At the scary, broken heart of each of these three novels stands a woman of tremendous courage. It’s a quality she—each of these three very different “shes”—will need in order to face the horrors bent on destroying her. Also marking each heroine is a possibly fatal flaw that draws the monstrous entities in her direction with implacable magnetism.
A SINISTER FORCE IN THE SCENIC CITY
Cherie Priest is an author who loves the feel of things—tangible objects, especially ones that hold in their heft a heap of history. Her new novel, The Family Plot, has the perfect concept to indulge this enthusiasm: A salvage company from Nashville, Tennessee, is hired by an elderly woman to dismantle and sell off every beautiful thing in her family’s old homestead before the grand house is demolished. And where is this gorgeous edifice, packed to the rafters with so many treasures? Right at the base of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, site of one of the fiercest battles of the Civil War. Dahlia Dutton leads her salvage crew with an appropriately iron hand, but she is dangerously susceptible to the allure of the haunted house she is commissioned to tear apart. The spirits who haunt the place feel her softness toward them, and they respond with diabolical vengeance. It’s an old story.
The Family Plot delivers a double helping of fun: A prospectus of auction items worthy of Southern Living is served up alongside a tale of gothic suspense woven from the familiar fabric of lost war ballads, flavored with the bitter twang of ingrown family evils and hypocritical Confederate piety. For Priest, as for her vulnerable protagonist, the more traditional the object, the more valuable it’s got to be.
THEY'RE IN THE BASEMENT
Chattanooga and Tokyo are a world apart in every way. Mariko Koike is one of the biggest names in mystery and horror in her native Japan, and now U.S. readers can share the thrills. Her 1986 classic The Graveyard Apartment, now translated into English for the first time by Deborah Boliver Boehm, is one of the strangest and most terrifying horror novels I’ve ever read, and that’s saying a lot. One reason for the book’s uncanny impact is a cultural one. Japan possesses a vast folklore of supernatural beings, the taxonomy for which is fabulously complex. With acute economy, Koike has distilled this puzzling array of horrible creatures into one great and collective force. That force is concentrating on one hapless family living in a crazy apartment building in a neglected precinct of the capital city, surrounded by a huge graveyard.
Two factors conspire to make the experience of reading The Graveyard Apartment especially harrowing. The first is a focus on the building’s basement, in which the worst things happen. There is no distancing ourselves from the horror; it could happen to us. The second factor concerns the psychological foundation for the family’s persecution—a painful scenario, all too common, in which a guilty mother heroically and desperately attempts to protect her innocent child. Did the terrible error she and the little girl’s father committed—bringing about both the child’s life and the first wife’s death—somehow lead to these fatal consequences? It is a superbly distressing question, another instance of absolute evil tormenting simple human frailty.
DON'T LOOK BACK
I have saved the best of the three new books for last, and I’ll say the least about it, mainly to insist to my fellow fans of horror that you must get your hands on this one. The Motion of Puppets is the only novel I know to have fulfilled Robert Aickman’s famous statement about great supernatural tales, that they are the fiction most closely approaching poetry. Keith Donohue (The Stolen Child) has crafted a perfect fable based on the mysterious attraction of the puppet theater. Building upon the archaic superstition (exploited in Toy Story) that puppets have their own emotional lives, the author takes one more magnificent step and ties in the devastating myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Instead of descending to the Underworld, Kay Harper has been magically transformed into a puppet. Her husband, Theo, must try to find her and win her back. Every page of this novel hums with mythic power, pulling on every heartstring.
There’s a delightful variety of heroism, susceptibility and supernatural threat in these three novels. We recommend that you treat yourself to all of them—if it’s a trick you can manage.