The Family Plot by Cherie Priest
“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.”
I’m glad that Priest has returned to the Southern Gothic horror genre, which is where she started many years ago. While I liked her steampunk novels, her skill at evoking a creepy atmosphere is, I think, best served in the culture-heavy, moss-draped landscape of the South. It lets her stretch her descriptive muscles while fitting her story into a place that already carries the tinge of the supernatural. And a haunted house story suits this setting wonderfully as well–houses back East are older, and were often inhabited by several generations of the same family, thus increasing the chance of the kind of tragedies that are believed to produce hauntings.
The author capitalizes on this belief, but she does so in an interesting way. The hapless victims who are in the house are antique hunters, tasked with finding and stripping anything of value from the house before it’s destroyed. This gives them the perfect excuse to be going to every room in the house and poking into things that normally wouldn’t be disturbed. For me, this meant that Priest avoided having her readers yelling at the book because the characters are being stupid, because these characters have an actual reason to be where they are. Money is a great motivator to ignore weird things going bump in the night.
I have a little issue with the pacing of the novel. It moves very slowly for the majority of the book and then speeds up dramatically at the end. I’m also not sure how I feel about the last page of the book. On the one hand, it seems like a fairly classic horror ending, but on the other hand, I’m not sure it fits with the way that the rest of the novel plays out. When I read that page, I actually went back and re-read it because I was wondering if I’d missed something. Granted, I don’t read much spooky stuff, so this may be just my own reading biases working against me.
Overall, this was an enjoyable book. It avoids anything truly grotesque or frightening and opts instead for a more subtle, slow-burn kind of creepiness. I might even go back and re-read it, just to see if my impressions of the novel are the same on a second read-through. For those looking for a few shivers without too many screams, this is a good book for you.
This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)