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Originally published Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 3:03 AM

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‘The Winter People’: enduring ghosts in a New England town

Jennifer McMahon’s “The Winter People,” an enthralling supernatural thriller, plays on subconscious fears in its tale of a small town with a very persistent ghost story.

The Sun Sentinel

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‘The Winter People’

by Jennifer McMahon

Doubleday, 336 pp., $25.95

Jennifer McMahon melds the mystery genre with the supernatural for a psychological thriller that is as scary as it is enthralling.

“The Winter People” relies on the fears that creep into one’s subconscious and stay there, ramping up the terror that creeps just below the surface. While McMahon weaves in standard tenets of supernatural tales she makes every twist fresh — and frightening — while exploring the very real fear of losing a loved one.

Every small town has its ghost story that stems from an abandoned house that children avoid, a dark wood into which no one ventures, a graveyard where the fog seems to settle or an unsolved murder.

West Hall, Vt., has all that and more, in a tale that dates back to 1908 when Sara Harrison Shea and her husband, Martin, lived on an unproductive farm outside of town. Every day Martin sees the dying crops, the bare-root cellar and feels “the sour creep of failure work its way ... into his chest” while Sara believes their land is cursed. The bright spot in their lives is their daughter Gertie. When Gertie is found dead in an abandoned well, Sara is convinced that she can bring her child back to life.

That story of Sara and her family resonates in the present day with 19-year-old Ruthie Washburne, who now lives in Sara’s former house. When Ruthie’s mother disappears, the teenager looks into West Hall’s dark past that includes a string of disappearances and unexplained happenings.

McMahon’s in-depth exploration of each character elevates “The Winter People,” making each aspect of the story believable, even when things go bump in the night. McMahon makes a smooth transition as she alternates the story between the past and the present.

After a series of several paperback thrillers that have landed on The New York Times, McMahon makes her foray into hardcover with “The Winter People,” one of the year’s most chilling novels.

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