Brundage combines noir and the gothic in a novel about two families entwined in their own unhappiness with, at the center, a gruesome and unsolved murder.
Late one winter afternoon in upstate New York, George Clare comes home to find his wife murdered and their three-year-old daughter alone–for how many hours?–in her room down the hall. He had recently, begrudgingly, taken a position at the private college nearby teaching art history, and moved his family into this tight-knit, impoverished town. And he is the immediate suspect–the question of his guilt echoing in a story shot through with secrets both personal and professional. While his parents rescue him from suspicion, a persistent cop is stymied at every turn in proving Clare a heartless murderer. The pall of death is ongoing, and relentless; behind one crime are others, and more than twenty years will pass before a hard kind of justice is finally served. At once a classic “who-dun-it” that morphs into a “why-and-how-dun-it,” this is also a rich and complex portrait of a psychopath and a marriage, and an astute study of the various taints that can scar very different families, and even an entire community.
ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR, by Elizabeth Brundage: Ghosts, murder, a terrifying psychotic who seems normal, and beautiful writing. Loved it.
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) April 28, 2016
“Lyrically written, frequently shocking and immensely moving . . . It was, perhaps, for such extraordinary books that the term ‘literary thriller’ was coined . . . Reading this book is at once wrenching and exhilarating, thanks to Ms. Brundage’s prose, which can make you gasp in astonishment or break your heart with a single line.” —Tom Nolan, The Wall Street Journal
“A marriage, a sociopath, a family destroyed by the economy, the things we do for love—all finely drawn. . . . All of the [cast] are sympathetic and suspicious in equal measure, a result of Brundage’s ability to peel away the onionskin layers of emotion that define any relationship. As the clues accumulate and the killer is revealed, the truth becomes both horrifying and inevitable. In the end, justice is done and redemption found, though not at one might expect, which makes the book all the more satisfying.” —Vanessa Friedman, The New York Times Book Review
“This literary thriller’s complex narrative involves a cursed house, an unsolved murder and impeccable writing.” —New York Times Editor’s Choice, June 10, 2016
“Exquisitely gut-churning . . . Brundage’s elegant exploration of motive—in all its directions—sets this book apart . . . Paranormal activity hangs in the atmosphere [and] Brundage takes us compellingly inside the perverse machinations of a violently narcissistic mind [that] recalls Patricia Highsmith’s talented Mr. Ripley . . . Brundage’s language is the real draw, with her vivid portraits of spouses on opposite sides of a brutal abyss.” —Sarah Begley, Time
“[A] dark, chilling drama.” —Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly
“A beautifully written treat. . . . as much a disturbing portrait of family and town life as it is a provocative mystery.” —Estelle Tang, Elle
“Transcendent . . . Tragedy leaves an indelible mark on both people and places in Brundage’s piercing new novel. Party mystery, part ghost story, and entirely brilliant.” —Liza Oldham, Library Journal (starred)
“Insightful, evocative.” —People, “Book of the Week”
“Slightly Gothic, socially perceptive, and briskly written… Set in a seemingly haunted farmhouse is a rapidly gentrifying Hudson Valley town, the complex literary thriller ranges across generations of traumatized, interwoven families.” —Boris Kachka, New York
“Superb . . . think a more literary, and feminist, Gone Girl. As the seemingly perfect marriage at its core reminds us, the most lethal deceptions are the stories we tell ourselves.” —Megan O’Grady, Vogue
“A classic murder mystery [combined] with a gripping psychological thriller, exploring the complexities of grief, relationships—romantic, familial and friendly—and small-town life.” —Haley Herfurth, BookPage
“I bloody loved this. I could have taken weeks over it, lingering on the harmony and beauty of her language and the creeping delicacy of what was going on—but the plot and the people pull you in. It’s an iceberg in disguise. Beneath the daisies and farmhouses, the drinks parties and local dramas something grand, tense and terrifying is shifting, between men and women, between townies and newcomers, between adults and children. And then a crack shoots through—unexpected light, the clarity of hatred, inevitability. . .” —Louisa Young
“Brundage’s searing, intricate novel epitomizes the best of the literary thriller, marrying gripping drama with impeccably crafted prose, characterizations, and imagery. . . . Moving fluidly between viewpoints and time periods, Brundage’s complex narrative requires and rewards close attention. Succeeding as murder mystery, ghost tale, family drama, and love story, her novel is both tragic and transcendent.” —Publishers Weekly [boxed review]
