In the Philippines, Christmas starts in September. I am not joking: Christmas in the Philippines starts on September 1 and ends around January 6 (the Feast of the Epiphany/Feast of the Three Kings). It might not look like it outwardly (the Central Business District doesn’t break out the fancy lights until November) but most malls start playing Christmas songs on their sound systems as soon as the first of September rolls in, and radio stations suddenly have “Christmas In Our Hearts” on regular rotation. Lots of people find this charming, but I find it annoying. It’s not that I’m a Grinch; it’s just that I don’t really feel Christmas has arrived until after another set of important (to me, anyway) holidays: All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, which happen on November 1 and 2, respectively. And then there’s Halloween, of course, and the spooky awesomeness that comes with it.
It’s because of that spooky awesomeness that I tend to reach for horror stories during October (also because by the time October rolls around I am sick to death of hearing Christmas songs on public transportation to and from work). I’m a sucker for a good haunted house story, so that’s generally the kind of story I go for – which can vary in terms of quality. Fortunately, I’ve managed to get October off to a good start by picking up The Family Plot by Cherie Priest.
The story follows Dahlia Dutton and her companions as they go to break down an old house on an isolated property just outside the St. Elmo neighborhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Dahlia’s father, Chuck, is the owner of Music City Salvage: a company that specializes in tearing down old houses and selling any valuable scrap to other people. Lately the company’s run into a spot of money trouble, and Chuck thinks this latest job will help keep the business from folding. And so Dahlia, along with her cousin Bobby, her nephew Gabe, and newbie employee Brad, have been sent to the Winthrow property to strip it for anything and everything worth money. As far as Dahlia is concerned, this is nothing more than another routine job.
However, it quickly becomes obvious that this job is far from routine. Dahlia wondered why the original owner, Augusta Winthrow, wanted to get rid of such a beautiful old place, and she’s quickly coming to understand that there might be a good reason why. There’s something about the old house that just isn’t quite right. Something is moving through the old rooms and hallways of the Winthrow house, and it is very much not benign.
In terms of plot, Priest doesn’t really do anything new or fancy with this novel, since it follows the same pattern as many other haunted house stories: a group of people goes into an old house for any number of reasons, and then gradually learn via the resident ghost (or ghosts) that something terrible has happened in the house. Over the course of the story they discover what those horrible events were that created the ghosts in the first place in a sequence of events that may or may not include possession, objects getting thrown around (in which case one or more of the ghosts is actually a poltergeist), and in some cases death and disappearance. Most of these things occur in this novel (but I won’t say which ones: that’d be spoiling it).
But what make this book a cut above the other haunted house stories I’ve read in a while are Priest’s writing and character development. When it comes to the latter, Priest does a solid job developing Dahlia and making her a well-rounded, sympathetic character by slipping in little bits of her backstory, as well as showing how she interacts with her crew and her father. I’m especially fond of the way she interacts with her nephew, Gabe; she really tries to be a good role model for him, and to be the kind of dependable adult she knows he needs in his life – even if her own life isn’t exactly the kind she’d call “stable”. Anyone who’s had a seriously messed-up life but has had to set all of it aside because no one else is willing or capable to be the Responsible Adult will probably feel a great deal of empathy for Dahlia and her troubles.
And then there’s Priest’s writing. I wasn’t particularly fond of her book Boneshaker, which means I haven’t really read the rest of her steampunk writing, but I did read Maplecroft, and I thought that was pretty awesome. In my head, then, I tend to associate Priest with great horror writing, and The Family Plot does not disappoint. Here’s a little taste of what to expect by way of creepiness:
It was over as soon as it’d happened, but she was already off her feet. She fell sliding into the tub, landing on her back under the full force of the water. She scrambled and stumbled, and pulled herself out of the tub—over the side and onto all fours on a floor that was so wet she could see her own reflection when she stared down, panting, at the space between her hands.
Behind her reflection in that thin sheen of puddle, a shape darted, loomed, and disappeared.
That excerpt, by the way, pretty much guaranteed that I didn’t read this book at night, for fear I’d give myself nightmares. That’s a good sign, by the way: if I can’t read a horror story before I go to sleep because it can actually give me nightmares, then it’s definitely doing what it’s supposed to do.
Despite all these positives, though, there’s just one thing I think could be improved about this novel: the backstory for the house and the events that happened in it. I know that the reader doesn’t need the entire backstory in minute detail in order for this novel to work as a horror story, but I did find myself wishing every now and then that there was just a little more detail, a little more explanation, as to why things turned out the way they did. Oh, to be sure, Priest leaves enough detail for the reader to make his or her own conclusions, and a little bit of historical knowledge can go a long way when it comes to figuring things out, but I really wish there had been a little more meat on that particular bone for me to chew on.
Overall, The Family Plot is a well-built, well-constructed haunted house story, with great characters and a plot that has a creepiness factor that goes from zero to sixty in the space of the first five chapters (or less, depending on the reader’s tolerance). The only thing that stops me from giving this five stars is that I wish the house’s backstory had been more developed, but other readers might be entirely happy with the novel as it stands.
The Family Plot is available on Amazon in a variety of formats; click on the title to find them all.