“Renowned urban fantasy and steampunk author turns to the traditional ghost story”
Cherie Priest – The Family Plot
“The Family Plot” was the first novel I had read by Cherie Priest in a few years, so I was happy enough to reacquaint myself with her work. Her 2009 steampunk classic “Boneshaker” is still probably her best known novel, but she is a pretty diverse writer, moving from science fiction, urban fantasy, the supernatural to various types of thrillers. I’m not sure whether “The Family Plot” is her first straight ghost story, if it is, then it is a very accomplished effort. Priest has around nineteen novels in her back catalogue and is obviously very comfortable in taking her writing in a fresh direction. I am reviewing the American hardback version whose cover has a vaguely paranormal romance feel to it, however, there isn’t much of that in the novel, except a small part in the back story and so it should appeal to anyone.
An elderly lady sells the salvage rights to her dilapidated family home, for $40,000, to a strapped for cash family salvage business. They then aim to comb over the whole estate and pick it clean, reselling the stuff at auction or privately, hopefully at huge mark-up prices and save their business from bankruptcy. Chuck Dutton is sure there is a catch, but seeing the Dollar signs before his eyes sends his team to the remote mansion. His daughter Delilah heads up the team, and the majority of the novel takes place over the next five or so days which they spend in the crumbling and creaking house.
As cash is short the team also sleep in the house, which fortunately still has electricity and running water. Not a good idea. For the first 200 pages of the 350 pages the novel moves quite slowly. This isn’t a criticism though and I enjoyed the way the author built up tension and introduced the characters at her leisure. As ghost stories go Priest uses all the usual tricks of the trade pretty effectively; ghostly figures in windows, doors slamming, toilets flushing and ladders moving unaided. However, in the first half of the novel the real strength is how she effortlessly gets into the heads of the team who are picking the house clean. Apparently Priest was inspired by an American TV show, which I am not familiar with, which does this sort of this for real. As a reader it was easy to go with the flow of her descriptions of fire places, valuable ornaments and rare wood which might be worth a fortune, but look like old junk. Dalilah in particular was fun to be with, recovering from a painful divorce, as she loved her job and often made deep connections with the old buildings she salvaged. So, of course, she had a very strong connection with this house, albeit a slightly different one.
The story takes its first truly sinister turn when a small abandoned graveyard is found on the estate and fearful of losing salvage rights the group decide not to report it to the police after a body is unearthed from the First World War period. I don’t want to say too much more about the plot as it then swiftly moves into haunted house territory. The well written characters bring me to the first thing which niggled me about the book. At a certain point it becomes obvious everyone has seen a ghost, probably different ghosts in the first couple of days of their stay. Once they’ve discussed it all, they do nothing, except decide to bunk up in the main living area. Nobody really wants to run a mile and everybody ‘accepted’ the supernatural way too casually for me. Priest shrugged this off by telling us some of the characters had had previous supernatural experiences, and as they worked in old houses it was a ‘hazard of the trade’ or something like that. It didn’t quite fit for me.
I’ve already said I enjoyed the atmospheric slow pace of the first half of the novel, but the problem here is that Priest really didn’t ramp up the pace at all in the second stanza. It was a decent ghost story but really lacked any sense of fear or horror and even the climax didn’t provide that, so I definitely enjoyed the first half more than the second. The ghosts were obviously connected to family secrets which are decades old, but again the ghosts just weren’t particularly scary and when Dalilah started calling one of the ghosts by her first name I realised it just wasn’t that kind of novel. Delilah also discovers an old and unwanted family album made it all too easy for her to solve the underlying mystery.
Sure it’s an entertaining enough ghost story, but I would stop short of calling it a horror novel and you might be disappointed if you’re expecting some of the things the publisher promises on the press release. I would certainly agree that it’s “a haunted house tale that’s a slow burn” as one of the blurbs says, but for this reader it just never really caught fire in the second half and everything fell into place pretty conveniently. If you enjoy your ghost stories to be gothic in style there is much to admire in this novel, but if want horror to really make you twitch then I would look elsewhere.