Petra’s Ghost, written by C.S. O’Cinneide, has a U.S. release date of August 13, 2019. It will be published by Dundurn.
Petra’s Ghost starts off with a young widower standing on a windswept hill. He holds a plastic baggie. It is filled with the ashes of his deceased wife, Petra. He has carried her all the way to Spain, to the sun-baked and arduous Camino de Santiago, so he can complete the pilgrimage and scatter her ashes. To say goodbye. It should be easy—find a picturesque spot, open the baggie, and let his wife fall from his fingers.
But it’s not that simple. He feels guilty; he’s the only one who knows how Petra really died, the only one who knows he’s responsible for her death. Now, he keeps seeing strange things. A shadowy figure out of the corner of his eye. The apparition of Petra in broad daylight. She seems to be following him. She seems to be getting closer. The widower knows that, sooner or later, he will have to make peace with Petra. And he’s not the only pilgrim who is haunted by the ghosts of the past.
With her debut novel, Petra’s Ghost by C.S. O’Cinneide is a confident and compelling read. Part ghost story, part travel novel, Petra’s Ghost weaves an enticing tale about exorcising one’s demons and learning to put the past to rest.
I was so so lucky to score an advance copy of the novel and had even more good fortune when I got the chance to interview O’Cinneide about Petra’s Ghost. In the following interview, we chat about everything from her love of Shirley Jackson to character inspiration to how she learned to embrace the novel’s more macabre elements. Also, please stay tuned for my review of Petra’s Ghost!
SFG: What ghost stories or speculative fiction titles have influenced you as a writer?
O’Cinneide: When I was a kid, I was absolutely obsessed with the movie, The Haunting. I am ashamed to say that it wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned this movie was based on The Haunting of Hill House by the veritable Shirley Jackson. I was studying her classic short story, The Lottery, in creative writing class and only made the connection then. When I look back on the books I was reading from the genre in those formative years however it was definitely an all-male crew: Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde’s Canterville Ghost, and even Saki with his Open Window (my parent’s library was heavily weighted toward classical literature, and I unabashedly handed in a short story in fourth grade that was a thinly veiled rip-off of W.W. Jacobs’s The Monkey’s Paw). But it is sad to think that I was unaware in that period that my favourite ghost story of all time was written by a woman. All of this has influenced me in my writing. I believe my tendency toward modern-day gothic has its roots in that early library, and my love of being scared silly comes from Shirley Jackson.
In more recent years, I have enjoyed writers who take the traditional form of the ghost story and do something unique with it. Books like The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold come to mind. Or the talented comics author Emily Carroll and her collection of short horror tales in Through the Woods. I think I was aiming for this kind of originality when I decided to set a macabre story on a religious pilgrimage like the Camino in Petra’s Ghost.
SFG: What scares you?
O’Cinneide: The current political scene, and more specifically the polarization of people into angry extreme camps of ideology. It reminds me of Stephen King’s The Stand.
SFG: You’ve spoken before about how you walked the Camino and how, during your trip, another woman was abducted and murdered. Was that the sole inspiration behind writing this dark ghost story?
O’Cinneide: Certainly that missing woman was on my mind when I was walking, although, for the most part, I felt completely safe on the Camino. But also on my mind was the recent and devastating death of a dear friend’s young son. Grief is so often coloured by a sense of guilt around what one could have or should have done differently. It is a cyclical kind of purgatory that can haunt a person after a tragedy. That is the darkness that is Petra’s Ghost, along with the light that can be found ultimately in acceptance and forgiveness. And since the Camino is a spiritual journey, it seems fitting that when I chose to write about all these subjects, that I would include an actual spirit.
About Petra’s Ghost
SFG: How did the character of Daniel come to you? What about Ginny?
O’Cinneide: Daniel is loosely based on my husband, an Irish ex-pat with much the same background. I was trepidatious about writing a novel from a male perspective and wanted to make it authentic, so I chose to pattern the character on the man I knew best. The name Daniel itself is meant to sound like and riff off of Dante of Divine Comedy fame. You’ll find quite a few “Easter eggs” hidden in Petra’s Ghost from that epic poem. Ginny’s full name is Virginia, and was meant to echo the character of Virgil, who guides Dante through hell.
