In the early 1970s, artist Gerald Squires, his wife, Gail, and daughters, Esther and Meranda, moved into an abandoned lighthouse-keeper’s cottage in Ferryland, Newfoundland. Not long after settling in, just before Halloween, an unexpected visitor knocked at their door. With a face “grizzly with wrinkles” and a “creaky voice,” the stranger announced, “Your dog asked me to come in.”
The jovial old-timer, who identified himself as Ferryland’s former policeman, made himself at home and regaled the family with colourful memories of the cottage’s previous occupants. He recalled a young boy who died of pneumonia in the house and showed them where the body was laid out for the wake. After spinning tales for hours, the fellow thanked the Squires for their hospitality and took his leave, content that the lighthouse remained “the friendly spot it always was.” The visitor’s departure was as curious and sudden as his arrival, making the family wonder, “Did he just fly away?”
Days later, Gerald and Esther learn from a neighbour that their mysterious guest sounds exactly like Dick Costello, a local constable who died 20 years earlier. More intriguing is the news that this isn’t the first time Dick has made an appearance since his demise.
Charis Cotter, author of the 2014 middle-grade novel The Swallow: A Ghost Story (which won the IODE Canada Violet Downey Book Award), is a skilled storyteller. She relates the Squires’s strange story – told from Esther’s perspective – at a leisurely pace, giving the tale the rhythm and cadence of a folksy conversation around a kitchen table. All of the atmospheric elements that make a good ghost story are at work here. You’d be hard pressed to find an eerier setting than a desolate, empty lighthouse: “The windows were broken. The roof leaked. The house smelled of damp. No one had laughed or cried or shouted or slept in it for a long, long time.” As fog creeps along the headland, six-year-old Esther gets “that strange fainty feeling.”
Following the ghostly visit, ordinary life goes on. Esther explores her new home, plays on the rocky shore, and runs “free like a Newfoundland pony.” The narrative touches matter-of-factly on the harsh living conditions of the isolated location – the lack of running water and needing to eat, sleep, and work in the kitchen because the rest of the house is too cold. To Esther, this all amounts to adventure, not hardship.
Gerald Squires’s oil paintings and graphite sketches accompany the story, providing even more authenticity to the paranormal account. The acclaimed Newfoundland artist’s work captures the harshness and beauty of the province. The dramatic landscape study Hare Ears Island, South End shows roiling white-capped ocean waves beating against the rugged shore, and a steep hill, covered in greenery, seems to soar to the sky. In The Gathering, horses, partially obscured by mist, roam and graze on a grassy patch of rocky land. The sun casts shadows from behind moody storm clouds.
Candid photographs are also scattered throughout the pages, further grounding the story in a distinct time and place. This personal, intimate touch affords readers a deeper connection with the characters: Esther and Meranda flash impish grins in a grainy, black-and-white photobooth headshot; Gerald stands beside one of his paintings in his studio; and Dick Costello, stately in his policeman’s cap and uniform, poses in front of a sloping hill, with a scattering of telephone poles, trees, and rocks in the background.
Gerald Squires died less than a year before this book was finished, rendering the memories, art, and sentiments all the more poignant. In addition to being an enjoyable ghost story, The Ferryland Visitor is an affecting tale about home and homecomings.