Gillian French tackles a topic that is dark and disturbing and impresses with how she handles it in her new novel “The Door to January,” written for young-adult readers. The novel is really two stories separated by decades told in parallel, both taking place in fictional Bernier, in Hancock County, Maine.

Sixteen-year-old Natalie Payson bridges both worlds – through disturbing dreams and a time portal inside of a decrepit, abandoned farmhouse outside Bernier. Her nightmares and the portal transport her between two hells, one in her life that she knows, and one she doesn’t know but which she is nevertheless compulsively compelled to enter.

Natalie has recently returned to Bernier, where she grew up. Her family moved away after a trial regarding the shooting death of a boy. The death was entangled in an incident in which four kids bullied her and her younger cousin Teddy. Her nightmares about the abandoned farmhouse begin soon after she moved away. When the book opens, she has returned to Bernier to live with and work in her aunt’s café, wanting to get to the truth behind the shooting and to the heart of her nightmares about the farmhouse that began soon after that.

“The first night she’d spent in their new house … she’d had the dream, and it had persisted ever since … Something badly wanted her to return.”

Whenever she and Teddy are free from work at the café, they visit an abandoned house outside town. She realizes the first time she enters it that it is the same as the one in her dreams. They set up a tape recorder to see if they can capture evidence of someone or something while they are away. That night in her dreams, as always, she finds herself standing in the kitchen in front of a door. Leaning in, she hears whispers, voices calling her name.

When Natalie and Teddy retrieve the recorder the next day, all they hear is static – and then a man’s voice that commands, “Tell me my regiment?” And a small, timid girl’s voice answers, “Thirteenth Army Infantry.” The man’s voice then demands that she tell him her name, which is followed by “a keening whine” … and repeated pounding.

Natalie dreams of the house again. “In the dream kitchen, flurries drifted. Natalie opened the door with six panes of glass … The girls’ voices whispered around her, calling her name … ‘Who are you? How do you know my name.’ … ‘We are the weavers. We are the shearers … And you are the darning needle.'”

The hell in Natalie and Teddy’s lives is ever-present. They must contend with the presence in town of three of the four tormentors from the bullying incident – Jason, Grace and Lowell. The fourth tormentor, Peter, is dead. Jason, the ringleader, is as mean as ever. Grace is always wasted. But Lowell seems different. Quieter. Even friendly. After a bullet shows up in her and Teddy’s secret hidey-hole in an old birdhouse, Lowell warns Natalie that she should leave Bernier. “That shell was a warning,” he tells her.

Gillian French

On a subsequent visit that Natalie and Teddy make to the farmhouse, Natalie slips completely into the haunted realm. It is the spring of 1948. There is a young girl, Rachel, with a small kitten and a naked doll. And George, “a queer character … a great big dark fella, six and half feet tall, broad through the shoulders and chest …”

Returning to the present, Natalie and Teddy begin doing research into the history of the house. The dreams persist. When she and Teddy visit the house again, Natalie passes again back into 1948. In repeated visits and passage back in time, she moves through the spring into summer, then fall and finally into winter. Through her time travels and research of back issues of the local paper, they learn that George Dawes, the queer character, is a ‘dark fella’ indeed. He has been kidnapping young women, holding them in the farmhouse, and abusing them.

Maine author Gillian French winds the tension in “The Door to January” ever tighter in both storylines. Natalie pursues her time travel, desperate to learn what in her dreams has called her back to Bernier. But her returning puts her at grave risk in both worlds.

The author sets up and handles the paranormal dimension of the book with surety. It is the more prominent of the two story lines, often muting the drama around the death of the boy in the woods that prompted Natalie’s family to move away. Perhaps that is inevitable, given the plot anchors of the two. Still, it is an appreciable imbalance that challenges the gravity of the story of the boy’s death.

French nonetheless stands impressively as part a trio of Maine authors with young-adult novels out this summer – each exhibiting strong social consciousness addressing important issues. French joins Anne Sibley O’Brien, whose “In the Shadow of the Sun,” a story about North Korea’s brutally repressive totalitarian regime, came out in June; and S.M. Parker, whose story “The Rattled Bones,” about the shameful dispossession of the residents of Malaga Island, came out in August. These three writers are a great testament to the literary talent resident in Maine.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. His novel was also a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached through his website: