I love a good ghost story. Not the kind that jumps out and shouts “boo!” or the Halloween horror type with ocher dripping eyes, but the true clinging to the edges of life through time tale. The Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire is that kind of book.
Many spirit-oriented narratives tend to follow one of a number of basic themes. For instance, many cultures have a Weeping Woman specter, also called La Llorona. It’s a famous legend of spurned love and the watery deaths of children. Another archetype features the sounds of a crying child who now can’t move on or is searching for their parent.
In McGuire’s book, Rose Marshall is the Prom Date ghost or truck stop ghost. The version of the story that I’m familiar is where she walks along a road in a fancy dress. Guys give her a ride and loan her a coat against the cold. When they go back to where they drop her off, they find their coat over a gravestone.
Rose is a pawn of the road, which itself seems like a sentient being. It places her where she needs to be at any given time. Sometimes she helps a driver cross the barrier of life and death on his way to the afterlife. Other times she tries her best to prevent a death by changing the driver’s route or talking some sense into a teenage boy. However, she has her own destiny to fulfill, which involves her death in 1952, a car accident caused by a soul-collecting villain.
Each chapter in the book is a short story in Rose’s afterlife dealing in some way with the themes mentioned above or her interactions with other ghost road citizens. Each section could stand independently but an overarching plot starts to appear after the first few stores as Rose starts to understand her own power and the purpose of her haunting.
I enjoyed the engrossing spectral world created by McGuire. The writing was engaging, immersing the reader into different levels of afterlife America pulsing below the living dimension: the twilight place crossed by road witches and where haunted cars roll on forever. Even the highway itself had a vital presence brought alive by the heartbeat rhythm of those travelling across its cement. The description of the spirit of the road became increasingly vivid throughout the book until it was a character in of itself.
The protagonist has great depth, which the writer parcels out one nugget at a time. She is cynical from too many encounters and fearful, which makes her hard to like at first. She is also a sad heroine but always pressed with a sense of duty and hope. That sense of duty to save another life is ultimately what motivates her and makes her likeable.
The tales are imaginative and different from any other paranormal books I’ve read so far. Although the book seemed a little long, I’d be hard pressed to pick out any specific story as nonessential. Some were endings in themselves while others operated on a continuing timeline. However, I found the ending a bit disappointing. I won’t describe it so I don’t spoil it for other readers, but I felt almost cheated. The book builds up to a critical confrontation to end in a way that lacked resolution or justice. One argument could be that the author intended this novel as a series and therefore left things open. However, the main story felt a little too incomplete.
All in all, Sparrow Hill Road is a good book that will keep you thinking long after you’ve finished it. Rose’s story will creep up in your mind when you hear that next haunted hitchhiker or lost soul legend, giving those stories more possible complexity and profoundness than they ever had before.