Charlotte's Story is the second Bliss House book, an absolutely chilling series set in one of the creepiest houses I've come across in literature in some time. If you didn't see that earlier post, go ahead and check it out! We'll wait :)
I'm not kidding when I say that Laura Benedict is one of my absolute favorite authors. She has been at the top of my must read list ever since the release of her debut, Isabella Moon. I supposed you can imagine what a treat it is for me to have her on the blog today. So without further ado, I'll hand things over to Laura!
You’d think that a writer doing research for suspense and horror stories would enjoy a steady diet pretty grisly stuff: ghosts, monsters, interesting poisons, weapons, psychological disorders. But the thing about stories is that they also have a lot of details that are—like real life—rather prosaic. Interesting, sure, but hardly glamorous, let alone dastardly.
Let’s talk bathtime. Specifically communal bathing. A subject that makes me more than a little squeamish. I can never forget seeing an image from my grade school days of a Japanese family from the 1960s bathing together (in the nude!) in a large wooden tub. Call me a prude, but I was completely shocked. Bathing? Naked? With other people—particularly my family? Madness!
One of the characters in my novel-in-progress is a young Japanese girl who has been kidnapped and brought, alone, to the U.S. in the 1870s. We’ve all seen films and read books about the period. Germ theory was still just that—a theory. A Civil War combatant was much more likely to die from infection of a wound than the wound itself, and most Americans were lucky to have one bath a week. And that bath water was likely to be scant and used by several people. My character, Kiku, came from a culture where bathing was both frequent and a social ritual.
It’s generally known that the ancient Romans were mad for water, and copied and expanded the ritual bathing habits of the Greeks, but Japanese culture’s history of communal bathing also has religious roots. Buddhist cleansing traditions didn’t reach Japan until the sixth century, but water purification rites were practiced much earlier in Japan by Shinto priests.
Like the Romans, the Japanese extended religious bathing beyond the temple and into wealthy homes, and then into an elaborate system of public bath houses. The first public baths in Japan, onsen, began in the Nara Period (710-794) as baths attached to temples. The offering of a bath to anyone, regardless of status, was assumed to bestow honor on the donor. And like the purchasing of religious indulgences in Western culture, paying for the running of the baths also was presumed to ensure a comfortable afterlife. The practice continued through later periods, until the Edo Period (1603-1868), when the baths became a focus of secular community life.
Sento baths function not just as places to get clean, but as community centers. Paying patrons can bathe, gossip, get massages, and indulge in other spa services. Like Roman baths, the contemporary sento is co-ed, and is generally housed in one large room with dividers that lay out the separate areas for men and women. But before Admiral Perry arrived in Japan in 1853, bringing along Victorian moral prohibitions and inhibitions, the sexes often mingled freely in the sento.
Even now, though most people have a shower or bath in their homes, there are sento baths that have their own community rules and traditions all over Japan.
My character, Kiku, is a young peasant girl from a fishing village, but she has an innocent sophistication that her American acquaintances lack. Bathing is a sensual thing, and, aside from a higher standard of cleanliness, Kiku finds herself surprised at the everyday prudishness of the people surrounding her. She would probably even laugh at me. I was never one for skinny-dipping or hot-tubbing in the buff with my friends—or family. I am very much a product of my time and upbringing. But it’s one of the intense pleasures and privileges of writing to be able to imagine oneself in the place of someone who has different attitudes and approaches to life, especially if they’re daring and not the least bit scary.
About the author: Laura Benedict is the author of Charlotte’s Story and Bliss House, the first two novels in the Bliss House trilogy, as well as several other novels of dark suspense. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and numerous anthologies. She lives with her family in Southern Illinois.
Huge, huge thanks to Laura for putting together today's fabulous post! If you haven't checked out her work yet, trust me when I say you are missing out. I do hope you'll head out and pick up a copy of Charlotte's Story (or any of her books) today!