“With a storyline that tightens like a constrictor, this is a book that you won’t want to read alone at night.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Brundage’s brilliant new novel is as terrifyingly unsettling—and as beautiful—as cracking ice over a raging river. Part murder mystery, part ghost story, it’s also a profound look at how past guilt informs the present, how what we yearn for is not always what we get, and how it’s not only houses that can be haunted, but people as well. One of the most ambitious, original and gorgeously written novels that I’ve ever read—and been unable to forget.” —Caroline Leavitt
“All Things Cease to Appear is a riveting ghost story, psychological thriller, and literary page turner. It’s also the story of four women: Ella, Catherine, Justine, and Willis. With masterful skill and brilliant empathy, Brundage brings each of them to vivid and remarkable life. At its heart, this is a story about women’s grit and courage, will and intelligence. It’s a powerful and beautiful novel.” —Kate Christensen
“At once high art and a spellbinding thriller, this is a book of many wonders, including a character as creepily sinister as any created by Patricia Highsmith.” —Beverly Lowry
“Transcendent . . . Tragedy leaves an indelible mark on both people and places in Brundage’s piercing new novel. Party mystery, part ghost story, and entirely brilliant.” —Library Journal
“Spellbinding.” —The Anniston Star
“A dynamic portrait of a young woman coming into her own [and] of a marriage in free fall. . . . It rises to [great] literary heights and promises a soaring mix of mysticism.” —Booklist (starred review)
February 23, 1979
Again, it was snowing. Half past five in the afternoon. Almost dark. She had just laid out their plates when the dogs started barking.
Her husband set down his fork and knife, none too pleased to have his supper interrupted. What’s that now?
June Pratt pulled aside the curtain and saw their neighbor. He was standing there in the snow, holding the child, her feet bare, neither of them in coats. From the looks of it, the little girl was in her pajamas. It’s George Clare, she said.
What’s he selling?
I wonder. I don’t see a car. They must’ve come on foot.
Awful cold out. You better see what he wants.
She let them in with the cold. He stood before her, holding the child out like an offering.
It’s my wife. She’s—
Momma hurt, the child cried.
June didn’t have children of her own, but she had raised dogs her whole life and saw the same dark knowing in the child’s eyes that confirmed what all animals understood, that the world was full of evil and beyond comprehension.
You’d better call the police, she told her husband. Something’s happened to his wife.
Joe pulled off his napkin and went to the phone.
Let’s go find you some socks, she said, and took the child from her father and carried her down the hall to the bedroom where she set her on the bed. Earlier that afternoon, she had laid her freshly laundered socks over the radiator, and she took a pair now and pushed the warm wool over the child’s feet, thinking that if the child were hers she’d love her better.
They were the Clares. They had bought the Hale place that summer, and now winter had come and there were just the two houses on the road and she hadn’t seen them much. Sometimes in the morning she would. Either when he raced past in his little car to the college. Or when the wife took the child out of doors. Sometimes, at night, when June walked the dogs, you could see inside their house. She could see them having supper, the little girl between them at the table, the woman getting up and sitting down and getting up again.
With the snow, it took over a half-hour for the sheriff to arrive. June was vaguely aware, as women often are of men who desire them, that Travis Lawton, who had been her classmate in high school, found her attractive. That was of no consequence now, but you don’t easily forget the people you grew up with, and she made a point of listening carefully to him, and acknowledged his kindness to George, even though there was the possibility, in her own mind at least, that the bad thing that had happened to his wife might have been his own doing.
He was thinking of Emerson, the terrible aristocracy that is in Nature. Because there were things in this world you couldn’t control. And because even now he was thinking of her. Even now, with his wife lying dead in that house.
He could hear Joe Pratt on the phone.
George waited on the green couch, shaking a little. Their house smelled like dogs and he could hear them barking out back in their pens. He wondered how they could stand it. He stared at the wide boards, a funk of mildew coming up from the cellar. He could feel it in the back of his throat. He coughed.
They’re on their way, Pratt said from the kitchen.
