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The Vines / Christopher Rice

47North / October 2014
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

The first shocking moment in Christopher Rice’s latest supernatural thriller comes when you pick up the book itself. Weighing in at a mere 214 pages, The Vines is a surprisingly slim novel. Fortunately, good things often come in small packages. Despite its slender outer spine, The Vines packs a satisfying horror punch, proving the old adage that less is often more. While The Vines may be lean, its storytelling is mean.

Set in the author’s native New Orleans – a setting he’s revisited in several of his works – the novel opens on Spring House, a former plantation that’s the lavish backdrop to a birthday soirée for its current proprietress, an heiress named Caitlin Chaisson. Like all good ghost stories, the restored plantation house – built over the grounds of former slave quarters – drips with atmosphere and a strong sense of pre-Civil War era history.

When Caitlin catches her unfaithful husband with his hands in the proverbial cookie jar – here a shrewd gold-digger named Jane Percival – her ensuing anger and suicidal despair reawaken the vengeful spirit of an African American slave named Virginie Lacroix. Her cheating husband disappears; his mistress loses her mind, and Caitlin slips down the rabbit hole.

Nova Thomas, the antagonistic daughter of the plantation’s longtime groundskeeper, has long held her own suspicions about Spring House’s tainted history. Enlisting the help of Caitlin’s estranged friend, Blake Henderson – who carries his own complicated, emotional baggage over the loss of his high school sweetheart in a brutal, homophobic attack – Nova sets out to uncover the secrets of Spring House and the serpentine vines that serve as conduit for LaCroix’s revengeful, restless spirit. As she notes earlier, we’re "so busy looking for ghosts in the attic, we never think to look in the ground."

Tracing the plantation’s long and poisoned history, the pair slowly uncovers the truth about LaCroix, her ability to commune with and command the earth beneath her, and her dealings with Spring House’s onetime master, Felix Delachaise, whose betrayal of a promise made unleashed a wrath upon Spring House and now seemingly serves Caitlin (and later Blake) in retaliating against her enemies. Rice cleverly employs this idea of supernatural vigilantism as a device to differentiate the blurry line that exists between the concepts of vengeance and justice, which serves as the novel’s overarching theme.

Historical oppression – like the novel’s titular botanical appendages – has deep roots in the South and figures prominently into the story. Nova begrudges what she sees as her father’s codependent servitude to white people and resents the fact that he’s chosen to live and work on a sugarcane plantation built on the blood of slaves. In the hands of a lesser writer, the character has all the trappings of the “angry black female” stereotype, but Rice impressively explores the weightier themes of race relations and gender in a deceptively subtle layer of sociocultural subtext. Likewise, there are thematic nods to classism and privilege – none of which ever feel heavy-handed or forced – that lend some gravitas to an otherwise straight-forward horror story.  

As with last year’s The Heavens Rise, Rice puts his mastery of the thriller genre to excellent use in this second foray into speculative fiction. He structures the novel with the plot intricacies of earlier works like The Snow Garden and Light Before Day, seamlessly weaving in each character’s backstory and then intersecting them in effortless cohesion. With The Vines, he manages to pull off that same feat within a compressed narrative timeframe that lends to the lean, breakneck pacing and yet somehow never detracts from either character development or the heftier themes discussed earlier. He even manages a somewhat grandiose, overstuffed third act, complete with plantation-destroying plants, a sleazy roadside motel besieged by a swarm of killer bugs, and a melodramatic showdown between the past and the present.  

The Vines further establishes Christopher Rice as a master storyteller, one whose horror chops continue to take root and blossom.  

Purchase The Vines by Christopher Rice.

Posted on Wednesday, November 12, 2014 at 10:57AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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