With The Family Plot, Cherie Priest takes a break from steampunk and Lovecraftiana to tackle a tried-and-true convention, the haunted-house story. The book, filled with atmospherics, family feuds and long-buried secrets, is a spooky read that will leave you side-eyeing bathrooms and showers for days after you’ve finished.
The Dutton family business is salvage, and Music City Salvage has just purchased a bonanza of a job — a full Southern estate, built in the 1800s, which includes a mansion, a barn and a carriage house. The barn is made of American chestnut, a tree which is extinct; the lumber alone is a goldmine. The owner of the estate plans to have all the buildings razed; Music City is entitled to anything they can carry out. It’s obvious the previous owner hates the estate. It’s not immediately obvious why.
Dahlia Dutton is the only child of the owner, and her father puts her in charge of the job, along with a crew that consists of her cousin Bobby, his teenaged son Gabe, and Brad, a graduate student who has student loans to pay off. Dahlia is experienced and highly competent, but she is badly bruised by an ugly divorce and the loss of the house she fell in love in, which, since it is community property, is being sold. The Withrow house keeps reminding her of everything she’s lost and just how severe her reversal of fortune has been.
To save money, the crew decides to camp in the house, which still has electricity. From the time Dahlia first steps into the house strange things begin to happen. Doors that she leaves unlocked and ajar are closed and locked when Bobby and Gabe try to get in. Sound carries weirdly in and around the house. Most worrisome, Dahlia discovers an overgrown cemetery on the estate — a cemetery no one has mentioned before.
The Family Plot’s title works on several levels. There is the newly discovered cemetery, but there are all kinds of plots and all kinds of families. While the Dutton crew uncovers more information about the Withrows, we see their own issues playing out. Dahlia harbors a deep sense of betrayal since cousin Bobby has remained friendly with her ex-husband Andy. Bobby, who is sort of a loser, resents how much his son Gabe looks up to Dahlia. Dahlia is still struggling with feelings for her ex, and her infatuation with the beautiful old Withrow house… that is, until she takes a shower in it, and the thing that inhabits the house reaches out.
In tone and structure this reminded me of Wings to the Kingdom, one of Priest’s early novels, one that dealt with a folkloric monster. In The Family Plot, Priest plays with the idea of ghosts and what they might be. I liked the approach she took. I also liked that the experienced salvage folks talked about ghosts as a regular occupational hazard, like termites or dry rot. The slightly different approach to just what a ghost is adds levels to the mystery and deepens the suspense as the crew struggles to figure out just what, or who, they are dealing with.
The descriptions of the Tennessee countryside and the dramatic depiction of a series of storms that blow in (it’s a ghost story; did you really think there wouldn’t be a storm?) are sensuous and vivid. So are the descriptions of the salvage process, even if there are a few too many of them and they’re a bit too lecturish. The story is suspenseful but I bogged down a few times in the discussion of marble surrounds, antique ivory, lunch-meat sandwiches, hand-trucks and Sawsalls. Some of the lush descriptions of the stained-glass windows and the vintage clothing went on a bit too long even though they were lovely.
Still, the story is twisty, quasi-gothic and plausible; the prose is textured, and the dialogue convincingly evokes the region. The plot twists keep coming, right up to the last page of The Family Plot, in the tradition of good horror stories. You’ll be turning on the lights in your house when you’re done, and thinking twice about that nice hot shower.
Cherie Priest shows off her horror-writing chops with The Family Plot; the atmosphere and setting are pitch-perfect, and are as essential to the plot as the characters. I didn’t mind the lengthy descriptions of architectural details or items of clothing simply because Priest used them to fully ground her characters in their profession and personal lives, lending extra strangeness to the moments when doors shut and locked on their own or a bathroom became overly filled with thick, white steam. I’ve also participated in just enough house-renovation projects to verify that she’s done her homework with regards to the tediously difficult tasks Dahlia and her crew undertake, and I appreciated Priest’s use of realism as a contrast to the oddities that begin as soon as Dahlia first walks into the Withrow house.
The beginning follows the tradition of so many good ghost stories: Augusta Withrow offers Chuck Dutton the chance to salvage her old family estate, and though buying in is expensive and there’s a good chance that he’ll more than make his money back, she never twists his arm or forces his salvage team to step foot on her property. It’s an offer freely given and one he must freely accept, otherwise the Music City Salvage team would have no obligation to stay at the house once everything starts going sideways — and there would be no opportunity for the dark presence in the house to affect the team.
That said, The Family Plot takes its time with set-up; there are multiple meals, lengthy conversations both in-person and over the phone, and arguments in which a particular character is repeatedly told to do something (which they don’t do, leading to further arguments on the very same theme, stretching a point of tension beyond belief) — and while I appreciated the contrast, as I said above, I did get to the point where I wanted Priest to stop dropping little hints and just make something big happen. When that big thing does happen, it’s very effective, and the ending proves that Priest knows how to write a good twist. The strengths of The Family Plot outweigh its weaknesses, though, and I’ll confess to taking a second look at the darkened corners of my room once I finished reading it.