A man's pilgrimage becomes something from his darkest nightmares when secrets arise and ghosts haunt his path.
A woman has vanished on the Camino de Santiago, the ancient five-hundred-mile pilgrimage that crosses northern Spain. Daniel, an Irish expat, walks the lonely trail carrying his wife, Petra’s, ashes, along with the damning secret of how she really died.
When he teams up to walk with vibrant California girl Ginny, she seems like the perfect antidote for his grieving heart. But a nightmare figure begins to stalk them, and Daniel's mind starts to unravel from the horror of things he cannot explain.
Unexpected twists and turns echo the path of the ancient trail they walk upon. The lines begin to blur between reality and madness, between truth and the lies we tell ourselves.
About the author
C.S. O’Cinneide is the author of the Candace Starr crime series, as well as Petra’s Ghost, a semi-finalist in the Goodreads Choice Awards. On her blog, She Kills Lit, she features women writers of thriller and noir. She lives in Guelph, Ontario.
Excerpt: Petra's Ghost (by (author) C.S. O'Cinneide)
Alto del Perdón
The sea is missing.
Daniel stands tall in the early morning on the soaring ridge of Alto del Perdón, searching for a phantom ocean. All he can make out are a patchwork of farmers’ fields. They hover in and out like a mirage beneath the thinning mist settled in the valley below. His navy nylon jacket snaps and billows in the stiff breeze of the exposed hillside. Half a dozen towering wind turbines emit low moans as their massive metal blades turn steadily behind him. At the base of one is a boldly coloured framed backpack, lying open where Daniel has left it at the side of the trail. In his hands he holds a small burlap bag, with Petra inside.
A long line of rusty cut-out men and women are positioned sentinel-like on the ridge, a flat metal monument to all those who, over the centuries, have walked the Camino de Santiago, the five-hundred-mile pilgrimage they call “the Way.” Daniel watches as the silhouettes of the heavy sculpture shudder with the force of the wind. He takes a deep breath of the fresh mountain air. The scent is all wrong to him. Unnatural, without a taste of seawater in it.
The rocky outcrops and high altitude, the mist below, they all trick him into thinking he is back in Ireland on the coast of Kerry, where he spent summers as a child by the sea. He and his sister had explored the rugged cliffs above the shoreline for hours, standing far out on the ledges, daring each other.
“Stop being eejits,” his father would bellow from the safety of a lawn chair under the awning of their parked caravan. And Daniel and Angela would trudge back from the sweet seduction of certain death, utterly defeated. Their two older brothers would have deserted them earlier, having the sense to commit their risk taking out of sight of a parent. Maybe he and Angela were idiots after all.
Ever since his first day walking the Camino, climbing through the pass of the French Pyrenees to the Spanish border, Daniel has expected to look down and see the swell of whitecaps, to drink in the tang of brine. The Pyrenees were almost fifty miles ago now, but he still feels the want of salt in the air. He switches the rough brown bag containing Petra to one hand and pulls a stash of sodium-laden beef jerky from his pocket. As if to compensate, he takes a furious bite.
He is less than a week into his pilgrimage through northern Spain, hiking from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the border in France to the cathedral in Santiago that houses the shrine of Saint James. The full journey will take him over a month to complete. He travels alongside other pilgrims of varying nationalities and spiritual intent, mostly keeping to himself. Each night after a full day of walking, he checks in at a local albergue. These are modest pilgrim hostels, where five to fifteen euros will get you anything from the top bunk at a large modern municipal, to a hard stone floor of a thirteenth-century monastery. The austerity appeals to his sense of simplicity, or maybe he’s just cheap.
“Sure, no one really believes the bones of Saint James are buried there at Santiago,” his sister, Angela, had told him before he left. “Not even the Catholic Church.”
“Perhaps,” he said, as he looked down at the map of Spain on the coffee table of his living room. The laptop perched next to it on a stack of books as he Skyped his sister from his home in the States. Even so, he had traced one finger along the lonely red dotted line of the Camino, wondering what he might find at the end of it.
