The closer we get to Halloween, the more I feel like I need to ratchet up the number of reviews I’m putting forth that deal specifically with horror: there’s a higher demand for it as we approach the season, and while this is my bread and butter and basically 90% of what I read all year round, it’s almost like the season calls for a higher concentration of the dark stuff. I’m a little overwhelmed trying to organize my thoughts, because there’s so much I want to do for the fall season and it feels like I don’t have enough time to do it all.
I really want to put together a couple of horror-themed reading lists. I really want to show off the books I’ve recently read. I really want to tell you what’s on my TBR, because I’ve been approved for a mountain of upcoming horror titles and I’m so crazy excited about them all that instead of choosing the path of least resistance and just writing all of it down, I’m running around like a crazy person with Kermit arms and possibly, I’m going green in the face.
Let’s start with something easy: a book about a haunted house that’s coming out on September 20, 2016, by Cherie Priest.
Origins and acquisition
I was fortunate to get my hands on a signed copy of The Family Plot at DragonCon, following a panel where Cherie mentioned the book. Having not read any of her work prior to this — even though I’d come across several of her books before and dismissed them because I’d judged the covers and assumed that none of her work was horror and therefore not falling within my spectrum of interest — the words “haunted” and “house” are a strong selling points for me.
Just give me the book. Just put it in my hands. I won’t ask any questions. I’ll just read the thing.
The caveat where I shame myself: I didn’t know Cherie Priest wrote horror. All I understood prior to “The H Word” panel at DragonCon was that she was writing steampunk and historical fiction, and I completely bypassed the axe and the “Borden” reference on Maplecroft‘s cover. Borden as in Lizzie Borden: as in Lizzie Borden took an axe and murdered a bunch of people.
I’m an idiot. I also bought a copy of Maplecroft. Because duh: I like to think I’m a redeemable idiot after getting schooled properly.
(Also, this should broker a discussion about how books are marketed and publishing interests, but since these topics were already touched on during the panel, I will say it’s not at all Priest’s fault; she ain’t got control over the cover art and I’ll credit myself with being slightly more aware of what that situation’s all about than I was previously. Ask in the comments and I’ll give you a summary version if you’re curious.)
Back to The Family Plot:
I love a well-referenced setting. I go apeshit for a well-referenced haunted setting, and I particularly love old Victorian houses. One day, I will own one of my own, and maybe it’ll have a ghost rather than a geist, because I don’t need any spectres moving my stuff around. I can hardly find my keys as is, kthx.
Cherie Priest wrote a post about her inspiration for the novel, but I warn you: it’s full of spoilers and kinda fantastic.
The Family Plot by Cherie Priest
The Family Plot opens with a salvage business in dire straights and a business proposition: the old Withrow house is on the verge of demolition. Chuck Dutton, owner of Music City Salvage, hears the words “chestnut” and “original mouldings” upon being visited by the property’s owner, Augusta Withrow, and Chuck doesn’t ask about her lack of sentiment: he only sees the dollar signs attached to the ruin when she shows him the photos of the old place. Augusta Withrow only wants to be rid of it; burn it to the ground, if she could, but she’ll sell it for forty grand if Chuck is interested.
The asking price is more than Music City Salvage has in the bank, but it could potentially launch the company out of the red if the job is successful. Chuck signs the check, and sends his daughter Dahlia out with a small crew to begin stripping the place. They have a week to finish the job. Two before the bulldozers show up.
During their first survey, they find a barn, a carriage house, and a small cemetery adjacent the house. The cemetery wasn’t mentioned in the initial plans, and uncovering it could mean that they won’t be able to proceed with the operation. Bodies equal zoning restrictions. Bodies mean no bulldozing.
Dahlia makes the call to Augusta, who tells her not to fuss: her grandfather decorated for Halloween one year, and being that he was in the mortuary monument business, he wanted to lend a little authenticity to the scene by using unused markers from his company.
(It’s at this point that I pose the question: when a loved one dies and is ready to be buried, who wouldn’t claim their tombstone? Is that a thing? Can you just requests refund on a grave marker? This isn’t the 1800’s — I don’t think you can say, “Oops, he’s not actually dead, sry, give me my money back.” Anyway. Details.)
Not completely placated, the crew goes back to work, and that’s when the weird shit starts.
