Discussing The Land of the Haunted Dolls with Susan Lien Whigham

Sometimes a book comes along that sounds utterly brilliant but I simply don’t have space on my TBR. That is exactly the case with the debut novel Susan Lien Whigham has brought along today. I couldn’t resist inviting Susan to stay in with me. I think you’ll agree how brilliant it sounds when you hear what she told me!

Staying in with Susan Lien Whigham

Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Susan and thank you for agreeing to stay in with me.

I’m delighted, thank you for the invitation!

Tell me, which of your books have you brought along to share this evening and why have you chosen it?

I’ve brought with me my debut novel, Land of the Haunted Dolls. There are sequels on the way. In many ways, it chose me.

Oo. That’s an interesting statement. What we can expect from an evening in with Land of the Haunted Dolls?

A genre-bending tale of psychological drama, peppered with elements of historical fiction and paranormal horror.

That sounds really unusual. Tell me more!

Some of the characters have time travelled from 17th century New England to 21st century New York to seek revenge, so we catch glimpses of their past lives in flashbacks. With the help of a Voodoo sorcerer, these time-travelling spirits have taken possession of four trafficking victims who have been rescued from a sex and drug trafficking ring, and the FBI agent investigating the case finds that she’s about to get more than she bargained for when she calls in an estranged family member to consult on the case.

Those characters sound intriguing.

A number of reviewers have commented on the novel’s character-driven nature, a distinction from the plot-driven style that one typically finds in the horror genre. In that sense, I would liken it to the works of filmmaker Mike Flanagan, creator of film “Oculus” and the Netflix series “Haunting of Bly Manor.” I mention these two works of his in particular because they share some similar themes with my novel, including childhood trauma, addiction, ghosts, demons and hauntings. They also have in common non-linear timelines, philosophical musings, and in some of his works such as the recent Netflix series “Midnight Mass,” hopeful perspectives in spite of the story’s grim happenings.

I’m one of those readers who is more invested in character than plot so Land of the Haunted Dolls really appeals.

Land of the Haunted Dolls also features a cast of characters from diverse backgrounds including many different races and religions, and is also LGBTQ-inclusive. Writing a diverse story presents the challenge of empathizing with cultures outside of the ones with which you as an author may identify. I feel it’s a vitally important endeavour for the sake of getting to know each other culturally and seeking common ground in the ways we all, around the world, deal with common struggles such as recovery from trauma and addiction.

Oh you’re absolutely right. And this is the joy of books Susan. They have the power to help us understand others around us. 

At its heart, the novel is ultimately about two protagonists, a sceptic FBI agent and her mystic cousin, and their conflicts in family history and in strongly differing beliefs, and their need to find a way to come together in order to fight a greater evil.

Land of the Haunted Dolls sounds so entertaining and thought provoking. How is it being received?

The feedback on it so far has been good, with some readers loving the paranormal aspects, while others finding the themes of trauma and addiction resonate more strongly, while still others come for the pro-diversity elements.

How brilliant. What else have you brought along and why have you brought it? 

I have a few items to share. The first is a photo from 2010, taken at the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum in Louisiana. Visiting the museum had a powerful effect on me. Its magic beckoned me, and I think it’s safe to say that my interest in the practice of Voodoo, and the beginnings of the novel, were born on that trip. When I say that the story chose me, this is an example of what I mean. It’s been a mystical journey of exploration which has called to me every step of the way.

That’s actually quite disturbing!

The second is a photo of a sidewalk chalk drawing which I had encountered while working on the novel in 2017. It spoke to me very clearly of the nature of The Marassa, who are Voodoo spirits known as lwa, who pay a visit in the novel. In fact, this manifestation of the most ancient of the lwa in street art directly inspired me to write the chapter in which they appear.

I love hearing where authors find their inspiration. You’ve really intrigued me now!

Lastly, an extract:

Titi squinted her eyes for a moment, peering into the darkness, then relaxed them. “I’m picking up some psychometry from this location,” she said slowly. “There are people buried under here. Unmarked graves, hundreds of them. They died of yellow fever.” For a moment, the image of hundreds of people pale, jaundiced, and naked, bleeding from their vacant eyes as they aimlessly wandered a darkened forest at night, haunting their graves, flashed through Titi’s vision.  It always unsettled her to catch glimpses of the dead, though it happened often enough that she held out hope that someday she would  grow to not feel so alarmed.

“What do you mean by psychometry?” said Rochelle, interrupting Titi’s thoughts.

“It’s a form of clairvoyance where the reader can sense the history of a place or an object by touching it.”

Rochelle looked away at the wall, stifling a reaction. She wondered how much more surreal this experience could possibly get. Titi was wondering the same thing. “Before that,” she said, “there was a dense forest right here, with a river running through it. Pine trees everywhere. Late sixteenth century.”

“So if you’re psychic, what am I thinking right now?” said Rochelle.

“Psychic doesn’t mean omniscient,” said Titi with a glare.

No! You can’t leave it there Susan! What a fascinating insight into Land of the Haunted Dolls. Thank you so much for staying in with me to chat all about it. I’ll just give Linda’s Book Bag readers a few more details:

Land of the Haunted Dolls

Are some beliefs worth the risk of losing it all?

How far can you go before there’s no turning back?

Special Agent Rochelle Roy must confront scepticism and family tensions when four sex trafficking victims claim to be the reincarnated souls of women who died during the Salem witch trials. A paranormal drama, featuring a diverse cast, which takes place in the aftermath of human trafficking, touching how it impacts both victims and law enforcement, and feeds into cycles of trauma, addiction, spiritual crisis and transcendence.

Land of the Haunted Dolls is available for purchase through the links here.

About Susan Lien Whigham

Susan Lien Whigham is an independent filmmaker based in San Francisco, on the California coast of the United States. Having spent more than a decade writing, directing and producing short films, she released her debut novel entitled Land of the Haunted Dolls in July 2021. A prequel short film based on the novel is currently making its rounds on the film festival circuit and can be seen in February 2022 at The North Film Festival in Stockholm, Sweden, and in September 2022 at the Love and Hope International Film Festival in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

For more information, visit Susan’s website, find her on Goodreads and Facebook or follow her on Twitter @tierrasimbolica and Instagram.

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