SFG: During a pivotal scene, a character explains the “three stages” of the Camino, which track the progression of the novel. What is your favorite section of Petra’s Ghost —the part corresponding to the body, mind, or soul? Why?
O’Cinneide: I think it has got to be the last part, when the soul comes into play. I can’t say too much without delving into spoilers, but I think the final chapters of the book provide such a wonderful juxtaposition of terrifying moments alongside lovingly delivered epiphanies. I believe revelations of the soul are like that, facing the horror and demons within and somehow finding compassion there.
SFG: A lot of great writers have talked at length about how genre fiction is “disrespected.” Do you feel this way, and if so, what would you say to people who think genre fiction does not and cannot add to literature?
O’Cinneide: Oh my goodness, we could do a whole article on that alone! When I first signed on with my awesome publisher Dundurn Press for Petra’s Ghost, nobody spoke the word “horror.” Instead, we used words like “literary” and occasionally “magical realism.” Later, terms like “dark thriller/mystery” were bandied about. Whenever I told anyone about the book, I’d say it was about a man who is walking the Camino where a woman has recently disappeared, and people would just smile politely. Then last fall, I was at a writer’s retreat and when I was asked by the group about the novel, I decided to come clean. It’s about an Irish ex-pat who is stalked by a decaying corpse on a pilgrimage, I said. And everybody’s eyebrows went up and they said, “That’s cool.”
Ultimately, people are interested in good stories that are written well about interesting subjects. I think that transcends genre. At the beginning of the year, Petra’s Ghost started showing up on all sorts of Most Anticipated Horror Booklists [SFG note: including mine!], despite being promoted as literary. In the end, you can be both. I find it interesting that some people read the book and think what Daniel sees is a supernatural phenomenon and others believe it all comes from his own psyche. So genre may be in the eye of the beholder as well. But really, anyone who discounts any kind of fiction on spec is ultimately missing out on some stupendous reading. It is their loss.
SFG: Can you talk a little bit about the future plans for Petra’s Ghost? I understand there’s been some interest with a film?
O’Cinneide: My publishers and I have been contacted by more than half a dozen film production companies from both the U.S. and the U.K. about movie/TV rights. This was particularly exciting because the book hadn’t even come out yet when we heard from them. The premise alone caught their eye. I am dizzy with the attention and am trying to fit my head through the door on a daily basis. When I am in a position to announce something concrete, I promise you will be one of the first to know.
SFG: Do you have any hopes/fears about seeing Petra’s Ghost adapted as a film?
O’Cinneide: When I was discussing it recently with an interested production studio, I told them that I didn’t want to see the story devolve into a bunch of zombies running around the Camino de Santiago. While I do appreciate a good zombie movie (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Shaun of the Dead are a couple of my favourites), that’s not what Petra’s Ghost is about.
SFG: What other projects are you working on right now?
O’Cinneide: When I sold Petra’s Ghost to Dundurn Press, I was also signed to a three-book deal based on another novel I wrote, The Starr Sting Scale (due out February/March 2020). This book is unapologetic noir crime fiction and a totally different kind of book than Petra’s Ghost. It features a six-foot-three hitwoman anti-heroine named Candace Starr and is so funny every editor who has worked on the manuscript has been caught laughing out loud at their desks. Currently, I am working on the second book in the series and am a little more than half-way through.
But more in line with what you might expect, I recently finished the first draft of a dark family drama told from three perspectives, a mother, father and their teenage daughter who may (or may not) be pure evil. It has a supernatural element that is set in a modern-day context and is a twist-and-turn, keep-you-guessing page-turner. Surprisingly, it has some humour as well. I hope to have the final draft finished by the end of the year.
SFG: Thank you so much for your time! Would you please include some information so readers can find you?
O’Cinneide: You can find me at my website, Shekillslit.com, on Twitter (@shekillslit), and Facebook (@OcinneideCS). You can also find Petra’s Ghost and my forthcoming The Starr Sting Scale on Goodreads.
*Above Photo Credit: Cover–Frantz, Ricardo; Pellisier, Jean-Pierre. Petra’s Ghost, C.S. O’Cinneide, Dundurn, 2019, front cover.