One of the turbines groans more loudly, hitting some temporary mechanical resistance. The laboured breath of the sound makes him uneasy. He stuffs the beef jerky back in his pocket. “Fifty percent of Spain’s energy comes from the wind,” he reminds himself. He’d read it in the guidebook. This is the kind of interesting but ultimately useless fact that seems to always lodge in his brain. Like a piece of popcorn caught in the teeth, and at times just as annoying. Mostly for other people.
“Guess what the longest street in the world is,” he had once asked his eldest brother as he sat with him on the tractor. Daniel had still been far too young to drive it.
“The one where I have to listen to your mouth yappin’ all day.”
The rough burlap bag has a drawstring at the top. Daniel rubs the little braided ropes with his thumb. There is a crinkle inside the coarse material. Plastic. He hadn’t wanted the ashes to get wet if it rained. His backpack was supposed to be waterproof, but he needed to be sure. Petra would have laughed at his practicality. “Always the engineer, planning for contingencies,” she would say. He cannot believe he has put his wife in a zip-lock bag, as if she were a ham sandwich or a dime of weed.
He glances over at the two-dimensional metal figures bent over with their walking staffs and donkeys, medieval pilgrims without the benefit of ergonomically correct backpacks and Thermolite hiking boots from the Outdoor Store. Daniel had bought an old-style pilgrim staff at one of the tourist shops back in France, before he started on the Camino. It had a carved wooden handle and made him look like a prat. He abandoned it in a coffee shop in Zubiri, deciding he could make it to the cathedral of Saint James in Santiago without something to lean on.
The heavy sculpture shudders again. The vibration makes a howling sound, and Daniel feels a tremor echo in his own body. If his granny were here, she’d say a goose just walked over his grave. The old woman had many sayings. Some were old Irish; some she just made up. “These are the words of your ancestors, Daniel,” she would intone, trying to make him pay mind. The land he grew up on had been farmed by Kennedys for almost five hundred years. He couldn’t have escaped his ancestors if he tried.
Trying to shake off the feeling, he shifts from one leg to the other. His new hiking boots feel strange without the steel toe that he normally wears at home when inspecting a job, the familiar density reassuring his foot. Not that he’s been on a job site in a while. As their construction business in New Jersey grew, Daniel and his partner, Gerald, found themselves tied more and more to the office. But of course, he’s all set to sell his half of the firm — or just about. They’d had an offer from a group in New York that would be hard to turn down. There are still papers to sign that Gerald keeps worrying him about. Once that’s done, Daniel’s expected to come back home to Ireland and take over the farm. His father is ready to retire to his lawn chair permanently.
Nothing is keeping Daniel in New Jersey anymore, now that Petra is gone. He’d gone to the States for her and never regretted it, even though he had always felt the pull of the land he grew up on. Those bloody ancestors again. Petra, a child of the North American melting pot, did not have the same ties. Her folks had died in a car crash during her senior year at college. She had no siblings. But her roots were in America just the same, and he had made a life with her there.
Daniel has come to the Camino to spread Petra’s ashes. This is what he needs to do before he can go back to Ireland. This is what he has told his sister, his parents. This is what he has told himself. So he can “move on,” as everyone keeps telling him he must do. He and Petra had always planned to walk the Camino together. Ever since they saw the golden scallop shells and arrows pointing toward the Spanish pilgrimage from France on their honeymoon. He feels that bringing her ashes here serves to keep a promise. Although so many promises remain unfulfilled when someone leaves before you’re ready, like a dinner guest who gets up and walks out during the main course. He could spend a lifetime trying to finish the meal that should have been a future shared with his wife, and the food would rot on the dishes anyway. Somehow, he just can’t bring himself to take away her plate. It’s been over a year now since Petra died and he hasn’t even put their house in Paterson on the market yet.
“When are you comin’ home, Daniel?” his sister, Angela, had asked during one of her weekly phone calls from her apartment in Dublin. His parents were still on the farm at Carn N’Athair in Kilmeedy, but she made the drive out every other weekend to check on them. They were all getting anxious. If Daniel didn’t come home, his father would have to sell out. All those ancestors to be owned by somebody else. His granny would reach out and cuff him from the grave at the sheer shame of it.
