Monday, June 8, 2015

Valley of Stories

By Lisabet Sarai

Near the center of Massachusetts, the huge, butterfly-shaped Quabbin Reservoir practically divides the state in two. Constructed in the nineteen thirties to satisfy the thirst of the Boston metropolitan area, Quabbin figuratively divided the state as well, pitting the rural inhabitants of the Swift River Valley against the city dwellers in the state capitol. Four towns--Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott--were drowned by Quabbin's advancing waters. The houses of their inhabitants were dismantled and relocated on higher ground. Bodies were exhumed from their graves and reburied elsewhere. Forests were leveled in order to reduce the amount of degrading biological material that would pollute the reservoir. The land that had belonged to Dana and its unfortunate fellows was allocated to neighboring towns. Communities which had prospered in the valley since the seventeen hundreds ceased to exist.

Needless to say, the Swift River Valley is haunted. Even if you don't know the history, you can't escape the sense of mystery as you drive the winding length of Route 202, which hugs the west end of the reservoir. The evergreens that were planted to protect the watershed have grown tall now, shadowing the road. The woods around the man-made lake are home to bears, bald eagles, wildcats and perhaps stranger, more secret beings. On the eastern shore, overgrown dirt lanes meander through the village of Petersham, sending tentative fingers toward the still water.

Ghosts of the dispossessed inhabitants from the flooded towns still seem to hover in the area. They're joined by older creatures from the earlier times when the Algonkian natives fished in the Swift River, grew their corn along the banks, and worshiped the spirits of the forest.

My M/M erotic romance Necessary Madness is partially set in the Quabbin Valley. As I've commented previously on this blog, I almost always have a specific location in mind when I sit down to write a story. Necessary Madness is a M/M paranormal novel that revolves around various psychic powers--precognition, telepathy and the like. I used to live near Quabbin, and had friends in Petersham. It seemed like a natural place for the home of a consulting witch who helps individuals with psi talents to understand and control their abilities.

Here’s a scene from the book, in which one of the heroes ventures out into the ominous Quabbin Valley dusk, where he encounters a fascinating and dangerous stranger.


The afternoon was clear but cold. There’d be frost tonight. Kyle could tell by sniffing the air. He swung out the driveway and turned left, heading back up Quail Hollow Lane towards the village centre.

He strode along the gravel road, snug in his warm clothing, humming a Christmas song. His breath hung in white clouds in front of his face. He reached Main Street—Route 32—and considered turning around. The shadows were getting longer by the minute, though a few rays of sunlight still slanted through gaps in the trees. Moving felt so good, though—his lessons with Elspeth involved long hours of virtual immobility. He kept going, driven by restless energy, past the Congregational and the Baptist churches, the shuttered country store and the white-shingled houses clustered around the village green.

His eyes adapted to the dimness as dusk approached. He didn’t realise how late it had become until he heard the bell in one of the churches behind him chime five.

Damn! Elspeth will have my hide. Kyle wheeled around and began to retrace his steps at a faster pace.

The two-lane road was lonely and mostly empty. A pickup truck clattered by, laden with metal scrap, then vanished into the gloom. It was much colder now that the sun had disappeared completely. Kyle hurried along, his shoulders hunched and his hands in his pockets.

An engine roared behind him. A low-slung sports car raced up and screeched to a halt on the opposite side of the road. “Want a ride?” called the driver out the window. “It’s a cold night.”

I’m not going far,” Kyle answered. The voice was young, urban, cultured. Not one of the local farmers. “Just down the road, maybe a mile.”

Me, too. Why don’t you get in? It’s not a good idea to be out here on the highway after dark.”

Kyle crossed and pulled open the passenger door of the sleek vehicle. “Are you sure it’s no trouble?”

No trouble at all. Just tell me where you want me to let you off.”

Thanks.” Kyle settled into the bucket seat. “Cool car.” He caressed the leather dashboard.

It is, isn’t it?” the driver laughed. “My latest toy.” The dim light made it difficult for Kyle to make out the man’s features. He seemed to be no more than a few years older than Kyle, with a slender build and fair hair. “I’m Stefan, by the way.”

He offered his right hand to Kyle, steering with his left. The man’s skin was warm and dry. He wore some sort of cologne, a slightly bitter scent that reminded Kyle of fresh mown grass. “Kyle. Pleased to meet you.”

The car sped along the pavement, hugging the curves. “Likewise. You’re not local, are you?”

No,” Kyle laughed. “I’m—um—visiting someone. She lives on Quail Hollow Lane.”

Elspeth Holmes?”

Yes, that’s right. Do you know her?”

