this genre.  In this case, the book’s setting in my hometown, Philadelphia, enticed me to read it.  Limiting myself only to one or two genres would mean I would miss out on good books, like Dennard’s novel, and so it is good to deviate from my usual reading list from time-to-time.

Dennard’s young adult novel opens with Miss Eleanor Fitt, “of the Philadelphia Fitts,” waiting at the train station to meet her brother Elijah, who does not show up.  “Trouble in New York” has kept him from coming home, as Eleanor learns from his telegram, which is delivered by a corpse.  Eleanor sets off to save her brother, leading her to meet the Spirit-Hunters, who are employed by the city to stop the Necromancer.

The Spirit-Hunters encourage Eleanor to question the confining social norms under which she lives, resulting in a hopeful, but perplexing ending that left me wondering how Eleanor would manage in the late nineteenth century as a young woman in her physical condition with her financial situation and damaged social status.  It was not a great time in history to be a woman.  I ended the novel feeling irritated that I have to wait until the sequel, due in July of 2013, to put my fears about Eleanor’s future to rest, one way or another.***  The sequel,  A Darkness Strange and Lovely, takes place in Paris, which means that it does not have the draw of Philadelphia for me, but I am invested enough in the characters to want to see what happens next.

I do not know what Dennard’s connection is to Philadelphia, if she has one at all, but it was a thrill to see so many Philadelphia sites included in her story.  Eleanor has tea at 9th and Chestnut, which is the corner I used to live on; several of the boys who become the Dead were classmates at Germantown Academy, where my sister subbed for Latin last year; a character is admitted to Pennsylvania Hospital, where my other sister works in the Emergency Department; and, of course, the Dead are rising from Laurel Hill, which I pass on my way to work every day. Laurel Hill is described in the novel as:

a graveyard on the steep, rugged hills beside the Schuylkill River.  Because it was several miles north of Philadelphia, it had always been undisturbed and peaceful.  Though, if all the corpses had risen … Well, that meant hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of Dead.

Here it is today (including the first image, above), now within the city limits:

Laurel Hill Sign (2)

Laurel Hill (2)

Laurel Hill 3

It is a beautiful cemetery, and reminds me of Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Mount Auburn Cemetery, where my husband and I used to walk when we were in law school.  In the early years of our relationship in college, we often visited New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery (which has “The Dead Shall Be Raised” written on the front gate), usually finding ourselves to be the only couple walking between the old graves.

Cemeteries may be morbid, depressing places, but they are also places of beauty and history with sculptures, gardens, and facts about people’s lives beyond the dates of birth and death.  We see the flags of veterans, the relationship between those who share plots, signs of wealth or lack thereof, and the change of names over time — the Berthas and Mildreds, whom the Jennifers and Jessicas, the most popular names of my time, will eventually join.

***It’s actually a trilogy, and so I’ll have to wait even longer for the conclusion.

For a second opinion (also favorable), see:  Rachel Reads


  1. While I’m not a cemetry fan, I am a fan of reading books set in my hometown, Cape Town, South Africa. I get a kick out of recognising names, places … and mutter ‘I know that street’ or ‘I’ve been there!’

    1. Yes, cemeteries are quite peaceful and beautiful, particularly when there are no zombies around! I tend to prefer books without zombies, but Dennard’s novel is an exception.

  2. I love cemeteries, too. This is a book I haven’t gotten around to reading yet, but am even more excited to read it after hearing your thoughts. I like novels with a sense of “place” so I’m glad the Philadelphia setting resonated with a resident!

  3. I, too, enjoy the occasional walk through cemeteries. Our Midwestern cemeteries, though, don’t have nearly the history that your eastern ones do — our earliest graves start in about 1850s. And while it’s interesting to contemplate the stories of the dead and my own mortality while walking a graveyard (that great Old English variant for the Latinate “cemetery”), I also enjoy how park-like these places are, like little meditative spaces on the edge of spaces that are much more harried.
    Thanks for the post!

    1. Laurel Hill and Mount Auburn aren’t much earlier–1830s. Grove Street, which is probably my favorite cemetery, dates back to the late 1700s, but along the back wall are markers from the 1600s-1700s, which sometimes listed how the person died (such as yellow fever epidemic). There are pictures of Grove Street, including the old markers along the back wall, here:

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I love cemeteries. I find them peaceful and beautiful. I’m strange like that– I also feel like it’s the last place a dead person would be…so, I wouldn’t ghost hunt there, but I suppose a traditional zombie would be there…OH! Just got an idea– off to write!

  5. Sounds like a very fun read, especially with all the connections to familiar places. Agree, cemeteries can be beautiful and contemplative places, the monuments can be historic, artistic, or just fascinating. Books about them often make me want to visit (Her Fearful Symmetry and Highgate Cemetary!)

    1. Oh, I would love to visit Highgate Cemetery. I’ve never read Her Fearful Symmetry, but I probably should (I like books that feature twins!). Thanks for commenting!

  6. Nice review AMB and I see it has been well received by Amazon reviewers as well. Hardly my cup of tea but there is great potential in cemeteries for writers. I love them – never morbid and depressing 🙂

    1. Cemeteries are a wonderful place for quiet contemplation and creative thinking. If you decide you are ever in the mood for a zombie book, this is a good one to read, preferably with a pot of tea.

  7. I too love reading something when it pertains to my hometown. I love the fact you talked about the cemetery walking. I have done alot of that myself. I have written biographies for the “family” on our ancestors etc. I should index the stories I have written on my blog of all the historical and genealogical writings I have done when I first started blogging 7 months ago! I need to get busy..haha Happy New Year. Alesia

      1. Yes. This is a link to my findagrave acct…… This is my great great great grandfather…If you follow this link and then go to Lewis and then Bill Farr Jenkins then Willie then William you will have followed all the ancestors on my paternal sides. I have found my husbands too. I try to write biographies etc but it is hard…I have tons of things I could add to these memorials but I would like to work on them outside of find a grave…Anyway that is just one line..I have enjoyed working on several! It takes alot of work though! Here also is a story I wrote about finding some ancestors: I had been looking for a cousin’s husband who had drowned and after MUCH searching finally found what I was looking for: I have the genealogy bug for sure, but have taken a break from it to write other themes on my blog….. Thanks for asking though. Alesia

    1. I can understand that, but if you ever decide you’re in the mood to read about zombies, this is a good one to pick up. It was entertaining and kept my interest throughout.

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