When Ghosts Want You in a Small Town: Gallows Hill

Getting spare cash in high school can be difficult, especially if you live in a relatively small town with very few available after school jobs, and you are living with a single, unemployed mother.

So it’s probably not too surprising that Sarah Zoltanne reluctantly agrees to work with her not-particularly-well liked, probably-soon-to-be stepsister Kyra and Kyra’s boyfriend Eric in a fake fortune telling business. Only one small, small problem: as it turns out, Sarah can sometimes see the real future. And that’s terrifying for a lot of people, including Sarah, and might even lead everyone to Gallows Hill.

Sarah and her mother Rosemary have arrived from California to the small, conservative town of Pine Crest, Missouri—not, I should mention, for job prospects, or a better life, or because California sucks, but because Rosemary has unexpectedly fallen in love with Ted Thompson, a technically still married man (technical in the sense of “hasn’t actually filed the divorce papers yet,” although he no longer lives at home) with two children of his own. The arrangement has not made anyone except for Rosemary and Ted happy. Sarah hates Ted; Ted’s legal wife is depressed, miserable and in denial; Ted’s daughter, Kyra, hates Rosemary and Sarah, and the other kid… doesn’t come into the story much because he refuses to come over.

And even Rosemary isn’t particularly happy: she’s unable to find a job or friends in Pine Crest and left with very little to do except for garden, cook and watch television. Ted, meanwhile, continues to spend money on an apartment for appearances sake, but never stays there, bringing Kyra over and forcing Kyra and Sara to share a room whenever he has custody of his daughter. As I said, unhappiness everywhere. And because Ted’s wife is the church secretary in the town’s only church, Sarah and her mother are unable to attend church, which doesn’t help their reputation.

This all probably helps to explain just why Sarah agrees to go along with Kyra and her boyfriend Eric’s plan to set up a fake fortunetelling booth at a Halloween fair: Ted is pressuring Sara and Kyra to get along, and Eric is pressuring Kyra to do something against the rules, because, as the text will later discuss, Eric is both proud and deeply frustrated by his social position as the perfect son (and class president) of one of the town’s most powerful men. It’s all just a small way of testing boundaries. That is, until Sarah starts seeing actual visions in the little glass sphere she inherited from a long dead grandmother. That, combined with the secrets Kyra provides about their fellow students ensures that Sarah knows way, way too much about her fellow students and what will happen to them. A later confrontation between Sarah and Kyra, where Sarah curses Kyra out, doesn’t help.

It does not take too long for the entire cheerleading squad—and Kyra—to become convinced Sarah’s a witch, and to start leaving threatening letters and a dead crow in her locker. And then things get much worse.

To her credit, Sarah does try to go to adults for assistance. But as so often happens in Lois Duncan’s books, the adults are at best skeptical. At worst—exemplified by Mr. Prue and Ted—they blame Sarah for everything that’s happened to her, accusing her of making everything up. Both claim that Sarah has turned her fellow students against her; both choose to believe the other students. Even after the dead crow.

There’s also quite a bit of Midwest versus California going on here, with the various Midwesterners suspicious of supposed California new age people and cults, and Sarah in turn horrified by perceived Midwestern closed mindedness.

The one person Sarah does have on her side is not, of course, the handsome guy she’s started to develop a crush on and who has kissed her (this is a Lois Duncan book) but rather the fat, unpopular Charlie. Having witnessed her powers (and kinda lied about it), Charlie is convinced that she’s telling the truth, which is comforting. He also tries to warn her about her fellow students, which is a lot less comforting. And really less comforting is his entire theory: everything about the situation is so out of character—particularly Rosemary’s decision to upend her entire life and career and move several states for the sake of being with Ted Thompson who, frankly, not a prize, must be due to some sort of karma. A fairly specific karma: he believes nearly everyone involved is a reincarnation of someone involved with the Salem Witch Trials.

(Lesson learned: If you are going to be involved in a fortune telling project gone terribly, terribly, wrong, it helps to have a relatively optimistic believer in reincarnation come along with you.)

As it turns out, Charlie is right about the Salem Witch Trials. Which, to be honest, is somewhat aggravating: this book has enough going on without dragging in various very dead New Englanders needing to work things out. Not to mention that I can’t help but think the very Puritan New Englanders would hardly have been thrilled to find themselves reincarnated as Midwestern teenagers. Not to further mention that, as the book reveals, quite a number of people who were not reincarnated New Englanders end up suffering because these witches needed karma. Sigh.

If the general idea was to compare contemporary high schools to the tense, accusatory attitudes that surrounded the Salem Witch Trials, and the tendency to dismiss strong evidence of innocence in favor of considerably less convincing evidence of guilt—well, I’m not sure reincarnation was the best way to accomplish this.

It also means a lack of focus on one of the more interesting relationships in the book, that between Sarah and Kyra, two girls who genuinely, truly do not like each other, but are forced to occasionally cooperate and recognize certain truths about each other, or the relationship between Ted, Rosemary and Sarah—a situation where Ted continues to gaslight Sarah and Rosemary, but where Rosemary ends up not exactly being gaslighted, but karma controlled, which, er, problems.

I’m also not a huge fan of the theory that Charlie is fat because he is carrying around Salem Witch karma, or the idea that people who believe in reincarnation are somehow happier and more chilled than those who don’t. And I’m moderately amused that this book, which appeared in 1997, actually has fewer references to the internet and email than Duncan’s books which appeared in the 1970s and were reissued much later. It’s not that everyone had access to the internet and used email in 1997, but hi, we were indeed around. And the climactic scene is a bit muddled.

But all that said, this is one book that can be enjoyed by Lois Duncan fans and non fans alike. It may be a bit derivative of her other works, and may lack some of their tension, but for once, the ending isn’t quite as rushed, and even has time to breathe a bit, and I definitely liked certain twists with Eric, Kyra, Charlie and Ted—at least one of which might even surprise Duncan fans a bit. If I would have preferred more time with present day characters, and less time worrying about whether Salem Witch Sarah Good had finally learned her lesson in this lifetime, it was still a fun read.


Mari Ness is hoping that the Salem Witches have found some peace after all this time. She lives in central Florida.

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