Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Whisper jar by Carole Lanham: Interview, Excerpt

Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead...

"Lie down, Gidion, and don't move. I promise it'll be okay." Etta indian-burned his arm positioning it just so. Ever since that snake-eyed Mr. Jericho came to town, Gidion's sister had been acting strange. They used to share all their most cherished secrets with one another, like the driest path to take to the toilet when it rained, or the least painful way to squeeze your big parts into Singing Cave. Now they shared but a single secret, and that secret was a bad one.

In this collection of award-winning short stories from Carole Lanham, the monsters are looming black beasties that prowl about in the shape of regret, and their teeth are very sharp. Hidden inside the secret-ravaged world of The Whisper Jar, a pair of children embark upon a dangerous friendship formed around a love of reading. A student learns more than she was ever meant to learn in school. A door to a mysterious room unbolts to reveal a terrible truth.

David Niall Wilson of Crossroad Press said of The Whisper Jar, Every now and then, a collection of short stories comes along that not only brings creepiness to new levels, but reaches in a little deeper and leaves something behind. The stories in The Whisper Jar are like that... they stick with you like soft voices in the memory. A great book for a dark and stormy night.

Open The Whisper Jar with great care. You just might find your own secrets hidden in there.

The Blue Word
At Salvation House, you had to be an upper classman to play Leaves of Destiny. I don’t know who made up that rule but we were very strict about it. If you were in Grade Two or Grade Six or Grade Eleven and could be trusted not to squirm, you could sit in a folding chair and watch. The girls, I’m proud to say, were better at this than the boys.

Leaves of Destiny had ancient roots that were entirely non-Catholic, yet the sisters permitted it like they permitted Buck Buck or Bilboquet. They pretended not to spy as the Grade Twelvers cloaked themselves in white and passed around the Bible every year on the first night in November. Their whispers behind the curtain were as much a tradition as any other part of the game.
Holding my breath, I watched every year, looking forward to my own turn more than I looked forward to anything else in my life. When it finally came, God sent a shower of ice that turned the trees beyond our windows into a forest of broken glass. Perhaps it was a warning.

Eyes shut, I held the book on the upturned palm of my left hand (as is the official way) and prepared to pick a place with my right. Thousands of other destinies whispered by in a flutter of tissue pages. My finger sought the one that was meant to be my own. “Here,” I said, stabbing blindly and picking out a verse.

The girl to my left had just chosen something lovely from Exodus about sashes and headbands, and the girl before her had fingered four cups made like almond blossoms. The almond blossoms made everyone gasp. I had every hope that my own choice would be something equally special.

A sharp limb tapped at the window just then, chasing the flower cups from my head. I opened my eyes, ready to behold my future.

As dead flies cause the oil of the perfumer to send forth an evil odour; so does a little folly outweigh wisdom and honour.

Even the nuns laughed. It turns out I’d waited all this time for folly and dead flies.

After the game, I couldn’t help but feel anxious when confronted with foul smells. I was on the lookout for flies everyplace I went. Two weeks before graduation, the rank whiff of destiny found me at long last.

We were asleep when the first projectile came crashing through our burning roof. I thought it was a boulder at first until it splattered against the linen cupboard in a firework of red droplets. More fireworks followed. The monsters were catapulting things at us from outside the school walls.

“Looks like pork,” my best friend, Corinthians, said. She squatted by the mess and gave it a closer look.

Meat might sound like odd ammunition but we were used to variety. Never mind that there was no shortage of proper stones to sling, the monsters seemed to favour more indignant things. We once got hit with some running shoes, which came in handy afterwards. Another time, they threw doll heads. I only cared that the ammo this time was sure to leave blood stains.

Burning bits of ceiling rained down with the meat. Someone’s head caught fire. Before poor Deuteronomy could let out a scream, the bells started playing Jesus Wants me for a Sunbeam. Sister Sabastienne ran into the room. “Safety Positions, children!”

I was the one to smother Deut’s blackened skull, though she never thanked me for it. “Damn you, Esther!” is what she said after I finished smacking her with the pillow. The room was filling with smoke and pork so there was no time to bother about that.

“Buckets,” Sister said.

Usually, the bells signaled a drill. Every so often, the alarm meant something more. I’d been Second Girl on the brigade since I could stand on two feet. We formed a snake down St. Jhudiel’s Hall, passing water to Sister Edwige on her ladder.

“They’ve broken through the keep,” Sister Edwige reported. She could see the monsters from her perch and was never one for shielding us from the truth, like some of the others. “One of the guards is down!”

