“She was naked. It was only a ghost. Ghosts can’t actually hurt you, can they?” That’s a question Dahlia Dutton, protagonist of The Family Plot, asks herself. Because Cherie Priest’s novel is in the horror genre, the answer is obvious. Priest again reminds us that bathrooms are dangerous places. As the films Psycho and Diabolique have demonstrated, showers and bathtubs, respectively, can be hazardous to one’s health. Dahlia is on a job for her father’s salvage company when she discovers the house she’s stripping for subsequent demolition is haunted. The bathroom proves particularly bedeviled.
Dahlia is sensitive to the edifice she is about to gut. She sees the beauty of its lines and what it once was: “She didn’t want to start work on the Withrow house. This wasn’t some favor she was doing for an old friend; this wasn’t a restoration gig to preserve a landmark. This was a vivisection, a slow slaughter of a thing on its last legs. She loved the house and loved all its parts, so she hated her job, this time.” Her sensitivity extends to past inhabitants of the dwelling; the dead who haven’t left the premises. Although she and the male cousin who is working with her on the project have seen ghosts before, this is the first time that they have reason to be frightened: an angry apparition believes Dahlia to be a kindred spirit.
The malevolent spectre was a young woman who had a disastrous romance circa World War I. Dahlia has recently gotten divorced, wreaking havoc on her self-image, and engendering bitter feelings towards her ex. She is resentful that her co-worker cousin is still buddies with her former spouse. The tension between the cousins is exacerbated by Dahlia’s position as leader of the gutting crew, with sexism coming into play. The two other members of the team are both males, who generally defer to her judgment, but sometimes question it. Dahlia’s dad is another guy who affects her emotions and actions. He is in financial straits and desperately needs the inventory from the Withrow estate. Dahlia feels compelled to follow through on the work for the sake of the business, despite the wrathful wraith. Phantoms and feminism are linked in the narrative.
Priest’s prose is a perfect fit for a ghost story. It is unhurried and highly expressive. Even detailed passages describing the process of a salvaging operation aren’t in the least bit boring. The subtle buildups to hauntings are finely rendered, and when the appropriate time comes to pull out all the stops, the author does so with grand literary gusto.
The Family Plot is recommended to readers who favor thoughtful and carefully calibrated ghostly fiction. Tor Books has timed this release perfectly; it goes beautifully with the shorter autumnal days and early twilight.