Thursday, February 11, 2016

Emily Arsenault's Evening Spider & the haunted baby monitor

HALLIE EPHRON: I remember in 2009 reading Emily Arsenault's The Broken Tea Glass and thinking, who is this writer?! I'd ever seen anything like her book. It's set in the editorial offices of a dictionary publisher where clues to a murder are found in the files by a young lexicographer. The book has a bizarre sense of humor and it's a literary page turner. I've been a fan ever since. 

Turns out Emily worked for Merriam-Webster from 1998-2002, and since then she's since then had  daughter I wasn't surprised to discover that motherhood figures prominently in her new novel, The Evening Spider.

I asked her to join us on Jungle Red and talk about motherhood as grist for a murder mystery.

EMILY ARSENAULT: When I agreed to do a post on how early motherhood affected my writing, I realized that there are two different answers for me.

There’s the subject of how motherhood affected my writing generally. And then there’s the subject of how it influenced my most recent book, The Evening Spider. And that’s a little more spooky of a story.

My daughter was born just a few months before my third book (Miss Me When I'm Gone) came out. It took me a while to start my fourth novel—not just because I was caring for a newborn, but because I wasn’t thrilled with the direction my books were taking. My first book had been a light and funny book, and each subsequent book had become darker and heavier in tone.

As a new mother I didn’t want to dwell in tragedy or violence. It surprised me that I felt this way, but in any case, I started my fourth book, What Strange Creatures, determined to write a funny book. And while some wouldn’t call that a “light” book (there is an untimely death, as in all of my previous books), the heart of the novel is a funny brother-sister relationship.

I was thrilled to get a contract when my daughter was about six months old, and started working on the book in earnest. Writing felt different than it had before—more like a “break” from baby duty than work—a luxury, even. Most days I didn’t have more than two hours to write at a stretch—so I became much more disciplined about producing pages each time I sat down in front of my computer. I didn’t just grow more disciplined, but more grateful to be writing a book. How lucky was I to get to be a mother and a paid writer at the same time? It felt like a nice balance—although I never had much time for housework in this “balance,” and still don’t.

And so all was relatively well, at least on the surface. But while I was busy writing that fourth book—when my daughter was six-to-twelve months old—something strange was happening in my house. One night, I awoke to the sound of my daughter crying, followed by the sound of someone saying Shhhhh over the baby monitor. I felt relieved that my husband had awoken before me, and was tending the baby. Then I turned over and saw that my husband was still lying next to me. So who was with the baby?

I ran down the hall, found my daughter alone in her crib, and picked her up. The next day I forgot about it, but a few weeks later it happened again. And then a few weeks later, again.  Shhhhhh. Often I would spend the following day trying to come up with logical explanations from what I’d heard. Then I’d forget about it—until it would happen again. On a week when it happened a few nights in a row, I held my sleeping daughter well into the night, and couldn’t sleep after I put her down. And then, when I was just about to become entirely unhinged, it stopped altogether. (The picture is Emily's haunted baby monitor.)

It wasn’t until at least a year later that I considered putting this experience in a book. (And I still don’t have an explanation.) But eventually, I wrote it up as one of my opening scenes of The Evening Spider. And so begins a novel that was a departure for me. The book is part psychological suspense, part ghost story, part true crime, and on some level, an exploration of the potentially bizarre psychological effects of new motherhood.

Writing about this experience made me feel better about it—and made it feel more like a “story” than an “experience.” It was fodder for one of my books and therefore somehow less real. And I was in control of it—what it meant and where it led. The result is The Evening Spider.

My daughter no longer has a monitor in her room and I no longer hear phantom shushing at night. Recently, my daughter got up in the middle of the night to report that there was a “visitor” in her room. Yes, that is the word my three-year-old used—“visitor.” And yes, I know how creepy that sounds, and no, I absolutely have not told her of my experiences with her the room or encouraged her to speak this way. Perhaps she’s just inherited my ominous imagination.  Or maybe there is a gentle presence in her room, after all. And whoever or whatever it is, maybe I haven’t written it away, after all. 

HALLIE: Is that spooky or what? I love the book's title because when I saw it I immediately thought about Miss Muffet and the spider who sat down beside her. Gives me chills thinking about a spider in my baby's crib. Nooooo!

Has anyone else out there experienced anything akin to a haunted baby monitor? It would make a great X-Files episode, dontcha think?


  1. A haunted baby monitor sounds quite mysterious and just a tad creepy. I can't say we ever experienced anything like that, but it does sound like the basis for a really good ghost story . . . .

    I also thought of Little Miss Muffet when I read the book title; I'm definitely looking forward to reading "The Evening Spider."

  2. Oh... Ohhhhh.... Ohhhhhhhh. Emily. Speechless and wanting to read all your books right now.

    Hallie you brought us a brilliant guest. Thank you.