Salvation House was located inside the walls of Castle Monts├ęgur on a cliff in the Pyrenees. Before chalkboards and desks were added, people used to pay for historical tours. Archaeologists once searched the site for a manuscript called the Book of Love that had been hidden in the castle years before. The book was made of palm leaves soaked in peacock blood and was said to contain revelations confided by our Lord Jesus Christ, the very words of which were so powerful, they need only be heard and all hatred, anger, and jealousy would vanish from the heart of man. Legend had it that anyone who touched the book would be attracted to the leaves of their destiny within, hence our little game. We’d spent many an hour poking around dark cervices looking for the thing without any luck. Fortunately, a regular Bible worked much the same as substituting a five franc coin will replace a missing tidily-wink.

Jesus’ most consequential words were not the only feather in Monts├ęgur’s cap. A stele by the Pepsi machine marked the spot where a group of religious zealots had been killed in a bonfire centuries before:


Most of what I knew about the zealots came from teenagers hoping to scare little kids. It wasn’t all made-up stuff though. Junior Wing sometimes smelled of smoke, even when we weren’t being pelted with flaming arrows. There’s a cry people make when their skin is blistering off their bones. I shouldn’t have known what that sounded like, but I did. I’d heard it many a night. Sister Sabastienne said it was just the wind because she wanted us to smile all the time. But everyone knows that wind does not whimper as though its tongue is being boiled in the bowl of a dying mouth.

After The Devastation, guard towers were built around the keep. The Routiers attacked anyway.

“Routier” was the nice name the sisters used for those who lived beyond the walls. Corinthians saw them once when she was helping paint the belfry. She said the creatures were hideous, their arms as thick as bread loaves and their cheeks badly bloated. I asked her what their skin was like because we’d all heard so many rumors. Some of them were puffy and pink, she said. Some were puffy brown. Their skulls were covered with thick wild hair and they moved in snarling droves.

Even though our student population was composed of orphans, only the best and brightest were allowed to live at Salvation House. The monsters did not like us because of this. We had bars on the windows and locks on all the doors. They were more vicious than ever the night of the attack. As if smelly meat was not quite insulting enough, a fiery arrow hit Sister Sabastienne in the shoulder.

“Be strong children,” she told us as she went down. “Remember who you are!”

“The Blessed,” we answered in one clear voice, saying it like you say “Amen”. We said these same words every day. Sometimes Deuteronomy mumbled them in her sleep.

Being The Blessed was not something to be vain about but the sisters said it was important to remember how fortunate we were, especially in these difficult times. The countryside was full of heathens who thrived on violence. They lived without the hope of finding a Book of Love. There were precious few who had any destiny at all. Instead of God, the Infected worshipped flesh, craving it like air. I’d heard a thousand history lectures, but I would not be seeing things for myself until my Leaving Ceremony.

“Must protect the children,” Philemon said, stepping over Sister Sabastienne and swinging his protection stick. With his shadowy eyes and smooth, pale skin, Philemon was the most beautiful of the beautiful. Given the high standards at our school, this was no small thing. He hurled his stick through the hole in the roof and let loose a warrior cry. Later, he would be bawled out for losing his stick, but that lone act seemed magnificent to us. Salvation House was a hive of self-preservation. Although the guards would shoot Routiers if forced, the rest of us spent every attack the same way – dutifully keeping ahead of the flames. There was no thought of fighting back. Until this night.

What is a "whisper jar" and how did you arrive at this title for your book?

A whisper jar is a jar used to store one's deepest, darkest secrets and the directions for using one are very easy. Simply remove the lid, unburden your heart by softly whispering your secrets into the mouth of the glass, screw on the top, and move forward with your life, safe in the knowledge that your little black deed has been securely stashed away. Because the stories in this collection all center around characters who are desperately trying to hide something, I invented the whisper jar so they would have a place to squirrel away their crimes. Alas, while a portable receptacle for collecting secrets would seem very handy, no respectable work of dark fiction would ever allow anything the least bit unsavory to remain under lid.

If we take a peek inside The Whisper Jar, what sort of secrets will we find fermenting in there?

The Good Part steps inside the secret world of a brother and sister who give the term "blood-bound" a whole new meaning, while The Forgotten Orphan reveals the truth regarding a much wondered and worried about monster that's locked away at the top of an old orphanage. In Maxwell Treat's Museum of Torture for Young Girls and Boys, the secret revolves around the mysterious consequences of a device called "The Fork in the Road", which happens to be on display in a rather unusual museum created by three enterprising and slightly fishy children. As a whole, The Whisper Jar has been stuffed to the brim with confessions of innocence lost and warnings about the high cost of regret.

Maxwell Treat is an interesting name. Are the names of the characters in your work important?