Down the hall, June Pratt was talking to his daughter with the sweet tone people use on children and he was grateful for it, so much so that his eyes teared a little. She was known for taking in strays. He’d see her walking the road with the motley pack at her side, a middle-aged woman in a red kerchief, frowning at the ground.
After a while, he couldn’t say how long, a car pulled up.
Here they are now, Pratt said.
It was Travis Lawton who came in. George, he said, but didn’t shake his hand.
Chosen was a small town and they were acquaintances of a sort. He knew Lawton had gone to RPI and had come back out here to be sheriff, and it always struck George that for an educated man he was pretty shallow. But then George wasn’t the best judge of character and, as he was continually reminded by a coterie of concerned individuals, his opinion didn’t amount to much. George and his wife were newcomers. The locals took at least a hundred years to accept the fact that somebody else was living in a house that had, for generations, belonged to a single family whose sob stories were now part of the local mythology. He didn’t know these people and they certainly didn’t know him, but in those few minutes, as he stood there in the Pratts’ living room in his wrinkled khakis and crooked tie, with a distant, watery look in his eyes that could easily be construed as madness, all their suspicions were confirmed.
Let’s go take a look, Lawton said.
They left Franny with the Pratts and went up the road, him and Lawton and Lawton’s undersheriff, Wiley Burke. It was dark now. They walked with grave purpose, a brutal chill under their feet.
The house sat there grinning.
They stood a minute looking up at it and then went in through the screened porch, a clutter of snowshoes and tennis rackets and wayward leaves, to the kitchen door. He showed Lawton the broken glass. They climbed the stairs in their dirty boots. The door to their bedroom was shut; he couldn’t remember shutting it. He guessed that he had.
I can’t go in there, he told the sheriff.
All right. Lawton touched his shoulder in a fatherly way. You stay right here.
Lawton and his partner pushed through the door. Faintly, he heard sirens. Their shrill cries made him weak.
He waited in the hall, trying not to move. Then Lawton came out, bracing himself against the doorjamb. He looked at George warily. That your ax?
George nodded. From the barn.
1. The issue of class differences weighs heavily throughout All Things Cease to Appear. Discuss the faltering farm economy in the area and how that affects morale. Which characters seem to represent the “old guard” of the town? How does distrust of the wealthy Manhattan set factor into the town’s perception of George?
2. Discuss the role of otherworldly influences. How does Brundage use voice and character to create a foreboding, eerie feeling throughout the novel? Discuss George’s hesitance to believe in these spirits. How does this create a gulf between him and Catherine? When, if ever, does Catherine feel validated for believing in the presence of these spirits?
3. Discuss the idea of “lost mothers.” as explored throughout. How do the Hale brothers each cope with the loss of their beloved mother? How does Catherine become a mother figure for the Hales? Which brother does she have the greatest influence on over time?
4. How does Uncle Rainer help to shape Cole’s understanding of the world? Describe Rainer’s emphasis on education. How does Cole take this to heart?
5. Discuss Willis’s trajectory throughout the novel. How would you describe her disposition as a teenager? What has shaped her worldview? How does her relationship with George affect her later choices in lifestyle and career?
6. How is the concept of motherhood explored throughout the novel? How would you define motherhood for Catherine? Mary? How do the obligations of motherhood tie into wifely obligations? Which characters represent a backlash to the established 1970s ideals of womanhood?
7. Discuss the evolution of Catherine’s personality. In the months before she is murdered, how does Catherine begin to defy the expectations of her role as wife? How is her discovery of poetry via Adrienne Rich significant to her development as a character? What other influences shape her?
8. Discuss the scene in which George cuts Willis’s hair during an intimate encounter. Why do you think he chose to do that? Explore the power dynamic in their relationship.
9. Describe the early stages of George’s relationship with Catherine. Do you think they ever shared genuine feelings for each other, or was their relationship borne out of obligation? How do Catherine’s Catholic upbringing and religious beliefs tether her to the confines of their relationship?
10. As the Clare case unfolds, Travis Lawton is determined to bring Catherine’s killer to justice. How does this affect his relationship with his own wife? Do you think that the case contributed to their marital discord?
11. Justine is a defining character in All Things Cease to Appear. How does her perspective offer insight into George and Catherine’s relationship? Discuss the relationship between Justine and her husband, Bram. How do they defy the conventional expectations for marriage and couplehood?
