Mercy Brown was just 19 years old when her neighbors accused her of sucking the life from her family. Moreover, she couldn’t defend herself. She was lying in a crypt — dead. Or was she?
This true New England vampire story, which took place in the 1890s, is the premise for the novel “Mercy: The Last New England Vampire” by Portland author Sarah L. Thomson, who has published more than 25 books for young readers.
Released in October, the young adult novel already has earned the Silver Medal Moonbeam Children’s Book Award for young adult fiction in the horror-mystery category. Indeed, Thomson’s bone-chilling tale is just that — a refreshingly spooky mystery, complete with a gloomy graveyard and haunted house, free of undead romance and teen superpowers.
Thomson’s contemporary twist on local folklore begins with some real history.
In 1890s Exeter, R.I., the Brown family was plagued by tuberculosis, or “consumption,” a devastating disease that then killed half of all people infected. The mother, Mary, was the first to die of the disease, the second was her eldest daughter, followed by Mercy.
“[Vampirism] was very frequently linked with tuberculosis because of the way it’s transmitted, very slowly through a family,” said Thomson, who came across the Brown family story while surfing the Internet researching for her first scary novel. “That pattern is fairly typical of tuberculosis, but it also lends itself to this belief that someone must be doing something to make this happen — and you should start digging up the people who had died.”
George Brown, desperate to cure his son Edmund, who had also fallen ill, allowed the townsfolk to act on their superstitions and exhume all three Brown women to look for evidence of living dead — a heart still beating. Mercy’s heart contained fresh blood, her body relatively unchanged.
“That’s actually not that unusual,” said Thomson. “She had been dead only 3 months and it was a cold winter. But they burned her heart and gave the ashes to her bother to eat, which did not actually save him. He died a couple of months later.”
In “Mercy,” Thomson asks, what if it wasn’t tuberculosis that killed the Brown family? The New England superstition comes to life in the 21st century when 14-year-old Haley Brown delves into her family’s past for a school project on ancestry.
Brown, a strong young lady with a passion for photography, is struggling to cope with her parents’ divorce and her cousin suffering with a mysterious terminal illness. The boy she likes is dating her best friend. To top it all off, her ancestor, the accused vampire, is breaking through the boundaries of time, reaching out to be vindicated in the eyes of her descendant. Brown is forced to interpret ghostly sights and eerie messages to uncover the truth.
A fan of classic Victorian ghost stories, Thomson chose to veer away from the modern-day romanticism associated with vampires in the young adult novel and movie series “Twilight” and television shows such as “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries.”
“The compelling thing about Mercy Brown’s story is that people really believed she was a vampire,” said Thomson. “And when people really believed in them, they weren’t attracted to them, they were scared of them.”
But instead of rewinding back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula of Transylvania — the epitome of creepiness — Thomson stuck close to home, unearthing local monsters. “Food for the Dead,” a book by folklorist Michael Bell, provided her with much of the information she needed to discover that Mercy wasn’t the only “vampire” of New England, but she was the most recent.
To envision Haley’s domain, Thomson visited Exeter and the grave of Mercy L. Brown in the cemetery of the historic Chestnut Hill Baptist Church.
“It was a little creepy, and also a little embarrassing,” said Thomson. “I was waiting for someone to come out of the church and ask me what I was doing.”
She chose a cemetery closer to home, the Eastern Cemetery in Portland, for her recent book launch, for which children decorated with ghostly face paint posed with actress Emily Lunt of Falmouth dressed as undead Mercy Brown.
Thomson moved to Portland in 2003, ending her career as children’s book editor in New York for HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster and devoting her talents to writing full time. Her young adult titles include “Dragon’s Egg,” which won the 2007 Maine Lupine Award, “The Dragon’s Son,” “The Manny,” “The Secret of the Rose” and “The Young Reader’s Edition of Three Cups of Tea,” a New York Times best-seller.
She hasn’t decided whether to write a sequel to “Mercy,” but there are other spooky New England legends that she hopes to morph into contemporary young adult novels; in particular, the curse of Dudleytown, Conn. Her next two books, however, are a lullaby picture book and a nonfiction book on prehistoric animals.
Writing a hair-raising page turner was a new experience for Thomson, and she repeatedly asked herself, “Is this scary enough?” (Yes.) And the more she thought about the Brown tragedy, the more she felt affection for Mercy, a sentiment that may be the cause of the unexpected twist at the end of the novel.
“The whole theme of the vampire legend is essentially the fear of death, the fear or dying,” said Thomson. “The question is: What would you do to live forever? How many things would you sacrifice? Would you sacrifice the people you love best?”