Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

For as long as she can remember, Eden Moore has been gifted with the ability to see ghosts. Three dead sisters, all distant relatives of Eden, visit her quite frequently, watching over her and offering their cryptic advice. Much of it confuses young Eden, until she is attacked by Malachi, a distant cousin who believes Eden to be the reincarnation of their voodoo priest of a great grandfather. The three ghosts guide her through a forest and mine shaft, allowing Eden to escape harm and putting Malachi in jail. Not suprinsingly, Eden wants to know why this cousin she never met wants her dead. Raised by her aunt, it's natural that she would turn to her for answers. Although she seems to know a good bit about it all---Malachi, the great grandfather, the dead sisters, Eden's dead mother--- she refuses to tell Eden anything, claiming it's all to protect her niece. This is but the opening chapter to Cherie Priest's Four and Twenty Blackbirds, a horror/dark fantasy romp through the mansions, swamps, and cellars of the southern US.

The story jumps ahead twenty years; Malachi escapes imprisonment and makes another attempt on Eden's life. When her aunt still won't tell Eden anything, Eden conducts some research that leads her to a long-deserted home for troubled teens, an antebellum mansion, a new age bookstore and, finally, to the deep, dangerous swamps of Florida. The deeper she digs, the more frantic the ghosts become. At the core of Eden's story lies an ancient family curse, a curse connected to her great-grandfather and his search for eternal life. Set in Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, much of the book pulls from the traditions of the southern gothic horror tale. Family secrets, incest, ghosts, voodoo magic much of it is familiar territory. But despite some of the reliance on overused motifs author Priest pulls it off, and mostly through Eden.

Although she'd probably drive me crazy if I ever met her on the street, Eden’s a fantastic character. She's the kind of person who sends food back in a diner not once, not twice, but three times. The kind of person who sits on the outside seat on the bus and refuses to scoot over for anything because, dammit, that other seat’s for her purse. Not at all likable in real life, but it makes for a fabulous character. So often characters in a first novel sit back and just let things happen to them. But Eden is a doer, a person who runs out to find what she wants, no matter the consequences. Things are rarely slow down in this tale, because Eden is constantly pushing and prodding to find the secrets behind her family.

From the horror angle, the writing is deliciously spooky. Whether it's an abandoned building, a dank, claustrophobic swamp, or the latrine at a summer camp the layers of detail and near-Faulknerian language suck you into her world. Priest also knows the difference between dancing ghostly images off in her corner of the eye and putting something ghastly right in front of you, and she knows when to use which method. She's certainly not breaking new ground here, but it's a wonderful page turner and after seeing so much bad horror and dark fantasy over the past year it's refreshing to see someone who can deliver a good story with a strong central character and truly evocative language. Fast-paced, ghastly fun from a writer of real promise.

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