“I’ve got some things to do,” he said. He always had reasons. First it was the winding up of the business with his partner. Then it was critical home renovations he needed to make before he could sell. As those jobs dried up he created new ones, increasingly more futile.
“I’m after putting a bidet in the guest bathroom,” he told Angela.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but how many people when they come over for a cup o’ tea are looking to wash their genitals?” Of course, she had a point. He had ignored it though.
The Camino is his latest effort at procrastination, having run out of rooms to renovate in the house where he and Petra had lived since they were married over ten years ago. Happy years for the most part, until the cancer twisted her into someone he could barely recognize. As gnarled and rake thin as the carved wooden staff he had left behind in the coffee shop. Petra wouldn’t have liked that comparison. She hadn’t been a vain woman, but she’d had her pride. She said the worst part of cancer was turning into something alien, like the dwarfed extraterrestrial in the movie E.T. All she needed to do was hide in a closet full of pinch-faced stuffed animals, she teased the doctors, and they would never find her. Daniel had brought Reese’s Pieces for her the next day in the hospital to continue the joke. She had coughed — her version of laughing in those final weeks.
He should do it here. It makes sense to let the ashes float from the cradle of his hands down into the disappointingly landlocked valley below. An offering to everything he can’t accept. Like having an ultrasound diagnose uterine cancer instead of the baby he and Petra had hoped for. A ruthless surprise that had spread through her body like hot gossip. He’d be angry at God, but he has enough Irish Catholic superstition to believe it might land him in hell or on the receiving end of a lightning bolt. He looks with distrust at the metal pilgrims beside him then scans the sky for storm clouds, on the off chance.
[A] beautifully haunting debut
The Fiction Fox
While every story will take you on a journey, it is a rare one that takes you on a pilgrimage. Petra's Ghost does that: it is a marvellous tale of love, death, and human spirit.
Francesco Dimitri, author of The Book of Hidden Things
Petra's Ghost is compelling and haunting, the psychological narrative propelled by the physical journey, as twisty as the path itself, with a vivid and visceral grittiness: you can smell the dust and feel the heat of the pilgrim trail.
James Brogden, author of The Plague Stones
In prose as clean as bone O'Cinneide tells an unsettlingly elegant tale. By turns horrifying and beautiful, this is a very fine ghost story indeed.
Angela Slatter, author of Vigil
Petra's Ghost is an evocative, creepy read that turns up the tension and the chills as the protagonists go further into their epic hike, in a tale where we have a classic unreliable narrator with a secret, who can't even trust himself and what he believes he is encountering.
The British Fantasy Society
Chilling and mysterious, yet pure and sweet, Petra's Ghost soars from the very first page and accomplishes unforgettable heights. The characters, the imagery, the prose...everything shines. A beautiful journey. A mesmerising novel
Rio Youers, author of Halcyon and The Forgotten Girl
p times="" new="" roman";"="">By turns atmospheric, pulse-pounding, and achingly lyrical, Petra's Ghost is that rare, exceptional thriller that's sure to leave you haunted long after the final page.
Andy Davidson, author of The Boatman's Daughter
C.S. O'Cinneide uses the archaic rituals and settings of the Camino de Santiago … to tell a very modern ghost story
[A] thrilling, eerie story that kept my eyes on the page ... Petra’s Ghost is a tightly-woven tale with succinct character descriptions and steady pacing ... If a macabre story with a chilling atmosphere piques your interest, grab this book as soon as you can.
Vividly realised, eerie, compelling and unputdownable, the novel is haunted at every step – I absolutely loved it.
Allison Littlewood, author of The Hidden People
The kind of rare, immersive read where you feel like you're breathing the characters' air and walking in step with them. Part page-turning mystery, part exploration of pain, loss and guilt, part highly original ghost story — the novel defies categorisation and is all the better for it. Atmospheric, brilliantly and engagingly written, I didn't want the journey to end (although what an ending it is).
Sarah Lotz, author of The White Road