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Haunted house tale

While you're taking your staycation this summer and dining on local foods, you can also enjoy a classic haunted house story with a decidedly local flavor.

Alexandra Sokoloff says the idea for "The Unseen" came to her when she learned that 700 boxes of files from Duke University's Rhine parapsychology lab had been opened to the public.

The same discovery propels Laurel MacDonald, the heroine of "The Unseen," into a field experiment re-creating a (fictional) Rhine poltergeist study.

Laurel and a handsome colleague break out the old ESP cards and sign up students for testing. The two high scorers and the two professors, plus a small fortune in high-tech ghost-hunting equipment, move into the same house where a similar group held a shadowy experiment nearly 45 years earlier.

Laurel discovers after the experiment starts that everyone involved in the earlier one either died or went insane -- including her own uncle, whose lingering psychic attachment to the house becomes clear from his visits to her dreams.

The fictional "Folger House" provides another delightful North Carolina connection: It's based on the mansion in Southern Pines that houses the Weymouth Center ( www.weymouthcenter.org), which among its many attractions offers a writer's retreat. Sokoloff spent a week there with several fellow writers to soak up the atmosphere. She faithfully reproduces the floor plan and many furnishings but concocts a lurid family history for the "Folger House" to account for its extreme paranormal activity.

Besides the dreams, there are classic poltergeist manifestations: a rain of rocks, pounding noises in the walls, paintings turned upside down while a room is empty. And what would a haunted house story be without a cracking good séance?

There's also plenty of sexual tension in "The Unseen," as everyone staying in the house is young, good-looking and brimming with hormones.

Anyone familiar with Duke will enjoy the campus backdrop, as when Laurel experiences a ghostly chill in "the arched walkway beside the Chapel." And it's interesting to see our home through the eyes of a West Coast transplant (Sokoloff is a screenwriter who divides her time between California and North Carolina); the unnatural feel of so many trees ("she sometimes felt as if she had been dropped into an enormous hedge labyrinth" and "surreally empty streets") that leave her feeling "as if she'd woken up in some postapocalyptic movie in which all the people on Earth had been vaporized."

This is Sokoloff's third book. Her first, "The Harrowing," set in a college dorm where several students are staying over Thanksgiving break, showed her cinematic influences with a very visual storytelling style and a brisk pace. The second, "the Price," involved a deal with the devil to save a child's life.

It's a solid formula: classic scary-story plots, updated and kept moving with strong visuals and more dialogue than exposition. Sokoloff has found a groove and has quickly become one of the names I'm glad to see among the new arrivals.

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