    Yes, we have had a similar experience but not with a baby monitor. After my service dog, Kendall, died. I walked outside with the vet. She helped him leave peacefully and was very kind. She placed him in the back of her SUV. While thanking her, I heard the sound of a large animal, like a bobcat might sound, running along the edge of the roof of our flat-roofed adobe style house.

    That night I heard the same sound, like two large wildcats running and playing above us. I fell back to sleep after awhile and was again awakened by the noise on the roof. It happens almost every night, but the sound gets softer each time I hear it. During this episode, our little kitty, She-She, became agitated. I then figured it must be the sound of real animals. I asked my husband what he thought. He said, "What noise?"

    One night when I was again awakened by the noise, She-She jumped off the bed and ran out to the living room. I grabbed my cell phone to use as a flashlight and maybe call 911. When I caught up with the kitty the noise had stopped, and She-She was sniffing and crying as she walked around the spot where Kendall left us. I have chills and trouble sleeping after the running starts.

  3. I am looking for Emily's book(s) as soon as possible. I firmly believe that we do not understand everything that happens in the world around us. Shortly after my Grandpa Church passed away, my older sister woke to find him standing by her bed. A younger sister, sitting alone in the ICU waiting room after my dad had surgery, looked up to find our deceased brother walking into the room; he lightly tapped her on the knee, grinned that special grin of his, and sat beside her until other people approached the room. And once I called out to my mom in a moment of exasperation and frustration and she heard me--100 miles away. So, can't wait to check out An Evening Spider!

    And Reine, if that is Kendall's spirit--clearly he felt much loved by you....

  4. That gave me shivers. I think there might be an explanation, if someone in the next house had a similar monitor that picked up the crying, they could have been the shh-sher. Or it is a visitor!

  5. Reine, that is truly frightening... and FChurch somehow that feels powerful and reassuring.

    Like Edith, I'm always looking for the logical explanation. I once interviewed a grief counselor and she said that visitation - seeing a recently deceased relative in a dream or at the foot of the bed upon waking up - isn't uncommon. When she works with groups, people who haven't experienced it often feel jealous of those in the group who have.

  6. Welcome Emily! what an amazing story and thanks for sharing some of the effects of motherhood on your work. Aside from the haunted monitor, I was struck by your statement about how writing and the contract felt like a gift--and you had to become much more productive. Wow, we could all use a shot of that--and it fits right into Hallie's post earlier this week about productivity vs creativity!

  7. I have been wanting to read Emily's books for a while now and this post has spurred me to at least order one. Squeezing it into the schedule will be a matter for another day.

    What a great - and creepy - post. I think it is wise to use these experiences as fodder for books. Likely we'll never know what causes them, but no doubt there is a reason - whether real or ghostly is irrelevant.

    Thanks for a great guest Hallie.

  8. Ohhh, this is spooky. I love that the visitor is so caring. Have you checked the history of your house, there may be a clue to be found.

    Back in the days of the Record-A-Call answering machine I once had a message that said, "I'm dead, bye." Since the machine wasn't registering any calls received, and I had only switched it on from habit when I walked in the house, it freaked me out. So I called a friend who was a psychic. He told me that those who have passed are often fascinated with technology and reach out that way. He suggested that I leave a tape recorder running when I wasn't home. I did or a while, but I never heard from anyone otherworldly again.

  9. Emily, that is such an intense story! I am sitting here with chills that won't go away.

    Congratulations on your new book!

    I once lived in a house where a benign presence dwelled. It was an apartment, actually, which had been divided off a much larger, old house. I suspect it was an in-law apartment at one point. My bedroom shared a common wall with the main part of the house, and there was a closet on that wall. The closet door closed securely, and I made sure to close it every night so I had a view out the window beyond. Fairly often (25% of the time?) the door was open in the morning, which convinced me the ghost moved between the two spaces through that closet. She (I was pretty sure it was a woman) simply was not good about shutting the door behind her.

    I got used to her presence over time, and now wish I'd researched former owners of the house. I suspect that would have given me some clues about who she was.

  10. Brenda, Kait - that would spook me out.

    I have a friend whose brother was murdered. There was a light that flickered on and off on her porch even when the switch was turned OFF. She had an electrician come in and fix it but it kept right on flickering. She's sure it's her brother's way of reaching out to her. A light was flickering in the courtroom during the murderer's trial, too.

  11. The Broken Teaglass sounds fascinating. So does The Evening Spider. Logically, i would say the noise was static or something over the monitor, but a mysterious presence is far creepier and better for fiction.

    And it's fascinating to me that using this as story fodder makes you feel better because you can "control" the outcome.

  12. Emily, that sounds amazing..and so creepy.

    I have done several stories about the weirdness of baby monitors--I'm sure you have researched it, but it is very very common to--well let me know if you want me to go on. Or if we should just leave it as is. I mean--the "rational" explanation may not be what happened at your house, after all, right?

