The Family Plot – Cherie Priest

Short & Sweet: The Family Plot is a ghost story better told over the crackle of a campfire, rather than slotted with other novels of its genre. The background of the haunting is terribly cliché, with slow-moving story progression; coupled with the rich characterization and well-painted environment, makes this better suited as a quick read during hot summer nights.

Chuck Dutton built Music City Salvage with patience and expertise, stripping historic properties and reselling their bones. Inventory is running low, so he’s thrilled when Augusta Withrow appears in his office offering salvage rights to her entire property. This could be a gold mine, so he assigns his daughter Dahlia to personally oversee the project.
The crew finds a handful of surprises right away. Firstly, the place is in unexpectedly good shape. And then there’s the cemetery, about thirty fallen and overgrown graves dating to the early 1900s, Augusta insists that the cemetery is just a fake, a Halloween prank, so the city gives the go-ahead, the bulldozer revs up, and it turns up human remains. Augusta says she doesn’t know whose body it is or how many others might be present and refuses to answer any more questions. Then she stops answering the phone.
But Dahlia’s concerns about the corpse and Augusta’s disappearance are overshadowed when she begins to realize that she and her crew are not alone, and they’re not welcome at the Withrow estate. They have no idea how much danger they’re in, but they’re starting to get an idea. On the crew’s third night in the house, a storm shuts down the only road to the property. The power goes out. Cell signals are iffy. There’s nowhere to go and no one Dahlia can call for help, even if anyone would believe that she and her crew are being stalked by a murderous phantom. Something at the Withrow mansion is angry and lost, and this is its last chance to raise hell before the house is gone forever. And it seems to be seeking permanent company.
The Family Plot is a haunted house story for the ages-atmospheric, scary, and strange, with a modern gothic sensibility to keep it fresh and interesting-from Cherie Priest, a modern master of supernatural fiction.

Like a moth to the flame (or a teetering salvage company to a hundred-year-old house…) the large synopsis pulled me right in. For the most part, it delivered as promised, and I enjoyed the story.

First and foremost: Cherie Priest’s writing style is fantastic. She weaved me right in from the very first page; descriptive enough to paint a picture, but vague enough to allow for reader-filled gaps. The technical side of their demo was fascinating. There were features and materials I’d never heard of before, and it was fun to google (dutch doors!) and find out exactly what they were prying from the wall, or salvaging from the backyard.

But where The Family Plot shines is in is not story or environment, but characterization – five full stars for Cherie Priest on that front, and the reason why this novel even worked in the first place. Had this story been set against the grey backdrop of weak cardboard characters, my rating would’ve been much, much lower. There simply isn’t enough here to maintain a story without them.

Each person had a voice, a personality, and they shined through in every interaction. Each decision made was reasonable and expected. They truly jumped from the page itself, and this story was propelled because of them, rather in spite of them. We rooted for Chuck, we sided with Dahlia, we laughed at Bobby. Every interaction felt genuine.
The only character I took issue with was Augusta Withrow. Her personality was clear, yes, but some of her decisions and statements to Dahlia were puzzling, and her last sentence after everything was over felt… odd. Weak, even. It was a small crack in the foundation of characters Cherie Priest worked so hard to create, but as her presence is obviously a prop, it didn’t affect the story.

The paranormal situations began to occur early on, but things didn’t begin truly rolling until later. To be expected, but as a result, the novel slogged down. Once revealed, the haunting itself, and the backstory behind it, checked nearly every single cliche box that exists. Some of the experiences and situations turned far-fetched, and degraded the ‘horror’ element of the narrative. Honestly, I can see this novel working much better as a movie or show, rather than in text.

Why three stars? Because it wasn’t extraordinary, but not terrible either. It’s a fun read with some creepy moments, great characters, and a satisfying ending, but little else. Much like Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, a huge chunk of the story is already in the synopsis. I don’t hate The Family Plot, but I also don’t love it either, which made this review so frustrating to write.

Would I recommend this? Not if you’re going in expecting genuine fright. This is a light book, good if you’re looking for something quick and easy, with rich characters and setting descriptors. A palate cleanser, if you will. Not amazing, but not bad either.

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