Book: “The Family Plot” by Cherie Priest
Publishing Info: Tor Books, September 2016
Where Did I Get This Book: I own the audiobook.
Book Description: Music City Salvage is a family operation, owned and operated by Chuck Dutton: master stripper of doomed historic properties, and expert seller of all things old and crusty. But business is lean and times are tight, so he’s thrilled when the aged and esteemed Augusta Withrow appears in his office, bearing an offer he really ought to refuse. She has a massive family estate to unload – lock, stock, and barrel. For a check and a handshake, it’s all his. It’s a big check. It’s a firm handshake. And it’s enough of a gold mine that he assigns his daughter Dahlia to personally oversee the project.
Dahlia preps a couple of trucks, takes a small crew, and they caravan down to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the ancient Withrow house is waiting – and so is a barn, a carriage house, and a small, overgrown cemetery that Augusta Withrow left out of the paperwork.
Augusta Withrow left out a lot of things.
The property is in unusually great shape for a condemned building. It’s empty, but it isn’t abandoned. Something in the Withrow mansion is angry and lost. This is its last chance to raise hell before the house is gone forever, and there’s still plenty of room in the strange little family plot.
Review: I’m always on the hunt for a haunted house read, as Gothic horror almost always sends shivers up my spine. If the story involves a ghost or two, all the better! I was perusing a book list of such things, and I saw “The Family Plot” by Cherie Priest was one of the selections. I had never heard of this book, and decided that I would add it to my audiobook list to have going while walking around the neighborhood or running weekend errands. And almost immediately I knew that I was in for a fun ride. A Southern Gothic haunted house story that takes full aim at the secrets that the wealthy keep? Hell yes.
“The Family Plot” is a ghost story that hits a lot of the things I love about the sub-genre. The first is that the setting just felt so real and well explored. Withrow Mansion was incredibly well described and detailed, and as I listened to the book I felt like I could see the rooms, the remnants of the life it had within, every aspect of the grounds and the house that was built there. It was also a really cool concept to have the people being haunted NOT being a new owner, or a descendant, or someone who has come to the mansion to live there, but a salvage crew that is there to gut it and make a buck. As Dahlia and her crew interact in the house, and as things get more and more dire, the reason they stay is very believable: if this job doesn’t work out, they will almost certainly be out of business. It makes the stakes a bit higher, and feels like a more tangible reason to not turn tail and run (though to be fair, homeowners almost always have sunk everything into a new house and leaving may not be much of an option for them either). Dahlia also has a well explained backstory, and as we slowly find out the backstory to the house and the spirits that are within in, we can draw parallels between her and the aggrieved spirits that I thought made it feel even scarier as the story went on.
And yes, this is a well done ghost story to boot. The dread builds and the scares are done in varying ways, from subtle shifts in scenery to full on jump scares as written on the page. But Priest also manages to avoid a few overdone tropes. Instead of Dahlia and her crew being stubborn nonbelievers, for the most part they all accept the fact that there are, in fact, ghosts in the house they are working on. One of the most frustrating themes in stories like this is that the person who knows that something is seriously wrong is usually pooh-poohed by those around them, and frankly, it’s usually a woman being told she’s being hysterical by the man in her life. But in “The Family Plot”, Dahlia is never seen as crazy, and is never treated as such by her colleagues. That said, there is tension between her and her cousin Bobby, which just adds a whole other level of intensity to the story, especially as the situation worsens. On top of all of this, our narrator did a great job with all of the characters, and her reading of it set the mood just perfectly.
But then, the goodwill that I had toward this story soured a bit at the end. I’m going to try not to spoil anything, as ultimately I think that this is worth the read if you’re looking for a solid haunted house story. But we get a final twist right at the end, like the VERY end, that just felt a bit like a cheat. As someone who LOVES horror, like loves loves loves it, I’m a bit of an outlier perhaps in that I’m not a fan of a last moment about face in regards to the resolution of the plot. Like, say that your protagonist escapes the pit of the psycho killer, only to stumble upon one of the psycho killer’s henchmen they didn’t know was a henchman while they’re escaping, then they get thrown back into the pit and we get a smash cut to the credits. That kind of sudden turn around doesn’t work for me on screen or on page, and any whiff of such just turns me off. And unfortunately, we get one of those twists here, and I’m just never going to like that kind of thing, and it tainted my overall enjoyment.
Frustrating end moment aside, I genuinely had a good time listening to “The Family Plot”. Halloween season isn’t so far away, so add this one to your pile of creepy reads you may be saving for that time of year!
Rating 7: A genuinely spooky haunted house story that is a bit derailed in the last couple of paragraphs, “The Family Plot” was a bit frustrating at the end, but was overall a fun horror experience.