Jacaranda is a horror novella set in Cheris Priest’s CLOCKWORK CENTURY universe. This story, set after the end of the USA’s long civil war, is a shivery tale that focuses on supernatural evil rather than the sap-infected zombies of the series.
Priest brings three characters to the Texan island of Galveston, to investigate a long string of strange deaths at the cursed Jacaranda Hotel. Horatio Korman is a Texas Ranger, a smart, clever investigator. Father Juan Quinteros Rios is a Catholic priest with a dark past and a supernatural gift. Sister Eileen Callahan, who has sent for the other two, has experience with the supernatural, and a secret of her own. Father Rios and Korman arrive via ferry just before a savage hurricane isolates the island and traps the three, along with several other guests, in the strange hotel.
Readers who are familiar with Priest’s earlier work, like her novella Dreadful Skin, will recognize Sister Eileen and know what her secret is. I was not one of those readers, and I was two-thirds of the way through the 200-page story before I drew a solid conclusion about what Sister Eileen might be dealing with. It’s probably enough that the take-charge nun demonstrates knowledge and experience with the dark supernatural. Horatio Korman has had his share of weird experiences, but it is Father Rios’s ability to hear and speak to ghosts and other uncanny creatures that is the most valuable gift here.
The story behind the hotel is that a grieving lover planted a blue jacaranda tree on the hill. Over generations, island natives saw the tree as a monument to grief and loss. When a wealthy man bought the land to build the hotel, the locals pleaded with him not to cut down the tree. He did anyway. Shortly after, the corpses of the millionaire and his wife were found in the luxury hotel. Since then, more than a dozen people have died, in mysterious and gory ways, often in locked rooms. Sister Eileen has been at the hotel for several days and has a sense of the source of the evil that permeates the place. She and Rios recognize that the abstract mosaic in the center of the lobby is actually anything but “abstract.”
There are other guests in the hotel, and as the hurricane hits, we discover that nearly everyone has broken a promise or a vow. Father Rios broke a vow to the Virgin Mary, but he did it to save the lives of a church full of people. Korman broke a promise to a woman, and now there is no way for him to make it right. Sister Eileen falls into another category; her vows are “bent but not broken.”
Priest excels at spooky deaths, and when the full force of the storm hits, the We’re-not-alone-in-the-dark horror is well done. The suspense climbs as the gale force winds tear at the hotel board-by-board. Another thing Priest does well is hurricanes, and the one here is practically a character in its own right.
I didn’t completely understand the logic of the story at the end. The thing beneath the hotel wants a certain thing. Our heroes manage to stop that from happening, but I didn’t understand why the choice they did make doesn’t result in the thing getting what it wants anyway. Eileen is a smart, stubborn woman who is a natural leader but she never seemed very much like a nun to me. For that matter, Rios isn’t very much like a priest. He doesn’t offer last rites to the dying (although in one case, it’s questionable that he could), and, more glaringly, he doesn’t offer the trapped guests, who are probably going to die, an opportunity for confession. In a book about a thing that feeds on sin, that seems like an oversight. At the very least, Sister Eileen and the Alvarez family would probably have taken him up on the offer.
Despite these problems, I enjoyed Jacaranda. The descriptions of the clockwork innovations in the hotel added a pleasant steampunk quality to this ghostly tale of evil.
The Clockwork Century — (2009-2013) These are stand-alones set in the same world with some overlapping characters. From Priest’s website: [The Clockwork Century is] an alternate-history world setting created by Cherie Priest. Here, it is 1880 (or thereabouts). The Civil War is still underway, drawn out by English interference, a different transportation infrastructure, and a powerful Republic of Texas that discovered oil at Spindletop some fifty years sooner than real life allowed. The competition of war has led to technological progress and horrors unimaginable, and many people have fled the combating states, hoping for an easier life out west. Some of them have found it. Some have found something else.