by Cherie Priest
Subterranean Press, 2007
In Dreadful Skin, a suite of werewolf-themed novellas from Subterranean Press, Cherie Priest departs from the atmospheric style and psychological horror of her debut novel. Where Four and Twenty Blackbirds established a measured and steady pace with a fully-realized Southern Gothic backdrop for a story of epiphany and inexorable change, here Priest proves equally adept at hack-and-slash horror.
The book is split into three sections: "The Wreck of the Mary Byrd" (serialized in its entirety at the SubPress website), "Halfway to Holiness", and "Our Lady of the Wasteland and the Hallelujah Chorus". As each tale is sequential, and builds upon the events preceding it, it will be necessary to discuss important plot points that link all three. So while some spoilers must follow, I'll try not to give too much away.
"The Wreck of the Mary Byrd" is set in 1870 on the Tennessee River, somewhere between Chattanooga and Knoxville. Using the true historical event of the disappearance of the riverboat in the title, along with all its crew and passengers, Priest spins a probable scenario of just what might have led to this tragedy. Told in multiple first-person viewpoints, the story introduces us to the main players: Christopher Cooper, a gambler and gentleman; Laura, a black cook and serving girl; Jack Gabert, an Englishman with a deadly supernatural secret; and Sister Eileen Callaghan, the Irish nun who has tracked Gabert to the Mary Byrd with a Colt strapped to her thigh.
As a fierce storm lashes against the boat, causing the captain to drop anchor until it has passed, Gabert, infected with a lycanthropic curse picked up in India, methodically stalks the other people on the boat, picking them off under the cover of rain and darkness. Priest's interesting take on this particular monster twists the convention in regards to Sister Eileen's realization of Gabert's reaction to the moon, hidden by rain and clouds:
I had wondered if the rain would matter. I didn't know if it would dampen his needs, to use a comically appropriate word. I'd suspected it wouldn't. The night works on faith—clouds may cover it, but the moon needs no evidence to shine.
In retrospect we see these things so clearly. The covered sky only pent him up—it made him harder to control, because he had no point of reference. He could not look up at the sky and tell himself, "Yes, there is the moon and it is almost full of light. This is why my head is clouded, my blood is bubbling in my veins. If I am not careful, I will reveal myself. I must make precautions if I want to remain undetected. In a few days it will be easier. I will be all right for a few more days."
Before the rain came, he walked the decks when they were nearly empty. He knew what the sky would tell him, so he watched himself and his behavior. But with it gone? Even knowing what the moon would say, he was acting blind, with only his own instincts to guide him. (47)
As is evident by the story's title (and by the fact that from the beginning characters talk about their own deaths, relaying the narrative as ghosts looking back on that fateful night), things end in fire and tragedy. The ending is always a given, but the path to get there is suspenseful and terrifying, drawing on a tradition of monster horror film and literature, and though the reader knows these characters are doomed, we still root for the feisty former slave, the courageous card-player, and the resourceful nun-cum-monster-hunter, somehow hoping that things will go their way, even when we know better.
Priest also imbues Jack Gabert with remarkable sympathy. At first, the multiple first-person accounts are a bit confusing (who's speaking now? What semiotic cues are given to indicate this?), but the choice to put Gabert's narrative in his own words, giving us his background, his memories, and the struggle with his curse, do a lot toward making the reader identify with him. He fights with his wolfish nature, hoping that his escape to America will allow him a solitary existence in some western territory, away from temptation and hunger. But Sister Eileen's presence on the boat, combined with the visual absence of the moon, snap something in his control, and the wolf takes him over completely. One almost feels sorry for him as he commits his atrocities, trapped in his own cursed existence.
Sister Eileen survives the experience, albeit not unscathed. Nine years later, she ends up in Holiness, Texas (the setting of "Halfway to Holiness") pursuing rumors of unexplained deaths that have followed the traveling ministry of a Pentecostal preacher who speaks in tongues—the Reverend Benjamin Aaron. The pattern and style of the killings are familiar to her now that she herself has inherited the werewolf curse from her battle with Jack Gabert. She has learned to control it, mostly with the help of chloroform and a sturdy pair of handcuffs, and it has left her with some unexpected benefits, such as heightened senses and increased speed and strength.
