The 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:
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