The cross-genrefication of all genres has produced some interesting work. It’s true that if someone describes a book as “steampunk slash horror slash fantasy slash splatterpunk slash slash with a pinch of oregano” I’m likely to quietly sidle away, assuming that the project is too high-concept to include conveniences like characterization, plot and verbs other than slash. But the conventions of certain genres seem to me to have a hey-you-got-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate kismet about them. I’m thinking specifically of the Western and horror. Zombies in the old West? Transdimensional gunslingers? Billy the Kid vs. Dracula? Why not? The images mingle pleasantly and unexpectedly. Maybe it’s because both sets of images have a certain stark moodiness to them, when done well.
Cherie Priest’s Dreadful Skin is a newish (2008) entry into this not-altogether-new cross-genre. In it, a renegade Irish nun pursues a serial-killing werewolf across America in the 1870s. The concept raised hopes higher than the book actually delivered to me, but it’s well-written, covers some interesting ground, and I wasn’t sorry I’d read it. Hackle-raising (or at least heckle-raising) details after the jump.
What do I mean when I say “it”? “It” is a booklength narrative, so “it” is a novel, right? Well, maybe not. The book never claims to be a novel. But then, rather like Sam in Lord of Light, it doesn’t claim not to be. It falls into three unequal parts, and the first could definitely stand on its own, so some might call the book a fix-up. But Part Three really doesn’t make any sense without either Part Two or Part One, so the stories aren’t truly independent. This doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but some people find this type of segmented story distressing.
The first section (“The Wreck of the Mary Beard“) is the best part of the book. CP sweeps aside the evidentiary conventions that bedevil this sort of story (for instance, a preface that begins I found an old manuscript in an attic, and to my surprise etc.): the tale is told directly to the reader by the ghosts of those who suffered and died on that night. It’s a technically remarkable piece of moxie and it mostly works. Where it breaks down is in the slight confusion that sometimes attends the opening of the individual chapters. They are all in the first person and it isn’t unambiguously clear at first who’s talking. The characters are distinct and not faceless, but CP, to her credit, does not make them into caricatures, so that their voices don’t instantly signal their identity. Something like “Ch. 6: Eileen (continued)”, though clunky, would have made the chapter transitions less of a chore.
But the tale CP tells is engrossing. A gambler, an ex-slave, an English ne’er-do-well, an Irish nun and a riverboat captain
walk into a bar, and the bartender says, “Hey, is this some kind of joke?” confront the fact that at least one of them is a werewolf and has set about preying on the others. Shipwreck, death and acts of reckless courage ensue, not necessarily in that order. There are no real surprises, but that’s a feature, not a bug: CP steals her own thunder on the first page because she has more effective lightning to hurl at the reader. CP focuses on what happens and how it happens, not dithering about whether it’s going to happen. By capturing her characters’ voices she manages to convey a quiet urgency to certain foreshadowed or even foregone conclusions.
CP has a wonderful gift for expressive details. My one real complaint is that I wanted more details: the murderous werewolf never fully came into focus for me. At times he seemed to be a half-man, half-wolf (like Lon Chaney’s “Wolf Man”), rather than a full-fledged were-become-wolf (as in Petronius’ Satyricon or in An American Werewolf in London) but this wasn’t really clear. More details don’t necessarily yield more impact, especially in horror, but I would have liked a few more here just to have a clearer sense of what was going on. Still, this was a great story, and I turned eagerly to the continuation (or sequel, depending on how you look at it).
In the second story, we find Eileen nine years later on the trail of another werewolf, this one travelling with a revivalist camp. Again, the final resolution is revealed from the word go: it’s how the story plays out that’s of interest. And I have to admit that it didn’t interest me as much. There is one potential surprise lurking in the text here, were it not clearly signalled by Jon Foster’s beautiful and evocative cover painting (in the trade paperback edition). But CP’s penchant for retreating into vagueness on certain issues was frustrating. Can lycanthropy be controlled (by drugs, or by an act of will, or what have you) or not? If not, how has Eileen managed to avoid revealing herself over the years, and why does she carry a vial of drugs with her? If so, what is this megillah about?
And I found the stage-setting less convincing in this story. For instance, though this is the American West, Eileen goes out of her way to signal that she’s Irish.
She was careful when she talked to make her accent heard. It was a trick she’d learned through trial and error–how nervous American Protestants were less troubled by foreign Papists than the homegrown kind. And in that part of the country, most of the homegrown Catholics were converts from the Spanish missions; so a white, English-speaking Catholic was a real oddity.
Unless, of course, they were Irish. There was a lot of immigrant bashing in those semi-barbarous days, particularly (but not exclusively) directed against the Irish (e.g. the infamous “Know Nothings”). “No Irish Need Apply” is the slogan that crops up a few times in Twain’s Roughing It, set in much the same area as Dreadful Skin only a decade or so earlier. So the narrative voice lost a little authority for me here. Plus, the narrative is a pretty strict 3rd person P.O.V., and so less interesting for technical reasons.
The third story is the weakest of the three. It involves a deranged cult of werewolves spreading like a plague over the old West and a desperate battle between the werewolves and some strongly sympathetic characters in an abandoned church at midnight. It’s hard to say how this could possibly be cooler without maybe a killer robot showing up. But I was somehow unmoved by the scene. And the last page of the book is frankly baffling. One of two people who have become werewolves in the course of the fight is being killed, and the killer (not Eileen) says, “Thank you.” And that’s the end. What happens to the other werewolf? What happens to Eileen? What happens to the werewolf cult–has it been broken by its failed attack? To some, these issues may seem obvious, unimportant, or fodder for a sequel, but their lack of resolution weakened the book for me. The story just stopped, rather than reaching a real conclusion.
So, in summary, a very readable book with some very cool things in it, but the first part is greater than the somewhat disparate whole.