She encounters Leonard Dwyer, an earnest young man eager to share his brand of faith with the nun, and following a night of battling her inner demons, she accompanies him to the reverend's revival tent. Her suspicions are confirmed as the revivalist begins to transform on the stage in front of her eyes. The important question then to be answered is whether the preacher has been exploiting his position to slake his hunger, or whether he has been unsuccessfully fighting with his frightening sickness. Both questions lead to the same inevitable outcome, but the purpose of the resolution becomes an act of mercy rather than of extermination.
This story, at a much shorter length than the other pieces, feels like an interlude in the book as a whole. It is the connecting tissue between the beginning and ending novellas, though it serves many important purposes. Sister Eileen has been turned into the monster she once hunted, and her struggle (nicely reflected by the preacher's circumstance) is now the all-encompassing mission of her life, even as (aided by her supernatural powers) she continues to slay the creatures that are now her kin. We also meet Leonard and find out about Reverend Aarons' traveling ministry, both of which play an important role in the third tale. However, the length and narrative focus (staying with Sister Eileen's viewpoint for the entire story), as well as the completeness of the plot, make the story feel slightly dwarfed by the novellas that bookend it.
"Our Lady of the Wasteland and the Hallelujah Chorus" takes place two years later, and though Reverend Aarons' revivalist camp has suffered the setback of its founder's death, his son Daniel decides to continue the mission of bringing the word to the people. The story soon turns sinister as it is revealed that the traveling ministry has been joined by a charismatic smooth-talker named "Jack", who we quickly come to realize is Jack Gabert, having survived the destruction of the Mary Byrd and fully embraced his evil nature. Jack has decided to become a father figure to Daniel, who it seems has inherited his father's shapeshifting curse. The killings begin again, and are soon not restricted to the townspeople they encounter, but involve members of the camp as well.
All this is relayed in letters from Melissa Anderson—the only woman left in the ministry, as all the other women have been raped and killed and the surviving men converted to a pack of werewolves—to her friend Leonard Dwyer. Leonard quickly writes to Sister Eileen, the only person that he can trust with such matters, and heads out for Mescalero, a small town west of Texas that will be the camp's final stop, to effect a rescue. He entreats her to meet him there, which she does with haste, but the rescue of Melissa is not the end of things. The trio, along with McKenzie, the town's lawman, decide to make a stand against the revivalist pack on Mescalero's outskirts, in a brutal and bloody western shoot-out that would make Quentin Tarantino proud.
Unfortunately, the various narrative techniques Priest employs in this piece, which include epistolary correspondence, journal entries, and first-person accounts, feel internally inconsistent and unbalanced, since the majority of the story is told, much like the first novella, in alternate first-person viewpoints. If Priest had picked just one method and stuck to it, the story might have been a stronger one. That said, her use of deliberately leaving out important textual information (because someone other than the intended receiver in the story might read the letters or journal entries) is an interesting exercise in narrative misdirection; we know from Melissa's first-person account that she is in trouble, but her letters to Leonard, which are read by Jack before being mailed, appear innocuous and do not give an indication that she is asking for help.
Throughout the entire book, there were also times I wished Priest had slowed down a bit to let us savor the moment. We are given some expositional detail at the beginning about the settings and characters, and then the plot races off, hurtling like a freight train to the end. Had I not read her previous work, I might have thought this her chosen writing style, but so much of what was enjoyable about Four and Twenty Blackbirds were the quiet moments, the troughs in the action which allowed the reader to take a mental breath. Dreadful Skin is breathless all the way through, and though this provides for an exciting narrative, it also makes the proceedings feel more shallow, more hurried. This may be a result of Priest's fast writing of the book, or with the nature of such stories in episodic novella format, but it results in a less satisfying experience than her previous work.
Regardless, though the werewolf legend is centuries old (possibly millennia, depending on how certain ancient texts are interpreted), Priest brings a fresh approach to the horror monster trope. The moon as a marker for control rather than a catalyst for physical change is a new one in my reading, as is Sister Eileen's level of control over herself while in wolf form. A monster who hunts those of its own kind is not unique (just one recent example can be found in the TV series Angel), but the fact that Sister Eileen is a nun is a new twist. She has chosen to slay these affronts to God, but what does that imply about her own immortal soul? Nietzsche said, "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster." From the text, it is not apparent that she has killed anyone as a wolf, but she is still by definition a monster. Does she somehow become absolved of that fact if she kills enough deadly werewolves? And is it necessary for her to become a monster in the first place so that she can effectively hunt them? No answers are definitively given, but the questions, in the midst of such ferocious action, stay with the reader until the last blood-soaked page is closed.