Book Review - The Family Plot by Cherie Priest
Updated: May 9, 2018
A slightly different take on the classic "haunted house" tale, with mixed results.
As I finished this book on the plane trip to Dallas/Ft. Worth, this song was playing on my iPod. Seemed eerily appropriate...
Sitting in the rain alone, looking at a place that’s gone, boarded up my memories, but something’s drawn me here again and I, I cannot leave the past alone.
Hoped that I would never find all the shit I left behind, but now I find the child in me is going to remind me that I, I can’t forget the past for long.
Over The Rhine, Give Me Strength
One of my favorite authors wrote a southern haunted house story, with a unique premise of why the protagonists are in the house to begin with?! I was 100% on board with the concept…but while the initial vault onto the beam was good, this one just couldn’t stick the landing for me.
But, that said, one of the things that I admire most about Cherie Priest is that she can genre-hop with the best of them. I’d be hard-pressed to lump her into any given category or genre, and that to me says quite a bit about an author’s skill. While there’s nothing wrong with an author staying within a genre they love, I think it takes quite a bit of guts and talent for an author to try their hand at whatever story they feel like telling, genre be damned. I have absolutely loved both her Lizzie Borden/H.P. Lovecraft mashups and her steampunk/zombie mashups, and I firmly expected to love this one too.
But…while the story is solid and the writing is good, The Family Plot just didn’t grab me quite like I had hoped it would. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad. It’s just…ok. There is a sense of dread to be sure, and Cherie Priest can set a tone like nobody’s business. But that’s not quite enough to carry a tale like this.
As with all my reviews, I will attempt to avoid spoilers. If it’s not mentioned in the official book synopsis, I will do my level best to avoid mentioning it here.
The Family Plot is a single POV, third person affair set in the competitive and ever-popular world of…home salvage… To be fair, I have no doubt that this is a booming business, as there is always a demand for true antiques, retro house decorations, and rare woods. One just needs to turn on the television to see how many shows there are centered around the conceit of working in/on/around houses. But instead of building them up for profit, this book follows people who tear them down for profit instead. I might have sounded like I was giving it crap earlier in this paragraph, but the setting is actually unique and provides a different, and completely plausible, reason for the story to take place in an old spooky house. No, there’s no bet proposed by an eccentric millionaire, there’s no intrepid camera crew looking to score the big one, and no “my car broke down along the road and I saw a light” shenanigans. No, our demolition and salvage crew have a legitimate blue collar reason for being there, and that’s a refreshing change of pace.
If there’s a highlight of the story for me, it’s the POV character of Dahlia Dutton. While she’s tough and sassy, it’s never taken to unbelievable levels. She works for her father in the estate salvage business, and has a good head for it. What I really liked about her character is that she has multiple layers to her. She’s a hard-working, down-to-earth southern girl who takes no gruff from her male coworkers, but she also has some recent baggage that makes her a bit emotional and prone to self-doubt. It’s no great tragedy (in the traditional sense of the word) that defines her, but it’s a struggle I can relate to, which made me instantly more invested in her as a character. I speak her damage language for sure. And I enjoyed the fact that she has a love/hate relationship with her job. She’s good at it (very good), but she hates tearing down old houses and ending their stories. I wouldn’t call her a conflicted character necessarily, but she did have some internal conflict that kept her interesting. A one-dimensional character she was not. I think that I tend to gauge my enjoyment of a character by whether or not I could sit down and have a beer with them and never run out of conversation. Dahlia and I could share ghost stories, and she’d not balk at any drink put before her. Ergo, the kind of character I can root for.
Pretty built-in cabinetry could distract her from a ringing in her ears and the uncanny sense that she had heard a voice say things like “angry” and “unloved,” because that was ridiculous. In all the years she’d been talking to houses, the houses had never talked back.
She was still dragging her feet. Still barricading forts that had already fallen. Scavenging mementos. Harvesting organs.
