1920. The Great War has ended, but another battle is waging for WWI veteran Tomás Cordero. Traumatized by his warfare actions, in which he wielded a flame projector that drenched the enemy in liquid fire, Cordero returns to Ybor City, Florida to find his wife had died from influenza. He is both figuratively and literally haunted by his participation in the trenches overseas. Fire has followed him home, creating havoc and destruction.
Alice Dartle, a budding clairvoyant, has visions of Cordero and a fiery entity who stalks him. How the lives of Alice and Cordero intertwine is the crux of Brimstone (2017) by Cherie Priest. This captivating novel is told from the two protagonists’ points of view. The chapters alternate between their respective standpoints.
Cordero has managed his bereavement to a certain extent, accepting society’s pro forma expectations: “There’s etiquette to grief, and I was glad for it. Old manners gave me appropriate things to say and proper responses to the scripted sorrows and sad eyes. I do not know what I would’ve done with myself if I’d never had the rituals to guide me.” He longs to believe that images left in soot residue from spontaneous fires are messages from his deceased spouse, but there’s an emotional dichotomy. His grasping at hope falters when tragedy again strikes.
For Alice, leaving home in Virginia to find her vocation at a spiritual enclave in Cassadaga, Florida exemplifies embracing one’s tribe. History has taught her that women with her arcane abilities used to be burned at the stake. The camp at Cassadaga nurtures those endowed with psychic skills and aptitude. During a reading, the fearsome flaming creature that is connected to Cordero reappears to her. Although wanting to be of aid, Alice is aware that there are dangers in associating with Cordero. When he shows up in Cassadaga, her desire to help him overrides the qualms. Collateral damage ensues.
The book focuses on relationships, delving into their complexities with perceptive compassion. Author Priest also cleverly integrates facts into her work of fiction. Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp does exist in Florida. Heinous inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, who wrote Malleus Maleficarum (1487), the odious primer on how to interrogate and punish witches, is featured prominently in the narrative.
Brimstone, an Ace Trade Paperback, is a mix of genres. It is a story of love, but not a conventional “love story.” And possibly placing it into the category of “historical mystery” is viable. For horror fans, the tale provides elements that have appeal. Here’s a sample, depicting Cordero’s supernatural stalker: “He moved with the momentum and straightforward certainty of a locomotive on a track, smoke and fire pouring from his footsteps, filling his wake with ashes.”
Cherie Priest has succeeded in writing a novel that will satisfy readers across the board.