Tight storytelling throws you right into the meat of things: Priest handles the lead and the draw — the enticement to know more — expertly, and handles the overhanging question of survival for the characters efficiently and effortlessly.
It’s a question that’s always present, even as things start going pear-shaped: when and how is the shit going to hit the fan, and who’s going to suffer the most? With ghosts especially, there’s a constant overhanging sense of dread when you’ve got spirits that are both self-aware and conscious of intrusion. If it was just one sentient spirit doing the haunting, that’d be a handful for the characters. In The Family Plot, there are a bunch more than just one: almost an entire family’s worth of dead relatives to content with, each with their own agenda that points the the central plot spook.
I especially appreciated the imagery associated with the ghosts: some are full renderings of their former human selves, and some are wraith-like and shadowy that offer a degree of interaction with elements like the light from a torch. (That’s fun. I like seeing different takes on spectral presentation, and I thought that Priest’s interpretation worked well.)
There’s a true sense of understanding who these people are and where they come from, what they know, and what they’re passionate about:
Dahlia is a recent divorcee approaching forty, and she’s a lover and restorer of old houses. The detail of her expertise adds a another layer of convincing detail that paints a picture of the house as an entity. It reflects on who the character is through her comprehension and love of architectural detail.
The last author I read who made such efforts (albeit with a bit more flourish) was Anne Rice in the Lives of the Mayfair Witches: specifically, Michael — the house restorer from the Irish Channel. (That was a while ago: I think I read Taltos when I was eleven? I can’t even count how many years its been on my fingers anymore.)
From my perspective, Priest did her homework, and that care and attention does worlds for Dahlia’s character, and for my understanding of the setting which is a character unto itself in The Family Plot.
Having said that, I didn’t feel the description was overzealous or heavy-handed. Everything is weighted just enough to give you a feel for the place to convince you that it’s real. Priest levels-up her suspension of reader disbelief game: maybe she knew a house just like it once. Maybe she knew a haunting herself.
Solid: I devoured the whole book over the course of my flight back from Atlanta and the afternoon following. Anything I can’t put down is usually an indicator of a successful read on my part, and I’m glad I swallowed it whole.
There are a couple of points where it reads a little too cinematically for my liking, and I’m docking points for the epilogue because it’s almost too predictable if you’ve been fed a steady died of horror movies long enough. You see it coming a mile away, which often leaves me disenchanted and less afraid than I feel I ought to be. I appreciate the shock of the thing, but I was hoping for a new take on it.
That shouldn’t dissuade you, however: I loved the story as a whole. I love haunted houses. I love the cheese where there is cheese. I love the ghosts and the setting and I thought the characters were believable and their motivations sound.
A great read.
The Family Plot by Cherie Priest: Book DetailsThe Family Plot by Cherie Priest
Published by Tor Books on September 20th 2016
Check it out: Goodreads
The author of the enormously successful Boneshaker returns to Tor with her unique take on the classic haunted house book
Chuck Dutton built Music City Salvage with patience and expertise, stripping historic properties and reselling their bones. Inventory is running low, so he's thrilled when Augusta Withrow appears in his office offering salvage rights to her entire property. This could be a gold mine, so he assigns his daughter Dahlia to personally oversee the project.
The crew finds a handful of surprises right away. Firstly, the place is in unexpectedly good shape. And then there's the cemetery, about thirty fallen and overgrown graves dating to the early 1900s, Augusta insists that the cemetery is just a fake, a Halloween prank, so the city gives the go-ahead, the bulldozer revs up, and it turns up human remains. Augusta says she doesn't know whose body it is or how many others might be present and refuses to answer any more questions. Then she stops answering the phone.
But Dahlia's concerns about the corpse and Augusta's disappearance are overshadowed when she begins to realize that she and her crew are not alone, and they're not welcome at the Withrow estate. They have no idea how much danger they're in, but they're starting to get an idea. On the crew's third night in the house, a storm shuts down the only road to the property. The power goes out. Cell signals are iffy. There's nowhere to go and no one Dahlia can call for help, even if anyone would believe that she and her crew are being stalked by a murderous phantom. Something at the Withrow mansion is angry and lost, and this is its last chance to raise hell before the house is gone forever. And it seems to be seeking permanent company.
The Family Plot is a haunted house story for the ages-atmospheric, scary, and strange, with a modern gothic sensibility to keep it fresh and interesting-from Cherie Priest, a modern master of supernatural fiction.