Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire
One caveat before we begin: McGuire used to have these stories up on her website for free. If you have read them there, you do not need to buy this volume, but you should because it will ensure that McGuire’s cats get fed. Also, I believe that the stories are no longer on-line, so if you want to read them again . . .
It all starts with an urban legend. You might have heard of it: guy driving at night picks up a young woman who asks for a ride home. He starts driving; she says she’s cold so he gives her a coat. They get to her house, she thanks him for the ride and gets out. He’s halfway home himself before he remembers that she was wearing his coat. He goes back to the house the next day; older woman answers the door and says no, there’s no girl here. He sees a picture on the mantle: that’s her! Oh no, says older woman; that can’t be her, that’s my daughter and she died last year/two years ago/ten years ago in a car crash on roadwherehepickedherup. They go to the graveyard so she can prove it couldn’t be her daughter he saw and there, on the gravestone, is his coat . . . There are a lot of variations of it, and it’s usually called something like, “the phantom hitch-hiker”. They’re all Rose Marshall.
Rose was born in 1936, in Buckley, Michigan, and she died in 1952, in a car crash on Sparrow Hill Road, just outside of town. Since then she has wandered the roads of America, both daylight and twilight, saving some drivers and acting as unwilling psychopomp for others. As a hitchhiking ghost she must follow certain rules: a coat or jacket (or equivalent covering, such as a sweater) makes her alive again for a short while (at most until the following dawn (sunrise to sunrise), or until she releases it); in order for things to have value to her they must be freely given to her (eg: food she makes or buys for herself is tasteless and cold; food given to her or bought for her is ambrosial); certain accidents call to her, she must go and deal with them, making sure that those of the dead who don’t move on automatically get to where they need to go (and sometimes she can guide people around those accidents and keep them alive for a while longer).
The stories are basically in temporal order; the first one is set in 1973 and the last one n 2015. They are also divided into books: Campfire Stories, Ghost Stories, Scary Stories, and True Stories. The “books” seem kind of arbitrary and I don’t really feel the division adds anything to the stories themselves, since they still continue the overall temporal progress. Each book opens with a lyric about this myth (all written by McGuire? No credits in the front matter and McGuire has written and recorded songs about Rose (one of which, she maintains, is “a filthy, filthy lie”)) and an article about the same myth, two of them by a character we later meet in a story.
The first story, “The Dead Girl In The Diner” finds Rose meeting with a trucker in a diner and making sure he gets where he needs to go. There’s the slight matter of a crash, first. It’s a short, simple piece, really just an introduction to Rose and her situation, but it will play a bigger role down the road . . .
The second story, “Three Rescues and a Funeral” finds Rose pulled back to Madison, Wisconsin four times over the course of a number of years to help a girl in three situations of grave, but preventable danger. Each time she also encounters a mysterious red-head. The fourth occasion, well . . . There is a hint (a very broad, strong hint) that Rose’s backstory involves something more, something darker, than a simple car crash.
“Hitchers and Homecomers” finishes book one. It also introduces us to another type of road ghost, besides the hitch-hikers (of which we have met Rose. Hitchers tend not to hang out together; it makes getting rides awkward): the Homecomer. Homecomers just want to go home, over and over. But home changes, and they don’t; they get frustrated and start murdering the people who don’t take them to the home they want. Rose has to try to convince one not to go down that (metaphoric) road.
In “Bullets and Bad Coffee”, Rose walks into a diner, knowing that it’s going to be a bad scene, but not expecting it to be the site of a hostage taking. She’s certainly not worried about dying; she’s done that already, but she’d like to keep others from dying. And something drew her here; what element of the supernatural is involved?
In “True Love Dies Like Everything Else”, Rose wanders into a diner that’s a trap for ghosts (or is it for one special ghost?), while remembering a death she was forced to attend 20 years before.
In “The Pretty Little Girl In The Green Silk Gown” Rose is relaxing in the Last Dance Diner, the only place she calls home any more (and that never for long) when a bus-load of cheerleaders pulls in (the living sometimes do visit the Last Dance; but there’s something about these girls . . .). Then the power goes out and the girls want to tell ghost stories. Well, Rose only knows one ghost story. So we finally learn Rose’s secret origin; what happened on that night in 1952. And more importantly, we learn who ran her off the road, and why. And what Rose is going to do about it.
In “The Ocean Lady”, Rose seeks out the Queen of the Route Witches, to learn what she needs to do to stop the man who killed her from killing anyone else. But everything has its price . . .
That ends Book Two. Book Three, “Scary Stories”, starts with “The Devil In The Wind”, in which Rose, heading back to Buckley, runs into (literally) an accident caused by her killer. They at last come face to face, and Rose has to face the question of whether she can stop him from harvesting more innocent souls.
In “Prom Night Sweethearts”, Rose finally makes it back to Buckley, arriving on Prom Night (Prom Nights tend to draw Rose in. It’s kind of her thing). She’s immediately taken in by a Routewitch who, it turns out, is a distant relative (a descendant of one of her brothers) and who has called for Rose to help deal with something bad that’s due to happen tonight. But what? And can anyone betray you like family?
In “Do You Believe In Ghosts?” Rose falls in with a group of amateur ghost hunters, and does her best to keep them out of trouble. Of course, she doesn’t succeed.
“The Killing of Route 14” shows us an incident in Rose’s past where she and another ghost teamed up to lay a malevolent spirit — an undead road — to rest. We also learn more about that fabled crossroads where, among others, Robert Johnson made a bargain. And that ends book three.
Book Four, “True Stories”, opens with “Crossroads Bargains”, in which Rose pays off her debt to the Routewitches, by guiding someone to the Crossroads. It’s a journey not without its costs.
In “True Love Never Dies”, Rose is drawn back to Buckley again. Someone close to her is dying, and she needs to act as psychopomp. But this is the death of someone who loves her, and who she loved, and he has one final gift for her . . .
And in “Thunder Road”, the last story of the book, Rose must race against her killer to save, not herself, but those who are dear to her.
So McGuire has created a whole mythos for these stories. In addition to the many types of ghosts, and the routewitches and the ambulomancers (we don’t actually meet any ambulomancers in the stories, but they’re there, in the background) there are the roads that they travel. The ghost roads run on many levels, from the daylight we inhabit all the way down to the midnight, and changing levels isn’t easy for everyone. It’s a haunted America, people!
This ties in to McGuire’s InCryptid stories, though very loosely; there is mention of the old Healey House in Buckley and a closing couple of pages from “The Price Family Field Guide to the Twilight of North America: Ghost Road Edition”; so that’s there if you like the InCryptids, but that’s all there is so if you don’t care for that series (and I don’t) it doesn’t get in the way.
Rose Marshall is one of my favourite McGuire characters, and this book is Highly recommended.
Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jone
A reread. Original write-up is here. Still recommended.