12. Discuss Franny’s reentry into Chosen. At what moment does she become witness to her mother’s happiness? Who gives her the best insight into her mother’s character?
13. The section “Exile” gives significant perspective into Catherine’s attitudes on motherhood, her new home in Chosen, and her relationship with George. How did you interpret her tone over the course of the letters? Do you think she ever sent any true updates to her family members, or did she use these hidden letters as a means of conveying her emotions? Why do you think Brundage chose to include this section at that point in the novel?
14. Consider how George changes over the course of the novel. When were you first convinced of his guilt? Which moments in All Things Cease to Appear did you find to be most disturbing?
15. Discuss the conclusion of the novel. Were you satisfied with how George met his end? Do we actually know that he has died? How did you interpret Franny’s last conversation with her father?
BEHIND THE BOOK
This book started with a house. It was the late 90’s and my husband had just joined a medical practice in Troy, New York. For Mother’s Day the year before, he took me to a beautiful inn in Columbia County – the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company – and over the course of that weekend I decided that Old Chatham, New York was one of the most beautiful places on earth and I wanted to live there. We decided to rent a house in nearby Malden Bridge, a historic hamlet that had been settled in the late eighteenth century. One afternoon, with my girls in the car (our son was just a twinkle in my eye back then) we drove past this old house with a For Rent sign hanging from a tree. It was a lovely white clapboard cape with a small front porch. I pulled over and we got out. There was nobody around; the place looked empty. We roamed around to the back yard, smelling sage and wild onion, and discovered a Dutch door. On impulse I tried the knob, but of course the door was locked. And then the strangest thing happened. The bottom half of the door eased open all on its own.
It felt like an invitation. We crawled inside on our hands and knees and the girls, who were 3 and 6 at the time, started running wildly through the house as children often do, filling the empty rooms with shrieks and laughter. I was struck by the simple grace of the house, the wide boards, the wavy original glass windows. I couldn’t believe the place was empty. We ended up signing a lease and moving in. Shortly thereafter, we discovered that we were not alone. Every morning on the way to school the girls told me stories about the ghosts, three little girls who had died in a fire and whose mother and father were up in heaven. They knew details that seemed beyond their ability to fabricate, including the names of the ghosts, and historic details about an old mill down the road with tainted water. One night, my youngest was literally laughing at something that seemed to be moving around the room. She pointed at it, giggling. I couldn’t see it. But I could feel it. I just knew. Months later, when we were moving out, I rushed through the empty house to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything. I opened a cabinet in the built-in corner cupboard of the dining room – for some reason I had never opened it before – and discovered three pairs of children’s shoes – little brown leather boots, probably stitched together in the early 1800’s, that would perfectly fit those little girl ghosts, matching the ages that my daughters had described. I couldn’t help it; I took them with me. It just didn’t seem right to leave them there all alone.
We all wonder about death and the mysterious unknown that follows. I knew I wanted to write about the subject and to somehow incorporate a ghost in my story. And then George Clare walked into the cold attic of my brain. He told me he was an art historian with some very deep and troubling secrets. I knew I wanted to set the novel in the Hudson River Valley and I had always loved the painter George Inness, one of the great Hudson River School painters. When I started researching Inness’s life, I discovered that he was a devout Swedenborgian. That led me to Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth century Swedish philosopher and mystic who believed in the existence of heaven and hell and that, after death, we experience a rich and complex afterlife. This information provided a fascinating subtext and opened up the larger world of the novel, allowing me to pull together the disparate strands of ideas in my head – a horrible, unsolved murder, the ghost of an unresolved woman, three brothers who grow up without her, and a once thriving agricultural community in the throes of urban gentrification.
Building a book is something like building a house. You begin with the land, the type of soil and its history, the landscape. You pour your foundation and construct the frame that will support the floors overhead. In this novel, the foundation is made of the bones of a dead woman, a woman I had read about in a newspaper once, whose murder has never been solved. That dark history cannot be contained in the muddy cellar. It rises up through the old wood boards, seeping out through the cracks, filling the empty rooms. It shouts its terrible story in the faintest whisper.
Dear writer, it says, I beg you: listen carefully. I have a story to tell.