“My name is Victoria Winters and my journey is beginning…a journey that will bring me to a strange, dark place, to the edge of the sea, high atop Widows’ Hill. A house called Collinwood…”
If you recognize that introduction, then you may already have guessed part of the inspiration for the house where Smithy is set.
Initially, I had contemplated setting the book in a haunted manor house in England, for those were the sorts of houses that had first stimulated my imagination. Specifically, I had decided to base my haunting on the phenomena at Borley Rectory, sometimes said to be the most haunted house in England. When I at first toyed with the idea of writing Smithy as a screenplay, I considered pitching it as a follow-up to The Woman in Black: Years after the original events unfold, a group of university students decides to rent Eel Marsh House for its ape language study, either not knowing about or not believing in the malevolent spirit alleged to haunt the house.
However, I didn’t think I could pull it off because I have never been to England. I don’t know the climate, the lingo, or the culture of England in the 1970s (when the experiment must take place). It would have bene a struggle to make the setting and characters convincing.
Still, I needed a large house, a mansion really, that would have had servants in its heyday but could have become dilapidated in the interim. And I knew just the place stateside where such a mansion might conceivably be found.
Newport, Rhode Island!
Once the summer playground of millionaires, each of whom tried to outdo the others by constructing elaborate "summer cottages" and throwing fancy parties, Newport remains a tourist destination, largely because those "summer cottages" are still standing and available for tours.
Over the past ten years, I have visited Newport for Halloween and occasionally in summer. While there, I have had the privilege of staying at Seaview Terrace (Picture 1). The present Seaview Terrace is an amalgamation of Seaview, a house originally located on the same site in the 1800s, and a Washington, D.C. estate called DuPont Circle. In 1923, the Edson Bradley family had their D.C. residence dismantled and shipped, piece by piece, to Newport, where it was grafted onto the pre-existing Seaview. The result, unveiled in July of 1925, is one of the largest, most eclectic of the Newport mansions; a place where, even after multiple visits, it’s easy to get lost among the twisting hallways connecting the vast wings.
The Carey family of New York purchased Seaview Terrace in 1974. Before then, it had served as a girls’ school and had appeared on the small screen as “Collinwood,” the setting for “Dark Shadows” (DS), a popular 1960’s soap opera featuring an otherworldly cast of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches and other spooks. Though the interiors of Collinwood were a soundstage in New York, the exterior was Seaview Terrace. It appears at the opening of each episode and is an iconic image for DS fans, many of whom dream of someday making a pilgrimage to RI to see the real thing.
Some years ago, the Careys became friendly with such a group of DS fans, and eventually opened their home to limited groups of fans at certain times of the year, generously allowing them to stay in the house overnight and hold DS-themed parties. It is an exhilarating and surreal experience. DVDs of DS play in the background of the festivities throughout the weekend. You can watch the house on TV and pick out the window of the same room where you’re sitting, then step outside onto the very lawn where a character just walked. When the haunting DS soundtrack echoes through the halls, one almost expects to see Quentin Collins’s malevolent ghost leering over the balcony.
I incorporated a number of the architectural features from Seaview Terrace into the construction of Trevor Hall. A tower room. Giant fireplaces. A whispering corridor. Fire escapes. An angel-face ceiling.
I also incorporated some of the ghostly activity.
Over the years, some of my friends have heard or felt another presence in their rooms. Others have reported finding toiletries strewn around the floor, or losing small items at departure time that later reappear packed in the suitcase. One friend who was alone in the house heard a terrific banging coming from the basement, where a walk-through ‘haunted house’ had been set up; she discovered that one of the animatronics (a creepy looking zombie mother and baby sitting in a rocking chair) had somehow turned itself on and was pounding against one of the basement support beams. And some experiences have been even more dramatic than that. Sy-Fy Channel’s “Ghost Hunters” series investigated Seaview Terrace in 2011 and again in 2020, reporting eerie occurrences each time.
Parties at Seaview are like a reunion of an extended fictive family. DS fans are a tight-knit bunch. We keep in touch between official gatherings and sometimes even vacation together. For the few days that we’re together again under one roof, we can renew our friendship and make memories to last through to the next year. I planted many DS-related Easter eggs throughout Smithy, hoping that my DS family, especially my Seaview-going friends, would get a kick out of the references.
Just as Seaview Terrace is an amalgamation of two different houses, so Trevor Hall is an amalgamation of Seaview Terrace and the Elms. While Seaview is a private residence, the Elms is open to tourists year-round as one of the famed Newport Mansions. It is operated by the Newport Preservation Society, which has saved many grand houses (the Breakers, the Elms, Rosecliff, Marble House, and Chateau Sur Mer (Picture 2)) from sliding into ruin as did Trevor Hall.
The Elms may not be the glitziest mansion, but I think it has the most beautiful grounds with sweeping lawns, fountains, and a number of coper beech trees. In the spring and summer, during the tourist season, the mansion offers a special behind-the-scenes tour called the “Servants’ Life Tour.” During the DS Memorial Day Weekend gathering in 2014, I took this tour with my friends Leyla and Janice (my first beta reader!) (Picture 3). We were able to go to the third floor and view the rooms where the Elms’ servants lived. Afterward, the tour moved to the rooftop where the servants took fresh air and gathered socially. From here, one has a lovely view of the ocean, the grounds, and the surrounding houses (Picture 4). When devising a backstory for my ghost, I immediately thought back to that visit to the rooftop of the Elms. If you ever get to take the Servants’ Life tour, you’ll understand why.
Finally, in choosing a name for my haunted mansion, I wanted to honor my original sources of inspiration. I was torn between Herbert Terrace (the scientist who developed the Nim Chimpsky study) and Trevor Hall (a parapsychologist who had analyzed the Borley Rectory haunting). Ultimately, I decided to use them both. Trevor Hall became the site of the Smithy study and Herbert Terrace became a neighboring mansion whose residents interact with the researchers.
The Trevor Hall mansion may only exist in fiction, but it does incorporate elements of Newport houses and Newport history. Many of the other places described in Smithy do exist and are open to the public. If you’re able to visit Newport, you can see them for yourself just as Ruby, Gail, or Tammy experience in the book.