I’m headed to her house right now. She’s an old friend of my family.”

What a coincidence,” Kyle commented. “Hey, here’s her street!” Stefan swerved onto the narrow lane just in time.

I haven’t seen her in a while.” The rough surface forced Stefan to slow down. Kyle breathed a sigh of relief.

She didn’t say anything about expecting guests.”

I wanted to surprise her.” Kyle could feel Stefan smiling at him in the darkness. He felt suddenly, uncomfortably warm. “And how do you know her?”

Friend of a friend. She’s helping me with some—research. About the town, its history, that sort of thing.” Stefan made Kyle a bit wary. In any case, Kyle knew that he shouldn’t reveal anything about Elspeth’s business as a psychic consultant. If Stefan really was what he claimed, he might already know—but Kyle wasn’t about to tell him.

Stefan chuckled. “Elspeth is a font of wisdom. Her family has been in Petersham for generations—since colonial times, or so I’ve heard. So you’re a student?”

Um—yeah, right. Elspeth’s quite amazing. She’s helping a lot with my project. She’s a fabulous cook, too.” Stefan turned into Elspeth’s driveway and cut the motor. Kyle relaxed slightly. “I’m sure she’ll want you to stay for dinner.”

That would be great. I’m looking forward to seeing her. And that will give you and me a chance to get acquainted.”

Something about Stefan’s voice bothered Kyle. He just couldn’t get his mind around it, though. Whenever he tried to focus, he felt vaguely confused. Maybe it was the after-effects of his last session with Elspeth.

Elspeth waited on the porch, coat-less, a frown twisting her normally placid features. “Kyle! Where have you been? I was worried…”

I’m fine, just fine. I walked a bit farther than I’d planned, that’s all. But then this gentleman came by and gave me a ride…”

Stefan stepped out of the shadows. “Hello, Elspeth. It’s been a long time.”

Sam!” Elspeth’s face remained serene, but Kyle heard shock in her voice.

I’m called Stefan now. Stefan Aries.”

I'm not the only individual to feel that the Swift River Valley is full of supernatural stories. The movie version of Stephen King's Dreamcatcher features the reservoir as a prominent plot element. The cult horror author H.P. Lovecraft explicitly set his now-classic tale "The Color Out of Space" in the valley before its flooding. A variety of other authors and singers have been touched by the mystery that seems to permeate the place.

Years ago, during a serious summer drought, my husband and I went hiking in the woods around Quabbin. The level of the reservoir was at a historic low. As we followed our way down the hill from the Prescott Peninsula, we found ourselves on what had clearly been a road. Tumbled stone walls marked its boundaries. The tracks worn by cart wheels were still visible. In a normal summer, the road would have been submerged, but now it wound for a quarter of a mile, down to the reservoir's edge. Then it disappeared into the gray water.

We stopped to contemplate this fragment of history, revealed by the vagaries of climate. The air had the sultry weight of a New England August. The silence was complete--no birds, no cicadas, not a breath of wind. We both felt their presence--the souls of the folk who had last used this road almost a century ago.

I wasn't writing then, at least not for publication. Even so, I knew there were stories here to be told. Now that I've ventured into the valley with Necessary Madness, I expect that I'll be returning to explore more of these tales. I hope that the inhabitants won't mind sharing them.


  1. The Springfield, MA, libraries seem to have a fair amount of erotica on the shelves (according to our regional online catalog). Perhaps they'd be interested in this, given the local angle!

    1. If I were there, I might try to get them to shelve it.

      (You're very welcome to try...)

      Aside from the Quabbin Valley, the remainder of this book is set in Worcester, MA. Very gritty. so yes, definitely local color!

    2. I'm not really ever in Springfield, but I'd be glad to drop them an e-mail (unless you'd rather do it yourself).

  2. Excellent read Lisabet - full of atmosphere. An area I had no knowledge of - now I have to read the book!

    1. Most people outside of Massachusetts have never heard of Quabbin. It's huge, though.

      New England landscapes and history are some of the few things I miss about living in the US.

  3. Parts of my town, Pelham, and of New Salem too, I think, were also flooded for the reservoir. I've heard that there are old cemeteries still on dry land but within the protected boundaries where only the families of those buried there are allowed to go, and even those have to wait for a few specific days each year. I'm not sure tree are many families left in the area who qualify, but I'm sure of a few. There's also a cemetery near the Winsor Dam side where many remains were reburied before the reservoir was flooded.

    Then there's the peninsula where no unauthorized people are allowed, but there have been stories of mountain lion sightings, and there's also an observatory and telescope run by the UMass astronomy department along with some astronomers from elsewhere. (This is all from my admittedly leaky memory, though, and may be...hmm...rustic legend? Rather than the urban variety? Except for the astronomers. I pretty sure about them.)

