Cherie Priest,
Dreadful Skin
(Subterranean Press, 2007)

There's a supernaturally powerful killer on the loose, and only one person knows enough about the menace to track and, maybe, stop it. Never able to fully confide in others for fear of being labeled unstable and impeded in his quest, over time, the hunter becomes more like the hunted than he can comfortably live with. But will this similarity ultimately help or hurt him in his mission?

In Dreadful Skin, not quite a collection nor quite a novel, Cherie Priest takes this almost too-familiar setup, which could spell narrative death in a less talented writer's hands, and imbues it with unexpected life. If the patched-together creature that results is somehow less than the sum of its parts, and I think it unfortunately is, it nevertheless shambles forth with an aura of foreboding and obfuscation that tantalizes just enough more than it torments to make this quick read more memorable than most other recent pastiches of timeworn monster/savior themes.

The setting for the three stories that dwell together in this volume -- never quite meshing with each other as well as might be hoped, despite all featuring the same heroine at their centers -- is the antebellum southern and southwestern United States. The heroine is a refreshingly well-portrayed Irish nun who has been stalking a monster across many years and miles, and the monster in question is, well, let's call it a werewolf, though that may not be exactly right.

One gets the feeling that this nun, while only shown here in relation to the sort-of-werewolf, could be roaming the less civilized places of late 1800s America and challenging dark forces wherever she finds them much like the late Manly Wade Wellman's wonderful John did in the Carolinas through many short stories and novels. Which reminds me, John also met up with some shaggy brutes who had moon-based personality disorders in his day. Priest's welcome spin on the hoary conventions of werewolf literature is to tie her particular wolfish character to a historic killer whose maraudings, while decidedly bizarre as recounted by the tabloids of the time, were never linked (as far as I know) to lycanthropy.

When Priest gets her prose humming along at full speed, be it in tense scenes on a Tennessee River steamboat, at a Texas tent revival meeting or in a frontier town besieged by evil, she demonstrates a remarkably assured talent for pitting her sympathetic characters against her psychopathic ones with unpredictable results. What certainly would have helped make the less gripping stretches between these scenes more palatable would have been the establishment of a consistent narrative tone. Instead, Priest overreached herself a bit, and overshot this reader, by telling each of the stories in a different style that makes appreciating them as an overall saga more trying than it should have been. To wit, the first segment is told from multiple points of view, with each character only contributing fragments of the whole in a way that calls for a lot of reading in between the lines; the second, shortest and least effective segment comes entirely in third person; and the last appears in the form of letters and journal entries.

This uneven approach would not be so galling if so many of the people "telling" their parts of the tales had not turned out to apparently be doing so from the afterlife (it's a pet peeve of mine when narrators wind up dead, even if their fate is telescoped) and if Priest had not in each and every case decided to end the story within the very moment of its greatest drama. Which is to say, an anticlimax here and there would have been a good thing, especially if one had helped to explain the biggest plot hole of all -- namely, just how did our good nun get to be so much like her quarry? It is possible to take a good stab at answering this question, but the effort necessary to do so suggests more of laziness than of leitmotif on the author's part.

Such quibbles aside, the goosebumps raised by my contact with this dreadful skin will doubtless lure me to other works by Priest. She is already a strong voice in dark fantasy and could, with care, be a potent antidote for much of what is lacking elsewhere in the genre this decade.

by Gary Cramer
10 February 2007

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