Book Review: The Family Plot, Cherie Priest (2016)

October 28th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A Creepy HGTV/CW Crossover

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

In all the years she’d been talking to houses, the houses had never talked back.

“We can’t salvage ghosts. They don’t sell for shit.”

Music City Salvage is struggling: several of their clients stiffed them on pretty hefty bills, and their warehouse of stale stock just isn’t moving. So when old money Augusta Withrow approaches them about buying the salvage rights to her family estate, owner Chuck Dutton jumps at the maybe-too-good-to-be-true chance. At forty grand, it’s a gamble: that’s more cash than they’ve got in the bank, but the payoff could be huge. Or the deal just might bankrupt the family-owned company.

Chuck’s daughter Dahlia heads up the salvage team. Also on board: her cousin Bobby, with whom she hasn’t been on the best of terms lately, not since he sided with her ex-husband Andy in the divorce; Bobby’s son, Gabe; and resident nerd Brad, a salvage virgin. The quartet has a week to travel the two hours from Nashville to Chattanooga, strip the mansion and numerous outbuildings clean, and pack it all up before the wrecking crew arrives to do its worst.

It should be easy peasy, except that the estate is situated at the base of Lookout Mountain, and there’s a storm a-brewing, threatening to wash them all away. And Bobby is an alcoholic, and Dahl might be headed down that path too, and they kind of hate each others’ guts. Oh, and the estate is haunted. By no fewer than four ghosts. What could possibly go wrong?

Inspired in part by a rerun of Salvage Dawgs, The Family Plot is a new take on ye ole ghost story. It’s like a HGTV/CW crossover; Salvage Dawgs meets Supernatural. (I pictured Dahlia as a brown-haired, hard-drinking, potty-mouthed Nicole Curtis.) Indeed, the salvage crew’s easy acceptance of apparitions – plus their commitment to “the family business” – definitely brought to mind the Winchesters.

“Jesus, Brad. You’re a Georgia boy, ghosts shouldn’t be news to you. All of us down here, we’re not just living on battlefields. We’re living on graveyards. Even the fake ones have bodies in them, don’t you know?”

The story is a little slow to get started, but once it picks up – at around 10-15% – it’s a tense and thrilling ride. Priest mixes things up by producing a variety of specters: some of them big baddies, others more benevolent helpers. At least one falls a little in between: a sleazy scumbag in life, and mostly inconsequential in the after.

She also gives as a creepy and compelling mystery in the form of Augusta’s ancestors, Judson, Eleanor, Abigail, Buddy, and Hazel. A graveyard – the titular family plot – that may or may not be fake, a Halloween prank gone wrong. Ancient medical records that look like something out of American Horror Story: Asylum. Water that shocks and a door that locks seemingly of its own volition. A decades-dead spiritualist and a woman done wrong.

That last plot point reminded me of Yesternight by Cat Winters, which I devoured not that long ago. I don’t want to go into too much detail because spoilers, but I rooted for the ladies – betrayed by their lovers, by society, by their very bodies – in both scenarios.

“Men don’t care. Even when they know what they’ve done, and what it means—they don’t care. They just leave us behind to clean up their messes … like they never had no part in making them.”

I mean, so maybe it’s not a sin that warrants death, but – you can’t deny the fundamental unfairness of it all. Even now, but especially back then. That’s why the ode to “wicked women” in the final chapter kind of chapped my hide. She might be wicked, okay, but what do you call a guy like Gregory? (Imma go with Sam and Dean’s likely answer, “a bag of dicks.”)

Definitely worth a read, preferably around the Halloween season: both because it’s festive, and also this is when the story takes place. This is my first Priest book, but now I definitely want to give The Borden Dispatches and The Clockwork Century series a try.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Not a whole lot. Bobby is an alcoholic, and Dahlia might be. Son/nephew Gabe is a big kid, and catches some grief from his father for it.

Augusta’s late father Buddy was “always a bit funny, and he got funnier with age. These days, I think you’d call it autism, or something like that; I’m sure there’s a term for it, but we didn’t have a polite one, not back then.” Her aunt Abigail was institutionalized after she killed the soldier with whom she’d been having an affair; he tried to break it off, but not after leaving her “with child,” as they say. She did eventually give birth, but the baby either came early and was stillborn – or else Abigail drowned it in the tub, depending on which version of events you believe. Abigail eventually killed herself.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

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