A character's name provides a beautiful way to set the tone for a story, in my opinion. Naming a woman Marygold in a Victorian piece, for instance, helps establish setting and a feel for the era every time the name appears on a page. I name my characters with almost as much care as I named my kids. We're all intimately familiar with literary monikers that have gone on to embody a wealth of meaning while standing utterly on their own - Huckleberry Finn. Romeo. Lolita. Gandalf... I've sometimes thought about how different many small things in our society would be if Dracula had been given a different name. I'm really glad Bram Stoker gave the count an exotic one and didn't just call him Steve. Think how silly it would sound if kids were flocking to the store every Halloween to buy Steve costumes.

What are the names of some of the other characters in The Whisper Jar and how do these names set the tone for the stories in your book?

In The Blue Word, the characters are all students in a remote mountain school for special children that's being run by French nuns. Everyone is named after a book in the Bible - Corinthians, Philemon, Esther. Discipline and moral conscience are imperative to the survival of the program. The children (who were accepted for enrollment as infants) are given constant daily reminders of their spiritual obligations by way of almost everything, including the names of their friends. It's a post apocalyptic story and the true heritage of Esther, the protagonist, like Esther in the Bible, is not revealed until much later. Also, like Biblical Esther, Esther of the apocalypse is given a chance to save her fellow people.

There is a sweet, slow-witted character named Estrella Calliope June-Bug Padora in the short story, Friar Garden, Mister Samuel, and the Jilly Jally Butter Mints. Estrella is a beautiful, childlike girl of sixteen with mermaid hair who charms her sister and a boy named Sam into eating some mints that may or may not be magical and, without intending to do it, ends up ruining all their lives. From the garden she plays in to the fig newton that inexplicably falls one day from the snarl of her green-tinted hair, everything about Estrella is a bit bewitching and fairytale-like, right down to the moral of her story.

Hopefully, there isn't a name in the book that doesn't somehow enhance the story in which it appears.

While we're on the subject of names, you're known on the Internet as The Horror Homemaker. Are the stories in The Whisper Jar all horror stories? Some of them sound like fantasy or Sci-Fi.

In all honesty, the stories are a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I tend to like anything that walks a fine line between magic and science because I feel like so many things in life are touched by a mystical, spiritual sort of sparkle. That's the kind of fantasy I'm drawn to. One of the stories, Keepity Keep, is about two brothers who discover and end up fighting over a little fairy-type person named Petaloo. It was originally published in Fantasy Magazine and definitely has a fae slant.

When it comes to horror stories, Twilight Zone is my Twilight of choice. I'm wild about endings that hit me like a punch in the gut. Remorse is more terrifying to me than being bitten by a vampire. That said, I love vampires. I like them best when they prey upon your sense of right and wrong. Mix guilt with a vampire kiss and my heart bleeds. I'm not a lover of gore or hack-n-slay. If I'm cruel to my protagonists (and I am!), I prefer to clout them with irony or break them with a brutal case of forbidden love.

Is the book available in paperback?

Soon! It will joining the ebook version on Amazon sometime in the next several weeks.

Last but not least, do you keep a jar around the house for your secrets? If so, what kinds of things do you whisper inside it?

I keep a jar around my neck, actually. It's teeny tiny but it holds a lot. If I'm in Walmart and feeling angry with the slow progress of the check-out line, I can whisper all the curses I want in there and still look like a very nice person. As for the really big secrets I drop in my jar, they are mostly boring ones involving parental guilt over not helping my child enough with a homework assignment, or, helping my child too much with a homework assignment. I'm afraid I'm forced to make up the exciting stuff. That's why I became a writer. Along with a giveaway of my book, I would like to give away some convenient, ready-to-wear whisper jar necklaces, great for easy storage of all your most terrible and not so terrible secrets.

Carole Lanham's publishing history includes twenty-four short stories, one novella, first prize in two national writing contests, and several awards, the entire lot of which would never have been possible without the loving support and help of her wonderful husband and two children. She lives in the St. Louis area with her little jar of secrets and a rather sprawling collection of aprons. The Whisper Jar is her first full length book. If interested, please visit her at: and

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Whisper Jar Necklace

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Suz Reads said...

Thanks for this amazing giveaway! This book looks great and I would love to win it!

Suz Reads (in Rafflecopter)

Alyssa said...

Thanks for the giveaway! Another book to add to my list :)
Alyssa S.

Nicole said...

Looks like an awesome book and the necklace is so cute! Thanks for the giveaway!

Sayomay said...

This sounds like an awesome read! Plus i LOVE the necklace!!!!!!!!

Michelle said...

This sounds like a great book and I liked that author interview. Plus the necklace is super pretty!