    And I love how the writer's mind treats an experience. Wonderful.

    The visitor, though. Have NOT done stories about that!

    AS for my own experiences, yes. Indeed. Too many times to list, but once-I woke up in the night, bolt upright. My boyfriend! I thought. He's in trouble. I called him. Not home. I was so worried--and without a thought of "you're nuts," (which, thinking back is even stranger) called his sister. Turns out he had just been rushed to the hospital with a burst appendix. (He was fine eventually.) .

    Messages from my Mother? Oh, yes.

  13. Thanks for the welcome, everyone!

    Reine, thank you for your story. It is always unsettling when one’s spouse doesn’t see/hear the same things you do! That is how it happened for me as well.

    Wow, FChurch—the story about your younger sister and your brother is touching.

    Edith and Hallie and Hank, I did a lot of online “research” on different explanations. It seems hearing creepy things on a baby monitor is not unusual. And ours was quite old. None of that felt particularly reassuring in the middle of the night, though!

  14. Oh wow--that's spooky great. You're book sounds like one to really sink into all weekend (and not get anything else done!), Emily. Thanks for sharing. I don't have children myself, but i have wondered what prolonged sleep deprivation can do to mothers. A potential psychological reality coupled with spooky--great combination!

    I haven't had any spooky experiences, alas. After my cat Snags died, I swore I heard meowing--it would wake me up. But, that was probably me dreaming. It's just that it didn't feel like waking from a dream, you know what I mean?

    When I was a teenager I thought I saw Jesus's face in a moon reflection off a piece of debris in our side yard. :-) Coming from secular parents, I dismissed that one right away. But I had a good scare there for about three minutes.

  15. Whoa. That's seriously spooky, Emily. But sweet, too.

    I'm a pragmatic woman who believes in science, but I swear Miss Edna came to me, as well as all of my cats. I tell you, Xander came to me the night of his death and hung out with me and told me I should try purring. Seriously.

    Anyway, off to find Emily's books now...

  16. Lisa: "It's just that it didn't feel like waking from a dream, you know what I mean?" I do I do.

    And your Jesus's face moon reflection reminded me of 2003 when condensation in a window of our local hospital had literally hundreds of people standing in the parking lot and pointing to it convinced that they saw the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. The hospital finally had to REMOVE the window in order to get the crowds to disperse. (The BBC(!) News reported that more than 25,000 people came to see it.)


  17. Emily, Good Morning!!! If I wasn't already excited about reading your newest (which I pre-ordered, by the way), I am now, for sure. Gave me chills reading this.

    I know there are non-believers. I was one who straddled the fence on this until my dad came to sit by my bed the night after he died.

    Then night after we lost my mom Donald told me about a dream he had about my mom - it was the same one I had on the same night.

  18. Thanks, Lisa! Sleep deprivation is definitely a factor in the book for one of the characters, although I can't really say it was for me as a new mother. I was lucky that my daughter was always a decent sleeper. So I don't have that excuse for my craziness. Looking back, I think I probably was in a half-sleep state when it would happen--that it was a type of dream. I don't think it was really about the baby monitor.

  19. Shivers. Having experienced two very different, very real manifestations, I am willing to believe we don't yet have all the answers.

    As my grandmother's last breath left her body she spoke to me, telling me that everything would be okay, and not to be frightened. There were a dozen family members around her deathbed, but no one else seemed to notice this, or to see the brilliant white light in the room. But they were also all wailing, and imploring Grandma, blind, 93, and widowed for the previous 25 years, to stay with them, while I was wishing her godspeed and peace in her passage.

  20. I've never had a ghostly encounter, but I do know from experience that the early months of first-time motherhood was the most psychologically intense period of my life. Everything in your life changes overnight - your body, your emotions, your relationship with your partner. You're skin-to-skin close with an entirely dependent person and you have no idea how to care for her half the time. Not to mention flooding hormones, the sense of isolation many new moms experience, the sleep deprivation...

    And then there's that bone-deep need to keep your baby safe, which borders on the irrational. In the hospital, after giving birth to the Smithie, I elected to have her stay in the nursery in the hopes of getting some sleep that night (the nurse would bring her in if she wanted to nurse.) No such thing. I lay there, bolt awake, convinced I could hear her crying way down the hall, through two sets of glass doors. At home, I would wake up at night and if I didn't hear anything on the monitor, I would rush to her nursery to make sure she was still alive.

    So I've never experienced the uncanny, but I can truthfully say I spent a fair amount of time in an altered state of consciousness while a novice mom.

  21. Julia, that "bone-deep need to keep your baby safe" is something that hit me like a two-by-four. We didn't have a baby monitor (the hadn't been invented) so we kept the baby by our own bed which meant I woke up to every snort burp and hiccup while my husband slept blissfully unaware. And you know, I still worry about her.

