Karen White knows the feeling that can seep into your bones while walking around downtown Charleston, the eerie one that seems to emanate from the live oaks in Battery Park and white columns of the Calhoun Mansion, a sense that the houses’ long-dead residents have not yet left.
The author of the The House on Tradd Street trilogy released her new novel, Sea Change, earlier this month. In her latest work, White has traded the South Carolina Lowcountry for the shores of Georgia, but she has kept the Southern gothic and historic elements that have pervaded her other works.
“[There is] always a dab of it everywhere. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed reading,” she says. “I don’t enjoy ghost stories, but I enjoy elements of it, and I’ve always had such a good response to it.”
And so the deep family ties and eerie history have prevailed in a new story that spans generations. The book opens in 1804 with Pamela, a midwife on St. Simons Island who is surveying the damage of a recent storm. The scene quickly jumps to the modern-day, where Ava, also a midwife, is moving to her new husband’s house on the island. From the moment her gaze falls on the tabby two-story, the young woman can sense the past’s mysterious hold on the house.
Ava joins the local historical society, which serves as both a social club and the key to her husband’s storied and oft-avoided background. Suspense builds swiftly around his mysterious family tree, and the peculiar dreams that Ava has endured throughout her childhood. It doesn’t take long to figure out that their pasts are intertwined, though you’ll have to wait until the end of the novel to figure out exactly what that link is.
Which is exactly the way White intends. “I write. I don’t prewrite. I just sit and write the book. [The characters] are kind of revealed to me as they are revealed to the reader,” she says, acknowledging that unlike many other authors, she does not make outlines of her story arcs. “If I know all the answers, I have absolutely no interest in writing the book.”
What does pervade her forethought, however, is scenery. The Christ Church Cemetery on St. Simons, for instance, serves as one of the most revelatory backdrops in the book. “When you walk through the gates there, you really almost get a chill down your spine,” she says. “You feel like you’re traveling back in time 200 years.”
She expresses the feeling through Ava, who in an inexplicable sense is connected to the souls who have passed before her in the gray-walled house of her husband’s ancestors. Ava, however, isn’t the only character to feel the strong presence of the past. The novel jumps between various characters, incrementally revealing their deeper ties.
In a sense, Ava’s secrets are the secrets of the Southern island, held by those who live there, felt by those passing through, and brought to light only by those set on doing the digging.
Karen White book signing. Thurs. June 21, 1 p.m. Blue Bicycle Books, 420 King St. (843) 722-2666