Cherie Priest: Dreadful Skin

This review originally ran on Green Man Review.

Cherie Priest is a splendid writer. Her two previous novels — Four and Twenty Blackbirds and Wings To the Kingdom — are highly original takes on clairvoyance, psychic ability, family dynamics and even coming-of-age. They are also beautifully crafted examples of Southern Gothic, well-researched and rich with regional detail and atmosphere. Dreadful Skin is her first effort at a period piece, a werewolf tale set just after the American Civil War.

The basics are interesting — Jack Gabert, a young Englishman, returns from India with a bad case of lycanthropy; Priest describes it initially in a tentative, almost coy manner that is quite chilling. (I was pleasantly reminded of Kipling’s “Mark of the Beast,” where a certain vagueness of detail is more frightening than a more modern-style graphic narrative.) Gabert acquires an antagonist in the person of an Irish nun, Sister Eileen Callaghan, who identifies Gabert’s predations among the poor prostitutes of London. Sister Eileen correctly determines that Gabert is no mortal monster, and decides that his soul cannot be saved — it can only be returned to God. With this terrifying judgment and hubris, she becomes his hunter, beginning a chase that will take them both on to the wider and wilder stage of America. The novel is comprised of three separate novellas recounting their dangerous mutual hunt; the seams between them are well-matched, though, and the three sections work fine as chapters in a larger story.

However, Dreadful Skin is oddly flawed. There are some splendid characters — the free woman of color on the riverboat in Chapter One, “The Wreck of the Mary Blythe,” is beautifully realized, and in fact I wished her story had gone on further. Her background as an escaped slave; her unhappy freedom in cold, unfeeling Northern cities; and her eventual sanctuary on the floating world of a riverboat would be worth a book in themselves. Most of the secondary characters are just as well-drawn, despite their mostly being cannon-fodder for Jack’s inhuman appetites. No, it’s the main characters and the atmosphere in which they move who are thinnest.

The cover and blurb suggested a splendidly immersive read, steeped in mist, tragedy and Spanish moss draped over cypress boughs in the moonlight. Alas, this doesn’t happen. The story seems to have escaped Priest from the very beginning, and to have run off howling incoherently into the wilderness. Most of the characters lack the distinctive and sharply accurate voices she achieved in her previous works — and since two of the worst offenders are Jack and Sister Eileen, the reader is left unsatisfied.

A large part of the problem is that the story is a period piece, but aside from simply labeling the setting and characters as 19th century, not much effort has gone into making them believably so.

Sister Eileen is largely a 21st century woman, unconvincing as a 19th century nun. The idea of making her a nun is fine — but her behavior would be aberrant even for a modern religious woman, and no explanation is given for her actions. Some are needed: she totes a Colt .45, plays cards, and smokes cigars. She is still a member of her order when the story begins, and so is roaming the American West in full robes and wimple — but no one is surprised at encountering an unaccompanied Irish Catholic nun in the largely Protestant American West. Later on in the narrative, she has been forced to assume a secular persona, but no explanation is offered for either choice.

Jack Gabert is a more convincing Victorian Englishman, but his character suffers from what seems to have been a paucity of historical research. Priest connects him teasingly with both Jack the Ripper and Springheeled Jack, who terrorized London somewhat earlier than the Ripper. There is actually quite a lot of information available on both the Ripper and Springheeled Jack. However, Priest inexplicably confabulates the two figures, despite the fact that Springheeled Jack reportedly wore a silver mask, breathed blue flames and left his victims frightened but alive. She gives Jack the monstrous violence of both the Ripper and the classic werewolf, while at the same time vaguely suggesting that the moon gives him the ability to leap and soar. When there is so much historical detail available on both the source figures, these confused images seem pointless. It leaves Jack curiously unrealized.

There are also some unfortunate lapses of common sense and general believability. At one point, Sister Eileen slips both a pint bottle of chloroform and a Colt .45 into “a garter holster.” Eileen is repeatedly described as a small woman; an unloaded Colt .45 weighs two pounds and the pint bottle adds another pound. A regular holster under Eileen’s skirt would be plausible; a garter holster is not. Several characters also refer to Eileen as red-haired: however, with the 19th century nun’s habit in which she begins the story, no one would be able to tell the color of her hair. Overlooking this kind of logic suggests that the story was written in a white heat and never examined for content, that we are reading a first draft or even a juvenile work of the author’s.

Subterranean Press has done its usual exemplary job with the physical details of the book. It is a handsome edition; the marvelous black and white illustrations by Mark Geyer suggest woodcuts and have an Edward Gorey weirdness that suits the subject matter very well.

Cherie Priest’s first two books showed an acute attention to history and detail. They also showed her to be a wordsmith of considerable talent. While her skill at crafting a moving scene has not abandoned her in Dreadful Skin, the clarity and lucidity of the writing are diminished. Jack Gabert may be carried away on the tide of moonlight, but the reader is not. One can only hope the unfamiliar period overwhelmed Priest, and that she’ll get her feet back under her with her next novel.

(Subterranean Press, 2007; Far Territories, 2008))

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