    1. I can never get over how wonderfully weird it is that, of the relatively small number of people who participate at OGAG, three of us currently live or formerly lived in this particular region of Massachusetts (but without that being the reason any of us originally knew each other). Granted, it's known as a writer-dense area... but still.

    2. I wasn't really an author when I lived there. Well, I was first published in 1999, so I guess that isn't quite true. But I lived there for two decades as an amateur only.

      And you, if I recall, were in Pennsylvania.

      However, it's very likely Sacchi and I had seen eachother. Her store was my first stop when I wanted something to wear for a special occasion. (Hippie garb was and still is my style!)

  4. By the way, do you folks know Zombies of the Gene Pool, by Sharyn McCrumb? If I recall correctly, part of the backstory involves an old town that was vacated, Quabbin-style, for a reservoir, but then later drained to reveal the ghost town.

    1. Somehow I have no desire to read zombie stories.

      Although Annabeth's "Screen Siren" has to be one of the best I've ever encountered.

    2. Actually, it's a humorous, satirical mystery about science-fiction authors (as is its predecessor, Bimbos of the Death Sun. I don't think there are even any zombies anywhere in it.

    3. Sharyn McCrumb has written a series of non-humorus books set in Appalachia, with senior mountain folks often feeling bitter about the Tennessee Valley Authority project flossing so many towns and fertile river bottom land. Very evocative of the places.

    4. I have to second Lisabet's comment on Annabeth's "Screen Siren", one of the Stories in her recently released "Liquid Longing".

    5. Thanks so much about "Screen Siren!" I'm so glad you both like that one!

  5. Your excerpt is right up your proverbial atmospheric alley, Lisabet. That's one of the characteristics of your writing I love so much. Like being there.

    There are also stories about towns flooded in northern California when they put in several dams. Could be exposed now, with our drought.

    BTW- Your description of the place sounds just as good as the excerpt. You're a natural, grrrrl.

    1. Thanks, Daddy. I've written tales set in so many exotic places -- place is really like an additional character to me -- but I thought it would interesting to show how locations closer to home can still inspire.

  6. I agree about the uncanny coincidence that so many of you here at OGG are familiar with the same relatively small part of New England. I like fiction with lots of local color, whatever the locality. Lisabet, I hadn't heard of Quabbin (that I remember), but I definitely read about the Tennessee Valley Authority as a child in school in the U.S. It was described as a marvelous American success story. Back in the day, no one seemed to question whether natural environments should be drastically changed to provide electrical power & other modern comforts for a largely urban population.

    1. The local (read "poorer") people always get trod on in these situations. It's going on all over Asia, especially in Myanmar, Laos and of course China.

  7. Lisabet, your description of the Quabbin reservoir sends chills down my spine. In the summer of 2004, I lived in Amherst, and I drove every weekend to Boston, past the Quabbin. I found that stretch of road so eerie, and I raced to beat the sunset out of town because I didn't think I could bear those roads by night. Once, I left too late, and ended up driving more than an hour out of my way in an effort to avoid the spookiness factor.

    Your New England descriptions are incredible and vivid. It was a thing that really stood out to me about Witches of Gloucester, too (review of which I still need to post...)

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Holy cow, I'd forgotten that you also used to live around here, A.!! (I mean, above and beyond just knowing the area from visiting.)

    3. Were you taking Rte 202? Annabeth? Through New Salem and bits of Pelham and Shutesbury? That's pretty much my back yard. There's nothing between my house and Quabbin but a few miles of woods and Rte 202. I love the woods, and don't think much about the ghostly aspect, except when I occasionally come across the overgrown stone foundations of old houses far from any roads, and I think that could happen anywhere in New England. The spookiest story I ever wrote about this area involved coyotes and shape shifters, not ghosts from the past. Maybe I should dig deeper. (I know where there's a very small cemetery surrounded by woods with the graves of Civil War veterans, but it's not exactly abandoned, because some town group puts flags at the graves for Memorial Day.)

    4. Route 202 is what I was talking about. I agree with Annabeth, it can be downright eerie around dusk. Visibility is poor, everything is in shadow, and of course there's the real life risk that a deer or some other sort of wildlife will rush out in front of your car.

      Sacchi, it's probably familiar enough to you that you don't notice it.

      Thanks for your comments about my New England settings, Annabeth. I lived there most of my life, and find it extremely atmospheric. Few places in the US - New Orleans comes to mind -- have a comparable aura of histories. As I say, many, many stories there.


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