I enjoy a good ghost story. I don’t consider myself very superstitious, but there is just something about ghost stories that send that little tingle of fear up and down my spine. It does not matter how logical I believe myself to be, nor does it matter that I am generally aware of most of the scientific explanations behind common ghost-related phenomena (most of which seem to boil down to: it’s all in the mind); ghost stories can and will creep me out.
That creep factor is also what allows me to enjoy a good haunted house story. It also helps that almost every residential area in my country has at least one or two homes that are deemed “haunted”, and there is a tradition in local cinema that focuses on haunted houses and the grisly, terrifying things that happen in them. I have, therefore, developed something of a taste for haunted house stories: the creepier, the better, though I do draw the line at excessive gore. Reading my mother’s gory thrillers while still a grade-schooler has pretty much burned out any fear factor gore and guts may induce to me, and any horror story that leans too heavily on that trope will not so much scare me as make me roll my eyes and set it aside. (This is also why many slasher films don’t really do much for me except to cause me to jump in my seat from time to time. Startle me? Yes. Actually scare me? Very much no.)
Fortunately, while there is gore in Cherie Priest’s The Family Plot, it is not used excessively. The story follows Dahlia Dutton and her companions as they arrive to break down an old house on an isolated property just outside the St. Elmo neighbourhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Dahlia’s father, Chuck, is the owner of Music City Salvage: a company that specialises in tearing down old houses and selling any valuable scrap to other people. Lately the company’s run into a spot of money trouble, and Chuck thinks this latest job will help keep the business from folding. And so Dahlia, along with her cousin Bobby, her nephew Gabe, and newbie employee Brad, have been sent to the Winthrow property and strip it for anything and everything worth money. As far as Dahlia is concerned, this is nothing more than another routine job.
However, it quickly becomes obvious that this job is far from routine. Dahlia wondered why the original owner, Augusta Winthrow, wanted to get rid of such a beautiful old place, and she’s quickly coming to understand that there might be a good reason why. There’s something about the old house that just isn’t quite right: something is moving through old rooms and hallways of the Winthrow house, and it is very much not benign.
For the most part, The Family Plot isn’t all that different from a lot of other haunted house stories out there: a group of people enter an old house for whatever reason, and then find out that all is not as it seems because of something bloody and brutal that happened in the house itself. Over the course of the story that history is slowly revealed, and its consequences fall upon the new residents (or visitors, as the case may be), forcing them to deal with those consequences. This may or may not result in death (or deaths, as the case may be), but that isn’t always necessary.
Priest follows a similar pattern in The Family Plot: Dahlia and her companions enter the old Winthrow house in order to start taking it apart, but quickly learn that there’s something in it that doesn’t wish them well at all. As the story continues they begin uncovering the house’s true history, all while interacting with ghosts – mostly accidentally, but sometimes rather deliberately. It all comes to a head when they finally realise the truth behind the dark deeds done in the house, and have all the weight of that terrible history fall upon them all, paying prices they were never meant to pay, but paid anyway because they just so happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So far, so standard.
What sets this novel apart from other haunted house novels, though, is the quality of the prose, and of the characterisation. I have read a few of Priest’s other books: Boneshaker, which I did not particular enjoy, and Maplecroft, which I did enjoy. Priest is a great hand at writing horror without having to resort to gore; she carefully balances pacing and atmosphere, juxtaposing dark, disturbing emotions with more tender and poignant ones to create a sense of horror. Take this excerpt, for example:
Standing there in the Winthrow house, she felt a deep sorrow anyway. It was an acute thing, a sense of grieving that the great old structure surely warranted. And maybe it was only a silly, blasphemous notion, but the mansion was such a lost thing. A sad thing, a tragic thing that deserved a better fate than the one it had coming.
An angry thing.
A chill ran from the back of her neck to her knees.
Dahlia spent a lot of time angry these days, but the houses themselves were never anything but mournful. Had she called the word to mind, or had she heard it? Now she heard nothing, only that weird, white silence of a place that’s been so long closed up and unloved.
The word echoed between her ears, another odd intrusion. She shook her head, but it rang very faintly, a tinnitus-pitched hum that might mean a migraine was coming, or might only mean that her allergies were flaring up. She chose to believe it was the dust, because she didn’t have time for a headache. …
This scene starts out with a soft, poignant feel: words like “sorrow”, “sad” and “tragic” are used, giving a sense of loss. None of these emotions is particularly frightening, giving off instead a feel of nostalgia, of something worn and soft around the edges over the course of time.
But then the word “angry” comes in, and it alters the tone of the rest of the passage. Suddenly, the softer emotions disappear, their softer notes evaporating to leave behind something eerier, more frightening. This sense of eerie terror is further developed in the succeeding paragraphs, with the description “tinnitus-pitched hum” being especially creepy, in my opinion, because it describes a residue of something that might, nor might not, be real.
Aside from juxtaposing emotions, there is also a certain cinematic sensibility in Priest’s writing, one which is used to great effect in many of the more terrifying scenes, such as the one below:
It was over as soon as it’d happened, but she was already off her feet. She fell sliding into the tub, landing on her back under the full force of the water. She scrambled and stumbled, and pulled herself out of the tub—over the side and onto all fours on a floor that was so wet she could see her own reflection when she stared down, panting, at the space between her hands.
Behind her reflection in that thin sheen of puddle, a shape darted, loomed, and disappeared.
This scene actually forced me to stop reading this book at night, because it creeped me out so much that I could only read it in broad daylight for fear of giving myself nightmares before going to bed. That is my personal indicator for a good horror story: if I think it might give me nightmares if I read it before bed, then it’s a good story because it is doing what it’s supposed to do, and that is to creep me out.
One of the other good things about this book, as I mentioned earlier, is the characterisation. A lot of haunted house stories tend to feature young women – teenagers or young mothers – as the main protagonist or one of the main protagonists, but I like how this novel is led by an older woman, a divorcee who is trying it pick up the pieces of her life and move on. Her interactions with the other characters are also interesting, especially the care and concern she shows for Gabe and Brad, though the constant low-level animosity between her and Bobby is notable as well. They make for a readable bunch of characters, and it is easy for the reader to get invested enough in them to want to see them survive the troubles that fall upon them throughout the course of the novel.
However, for all that the plot is creepily enjoyable, and the characters mostly a joy to read, I do think this book has one thing working against it, and that is the backstory behind the house’s haunting. I will not say what, exactly, that backstory is, since so much of the enjoyment the reader derives from this book involves uncovering that backstory, but suffice to say that I wish it was a bit deeper, a bit more complex, than the story given in the novel. As it stands, it works just fine with the overall narrative, but I do wish that there had been a bit more meat on that particular bone than what currently exists.
Overall, The Family Plot is one of the best examples of the haunted house story that I have read in a while: sufficiently creepy that I cannot read it at night lest I give myself nightmares, and featuring a cast of characters the reader comes to genuinely care for. Though I wish the house’s backstory had been a bit more substantial, it works just fine the way it stands to achieve this novel’s primary goal: to creep the reader out.