When I moved to the Berkshires many years ago, I was an aspiring writer. So, I naturally sought out other authors who had lived and written there. The author with whom I felt the most kinship and who turned out to be an important influence on a novel I would eventually write was Edith Wharton.
Like Wharton, I built a home in the area—though nowhere near as grand as The Mount, and located in a remote hamlet, instead of fashionable Lenox. As The Mount was to Wharton, my house was my first real home as an adult, and a place where I’ve spent many happy and productive hours, writing, gardening, and entertaining guests like she did.
Also like Wharton, I’ve enjoyed exploring the countryside. Sallying forth on foot or by car, I imagined Wharton touring the Berkshires in her chauffeur-driven motorcar, with Henry James at her side, their “imagination so tantalized by the mystery beyond the next blue hills.”
Like Wharton, I have often been struck by the “somber beauty” of the landscape. This beauty is lyrically described in her two Berkshire novels, Ethan Frome and Summer, and I’ve done my best to convey it in my own novel, Rattlesnake Hill.
Yet, again like Wharton, I’m well aware of the area’s dark side. Wharton found this darkness in the lives of the inhabitants of “villages still bedrowsed in a decaying rural existence,” as she described them in her autobiography, A Backward Glance. And it was these “sad, slow-speaking people living in conditions hardly changed since their forebears held those villages against the Indians” that she wrote about in her Berkshire novels, books whose bleakness puts their author squarely in the tradition of Nathanial Hawthorne and Herman Melville.
Each of the novels was inspired by a horrific, real-life event. In Ethan Frome, it’s a disastrous sledding accident in Lenox. In Summer, it’s the grim tale of a “mountain burial” on Bear Mountain, near Lee, that Wharton heard from the rector of her Lenox church.
In Summer, Bear Mountain is called The Mountain, an evil place that casts an ominous shadow over the surrounding villages. When Wharton’s protagonist, Charity Royall, goes there to witness her mother’s funeral in a squalid shack lit by a single candle, in the company of a motley crew of cursing, quarreling drunkards, she discovers that The Mountain is indeed a frightening place.
In my novel, Rattlesnake Hill replaces The Mountain as the locus of evil. The hill owes its name to the timber rattlesnakes that still haunt its rocky slopes. It’s also home to the Barkers, a wild clan known for their violent tempers, said to stem from the rattlesnake blood in their veins.
At the heart of my novel is a tragic story I heard about a love triangle that ended with the woman’s murder and her lover’s blinding. In Rattlesnake Hill, the tale of these doomed lovers reverberates across the generations until it’s finally repeated, more than a hundred years later, in another triangle that also ends with the woman’s death. When my protagonist, Kathryn Stinson, plunges into a passionate affair with Earl Barker, whose ancestor was involved in the long-ago triangle, and who also figured in the more recent triangle, the story threatens to repeat itself a third time.
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An award-winning author of books about American history and biographies, Leslie Wheeler has written three Miranda Lewis “living history” mysteries: Murder at Plimoth Plantation, Murder at Gettysburg, and Murder at Spouters Point. Her latest novel, Rattlesnake Hill, is the first in a new series of Berkshire Hilltown Mysteries, and will be released in February, 2018. Leslie’s mystery short stories have appeared in various anthologies including Day of the Dark, Stories of Eclipse, and the Best New England Crime Stories series, published by Level Best Books, where she was a co-editor/co-publisher for six years. A member of Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime, she is Speakers Bureau Coordinator for the New England Chapter of SinC. Leslie divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Berkshires, where she does much of her writing in a house overlooking a pond.
Rattlesnake Hill is available at https://encirclepub.com/product/rattlesnake-hill-by-leslie-wheeler/ or http://bit.ly/2xGNH3G