As for other characters, we get a few, though none of them are terribly fleshed out (this is pretty much Dahlia’s tale no matter who else might co-star). We get one whole intro chapter from Chuck Dutton, Dahlia’s father, as he takes the salvage job initially. Aside from that, we get Dahlia’s salvage crew, who are a mixed bag. Bobby is Dahlia’s cousin, and there’s some painful history between them that brings some family drama to the proceedings. Gabe is Bobby’s teenage son, and isn’t sure which side of the family drama he’s supposed to be on. Rounding out the crew is Brad, who is a city boy making a go of the rough & tumble salvager lifestyle. Of the characters, Bobby gets the most mileage, as we do get some insight into what caused their great rift. The others are there…and that’s about all I can say about them. This is really Dahlia’s show, as we are basically in her headspace for like 95% of the book.
She didn’t do much praying, and wasn’t sure there was any God on the other side of the ceiling who might be listening, but she believed in ghosts, both good and bad. Besides, the house was listening. She believed that with something steadier than her heart.
The other bright spot in The Family Plot is the setting, namely the house itself. The Withrow estate is a grand old home, with its share of history and architectural changes over the years. Cherie Priest does a masterful job at making the house seem like another character. There’s definitely a strong sense of atmosphere here. It starts as a feeling of strangeness, and then evolves into a full blown sense of dread and oppression.
As for the actual ghosts, Cherie Priest mixes it up a little. We have the usual motions and shadows witnessed out of the corner of the eye, and the always reliable “see them in a mirror” trick. And the main haunt shows up a little differently than I’ve seen before, and it’s kinda unique and cool. But, outside of that, there’s not much that genre fans haven’t already seen. Which is a real shame, as Cherie Priest generally has one hell of an imagination, and always seems to throw something unique on page.
I did it in here, you know. Momma hid all the knives, so I broke the window and did all my cutting with a piece of glass. It worked faster and made a bigger mess.
Which brings me to my major gripe…The Family Plot just isn’t that scary. The buildup is good and there’s a great reason for the ghosts to exist in the house…but the book just doesn’t bring on the scares like I thought it would. Now, to be fair, not much scares me, but even with most horror based books I get a little tingle from the supernatural shenanigans taking place, but I got nothing here.
And that might be because this is likely the most detailed book I’ve read in a long time. And when I say detailed, I mean SUPER detailed. Like, every small action gets a sentence, and nearly every somewhat complex action gets its own paragraph. I truly don’t recall her other works being this…wordy. It goes something like this;
She inserted the key into the lock. It slid home like it belonged. She turned the key, and there was a click as the tumblers engaged. She turned the key back and removed it. She took the key and put it into her pocket. She made sure to give her pocket a good pat to make sure the key was snug. The door with the original hardware was now ready to be opened.
Now, it’s written better than that, but that’s the flow of basically everything that happens in this book. I’m not going to say its Robert Jordan levels of wordy, but man is it up there. It was so detailed that it actually became kind of tedious. Thankfully, near the end of the tale when the haunting is in full swing, things get toned down a bit and the story flows better. But the first two-thirds of this book are just a chore to get through. I think the book would have been better with a little less day-to-day detail, and a little more attention paid to the spook factor. I just don’t get it….the things that get detailed are everyday things we all do, so there’s no need for that much specificity.
You know what does get a lot of detail? The actual business of salvage and the various things in an older house that might be worth something to discerning customers. I get the impression that Cherie Priest likes renovating old houses, and wrote a fictional book around the subject. And since she likes the dark side of things (probably why I like her so much), she decided to make it a ghost story. And hey, I love doing renovations too. But, if she had put as much care into the actual spooky part of the story as she did in the house details, this book would likely have had more of an impact.
But even with all the detail, Cherie Priest still manages to write some damn beautiful sentences. And some funny ones as well. Though it’s toned down somewhat in this book, her sarcastic nature still shines through in her writing.
By her preteen years, the oldest girl, Abigail, had developed a classic case of resting bitch face. She’d turned out pretty, but her mouth aimed down at the corners. Her eyebrows had a permanent arch that suggested that whatever you were saying, she didn’t believe it.
So, did I like the book? Yeah, I liked it. Not a lot, but I liked it. I can admit to being slightly disappointed in the delivery, I’m still a huge Cherie Priest fan, and I can only hope that her next endeavor brings more scares and less of the minute to minute tedium.
3 out of 5 scuffed but salvageable stars!