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
20 thoughts on “Guest Blogger – Leslie Wheeler – Inspired by Edith Wharton and the Berkshires”
Your novel sounds very interesting! Important literary authors are a good influence on our own writing as you observe.
Thanks, Jacquie! I appreciate your comment. As an English major, I have a deep love of literature, so it’s probably no wonder I look to literary authors, past and present, for inspiration. Wonder if there are other Edith Wharton fans out there? Or if people would like to share what authors have influenced them?
Fully agree with you about the influence literary authors have on our writing — despite what genre we write in.
Sounds like a good way to brush up on my American history. Best of luck.
I like when a story or book incorporates history as it usually is something I’ve forgotten or never knew.
Thanks, Madeline. Never hurts to brush up on American history!
Wow…book sounds interesting! Love the cover.
Good luck and God’s blessings
Thanks for stopping by today. Debra
Hi Leslie, Your books sound intriguing. Best of luck with Rattlesnake Hill. 🙂
Good to see you stopping by. If not for anything else (and there is so much more), Leslie’s title intrigues me. It would make my husband cringe, though… he hates snakes.
I’m a big Edith Wharton fan, and this sounds really interesting, The Berkshires are a wonderful setting for a novel.
Thanks, Joyce. I’m with you on Wharton, her New York society novels as well as her Berkshire ones. And yes, the Berkshires do make a great setting.
Fully agree .. Berkshires make a great setting. Thanks for stopping by today.
A hill that is the “locus of evil”! How intriguing! (Are these native rattlers related to the endangered species that nearly were relocated on the Waban reservoir)? Your book sounds like compelling reading, Leslie.
Thanks for stopping by, Elizabeth. The rattlers in my novel are definitely relatives of the snakes around Waban reservoir, as they are both timber rattlesnakes, and endangered, which was not true a century ago, when settlers were paid a couple of pennies for turning in their tails, along with the rattles, I guess. I’ve never seen a live timber rattlesnake, but there used to be a stuffed one on the wall at Barthlowmew’s Cobble down in Sheffield, and it was huge!
Stuffed is enough for me. Don’t you love the phrase “locus of evil?”
Edith Wharton is one of my favorite writers, and yet I haven’t read some of the novels you listed. Time to rectify that. Your story sounds intriguing.
Leslie enlightened a lot of us to many works we hadn’t realized Edith Wharton had written. I remember being so impressed with one of her stories as a child, but never realized how many books she actually wrote.
Great to read about your process! H. P. Lovecraft also mined the ineffable creepiness of Western Mass, so beautiful, yet so enthralling. Look forward to reading the whole series!
Exciting News – a shorter version of this blog by Leslie has been accepted by Mystery Scene Magazine for their New Books section, and will appear in the Winter #153 issue that will be out in February, 2018 in time for the book’s release