Friday, April 29, 2022

"And Time Stood Still" by Debby Lawson--Fiction Review

Time for a bit of a spooky story that is also a compelling narrative of a really dysfunctional family with Debby Lawson’s “And Time Stood Still.” 

Debby Lawson

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

I love gothic horror and family dramas—I really love a family drama blended with gothic horror, like Lawson’s book. It scratched an itch for me that hasn’t been satisfied for quite a while, and it reminded me a lot of the book that specifically made me love this particular sub-subgenre, which is “Blackwater” by Michael McDowell.

Like that story, Lawson can lull you into the drama of these characters’ lives to the point where you start to forget that supernatural shenanigans are afoot, and then bam! There’s a scary ghost in the bathroom.

To pull off that effect, though, the character work has to be excellent to draw you into their lives to the point you can fully realize them for who they are as people. And to that end, “And Time Stood Still” carries it off superbly. The enduring mysteries and challenges of Ms. Carine’s life had me pretty well absorbed from start to finish.

What I don’t love about this book:

Rarely do I find myself enjoying framing stories as a literary device all that much—I know, I know, I love “The Princess Bride” too, but the actual frame story in that movie doesn’t do anything for me. So, like that, this novel uses a significant frame story where most of it is Ms. Carine telling Danielle the story of her life.

Further, it’s disappointing to me that all the spooky stuff happens in the frame story and not the meat of the story. Still, it would have cut out a lot of the immediacy of the horror if all the supernatural stuff happened in the story being framed.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Our story starts off with Danielle reluctantly meeting a mysterious old woman at a medical center, and the two women strike up a conversation. Soon Danielle warms up to the conversation with the older woman, Ms. Carine, which eventually leads to an invitation for Danielle to visit Ms. Carine in her palatial old home.

Right at the beginning, during that first visit, things are a tad odd in the house, but Ms. Carine keeps Danielle engaged with stories about the house and the people who had worked the plantation years gone by, so the uncanniness essentially goes unremarked.

Over the subsequent visits, eventually, Ms. Carine delves into the beginning of her life story and how she had come to live in this large house all alone, other than her live-in servant, Rosa. 

Even early on, the story is tinged with great pathos because Ms. Carine didn’t have the best relationship with her parents, especially her mother. A dashing young southern gentleman soon makes a young Ms. Carine’s acquaintance and sweeps her off her feet, so much so that she agrees to marry him only after a slight token resistance. 

Marital bliss was not in the cards, though. After Carine uprooted her whole life to move south to her new husband Joshua’s home, a plantation in the deep south, he immediately grew distant and cool with her. Hurt and confused, Carine didn’t understand his motives and, more importantly, his true heart until many years later.

As Carine’s story deepens, between story sessions, Danielle notices stranger and stranger things in and around Carine’s home. For instance, Rosa is insistent that Danielle not explore the second floor. Also, Danielle keeps spotting a young girl around the property, but Carine and Rosa both proclaim that they’ve never seen any such girl haunting their home. 

From there, Carine’s life story covers a lot of ground. She returns home to take care of her mother’s affairs for a while, a trip her sister-in-law tags along with her on—and they grow closer as a result. However, the sister-in-law is attacked before the end of the trip and never mentally recovers. The assault turns out to be just the latest indignity to befall her, and she withdraws into herself when they return to the plantation. However, Carine goes on to make a new friend on the trip home and gets distracted from her sister-in-law’s pain.

Before the end, Carine does try to reach out to her sister-in-law. She is rebuffed and again refocuses her attention elsewhere, this time on her pregnancy a result of one of the scant times her distant husband slept with her.

Carine’s sister-in-law kills herself, and it’s discovered she was pregnant too and killed her baby as well, and right around the same time, Carine’s own daughter is born. Her relationship with her husband never improves, but Carine pours all of her time and affection into her little girl, and the years pass. Until one fateful day, Carine’s daughter drowns in one of the ponds on the property. Carine is inconsolable and has enough of a break from reality that Joshua has all he needs to have her committed.

Eventually, Carine was released years later. Her husband’s secret, the fact he was gay, comes out near the end of his life, and he dies of a stroke—leaving Carine and Rosa alone in the big house.

At the end of the sad story, Carine consents to let Danielle view the second floor, and upstairs she has a vision of Ms. Carine’s daughter’s final day. After, with fresh eyes, Danielle realizes that the house, Ms. Carine’s old stately manor, isn’t actually anything of the kind. Not anymore, at least. In fact, it’s a ruin where no one has lived for near on fifty years. Danielle had been spending her weekends with a ghost just to allow Ms. Carine’s spirit to tell someone her story. Now that the story is finished, Danielle sees another vision of Ms. Carine, finally reunited with her daughter.


This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced a story where it turns out one of the principal characters is actually a ghost the whole time. Still, Lawson makes use of the form pretty well, and overall the story works for me.

From my gripes in a prior section, the use of the framing story sharply separates this book’s two main story modes, the family drama and the gothic horror. So they don’t feel like a truly blended horror story that also happens to be a family drama; both genres merely cohabitate. 

Still, this cohabitation was enough to remind me of Michael McDowell’s stories, and I think he’s the best to ever do it.

I did really appreciate, though, looking back, that all of the haunting scenes with Danielle had something to do with and reflected Ms. Carine’s story. They all had a tight focus and served a purpose in the story beyond the level of cheap thrills.

Parting thoughts:

A theme that runs through this book is that other people have differing perspectives, goals, agendas, and past trauma that typically doesn’t come out all at once. It’s hard to know what goes on in other people’s heads, and most people don’t try. They tend to just focus on their own concerns.

This is strictly my opinion, but it seems to me that collectively, we’re too quick to put our heads in the sand and put up barriers and blinders to other people’s pain. It’s hard, but maybe, things would be better for all of us if we engaged more with each other, even when it’s difficult and there are disagreements. Ultimately, isn’t that what it means to live in a community or even society?

It’s just a thought.

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