  22. Emily, that's one creepy and unsettling experience with the baby monitor. I noticed that you didn't really say that it was a soothing Shhhh, but as you were able to leave your daughter in that room and you do mention a "gentle presence" later, the assumption has to be that it was a comforting sound and not a harsh one. Of course, a harsh shushing would be cause to run from that house and keep running. It sounds as if your daughter was pretty calm about her "visitor." I've had a visitor that was not so gentle before. It was in the house I lived in as a teenager and until I married at age 22. When my parents had both died, twenty years later, it was the same house that I did pick up and run from during my last night's stay, after a disturbing dream(?) and a feeling of immediate danger. What was especially interesting is that my husband, who was with me, didn't hesitate to immediately vacate the premises, too. It was rather a pervasive atmosphere of doom. We spent the rest of the night in a hotel room.

    I sometimes wonder at the visits and lack of visits from the dearly departed. I'm rather envious, like Hallie, of those of you who have had loved ones visit. Susan, with Miss Edna and Xander; Reine, with Kendall; FChurch's sisters' experiences; and Kaye, with your dad. Shortly, maybe a few days, after my mother died, my father confided in me that she had visited him at the foot of his bed. I think he told me out out of the four children because he thought I was more open to such occurrences. I was a bit disappointed that my mother hadn't come to me, but I've felt her presence in other ways.

    Hallie, thank you so much for bringing Emily to my attention. The Evening Spider is going on my wish list and TBR list. Thank you, Emily, for sharing your experience with us and getting us excited about reading your book.

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  24. That is too funny, Hallie. Condensation can look like anything; it's like seeing a sign in clouds. I'm thinking it's part of the human condition to seek proof of belief ...

  25. What great stories, everyone! My grandmother came to me just at daybreak on the morning of her funeral. The room was filled with her loving presence and she was telling me that she was fine, not to worry. The logical explanation is that it was a dream--except I knew it wasn't. Very strange but very comforting.

    Emily, you know I love your books. But I'm wondering, with my week-old granddaughter, if maybe I should wait a bit on The Evening Spider... :-) What a great title, too. I'm debating on whether to pass along the "shhh" baby monitor story to my daughter. (She usually reads JRW every day but has been a bit busy:-))

  26. Kathy Reel, I don't see any of my deceased loved ones--but I've felt my mother's touch--the day of her funeral, and I've had dreams--with my brother, my grandparents, especially--dreams that seem to be more than wishful thinking. Always comforting.

    And Deborah, I'd wait on the baby monitor story--except your daughter seemed so relaxed and confident right after giving birth, that perhaps such a story wouldn't faze her!


  27. Susan, that is lovely about the suggestion to try purring. Yes, indeed. A good plan. Lola came to me in a dream, after she died, and reassured me--talking, which seemed perfectly reasonable-- that she was fine, and not to worry. So she and Xander are probably BFFs. I hope so.

    And agreed, Emily. And of course, just because there IS a possible explanation, doesn't mean that IS the explanation. The visitor thing is still…um, haunting. Was she frightened?

  28. Thanks, Deborah! I think the "Shhhh" baby monitor story can serve as a cautionary tale . . . new motherhood anxiety can catch up with you in unexpected ways. I found the newborn months surprisingly easy, and didn't have any of the sleep deprivation or early breastfeeding horror stories, but then I had . . . this.

    A few people asked about the history of the house. I don't know a great deal about my house except that it was supposedly built in 1900. Then a neighbor of mine went to one of my readings a few weeks ago and told me. "Your house is older than that!" Turns out many houses in our town are documented as "1900" houses because of a fire in the town hall where the original documents were destroyed. I didn't research the history of my house because I didn't want it to influence my story (I already knew what I wanted the Evening Spider house's history to be. But now that the writing's over I will probably be tempted, at some point, to research my own home's history in greater depth.

    Regarding the "visitor" . . . my daughter was a little frightened but then surprisingly matter-of-fact. I didn't ask for a lot of details. She already has a pretty detailed cast of imaginary characters in her life, and I didn't want to inadvertently encourage "Night Visitor" to join them on a regular basis.

    I hope my responses are making sense. I'm writing from an airport with above-mentioned three-year-old. A bit distracted! But love reading everyone's stories.

  29. Wow! That is really frightening. My daughter still has a baby monitor, and my house was built in 1919, but I am glad to say that nothing like that has happened in our house.

    Having recently (almost 20 months ago) become a mother, I too have been thinking a lot about this change and how it is impacting my writing. I am not sure I have come up with an answer yet except that it is definitely forcing me to be a lot more disciplined with my time management. I am learning to write in short spurts.

    And I am adding Evening Spider to my "to read" list right now!