Plot Type: Ghostly Fantasy Set in 1920s
Ratings: Violence—3; Sensuality—1; Humor—2
Alice Dartle is a talented clairvoyant living among others who share her gifts in the community of Cassadaga, Florida. She too dreams of fire, knowing her nightmares are connected to the shell-shocked war veteran and widower. And she believes she can bring peace to him and his wife’s spirit.
But the inferno that threatens to consume Tomás and Alice was set ablaze centuries ago by someone whose hatred transcended death itself.
Priest sets her tale in central Florida during the month of January 1920, just a few years after World War I. Telling the story in the first-person voice in alternating chapters are the two lead characters: Alice Dartle, a newbie clairvoyant, and Tomás Cordero, an army veteran suffering from what we would now call PTSD.
Alice's chapters are set in the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, a real place that still exists. Alice has had a vision that she must come to Cassadaga to save a man who—in that vision—is surrounded by smoke and fire. According to the Camp's web site, it was founded by George P. Colby, who is a character in the novel. Click HERE to read the Wikipedia article on Cassadaga. Click HERE to read a brief biography of Colby.
Alice is 22 years old and has been having visions ever since she can remember. She inherited her "gift" from her mother's side of the family. In fact, two of her mother's female ancestors were burned as witches in a town near Salem during the infamous witch trials in colonial Massachusetts. Alice's mother refuses to acknowledge her gift—or curse, as she sees it—preferring to "hide behind the Bible and pretend it's just some old story we use to scare ourselves on Halloween." Her father knows the truth and supports Alice's decision to learn how to control her clairvoyant talents. To her mother's consternation, Alice has just turned down a marriage proposal because the young man criticized her for having too many books. "Mother said it was proof enough right there that I was crazy, if Id turn down a good-looking boy with a fortune and a fondness for a girl with some meat on her bones." Alice prefers to describe herself as "pretty, and...never hungry." Although one character calls her "curvaceous," back in the 1920s most people would probably have described her as being stout.
|Livens Flame Projector, World War I|
As the story begins, Alice is on a train traveling from her home in Virginia to Cassadaga, a destination that came to her in a vision. That vision, which she sets down in writing during the boring train ride, showed her a man having a nightmare filled with smoke and fire. "He followed the smoke eagerly, chasing it like a lifeline,...He clutched it with his whole soul and followed it into the darkness. He tracked it through halls ad corridors and trenches...like the kind men dug during the war. He didn't like the trenches....and that's where the dream tilted into nightmare territory...Whatever the man thought he was following, he did not expect it to lead him there." Alice is headed for Florida because she has had a "feeling" that she should go there—to Cassadaga in particular. After her dream about the man and the fire, she's sure that she will meet him there. Cassadaga has the reputation for being a center for spiritualism, so Alice hopes to find someone there (a witch?) who will teach her more about her powers of clairvoyance. She wonders, "Why do I see other people's dreams? How do I listen to ghosts? How do I use...cards to read such precise and peculiar futures? And pasts?" Alice is particularly keen on finding and helping the man who dreams of fire.
Meanwhile, in Ybor City, Tomás is the man dreaming of fire. In the past few days, small fires have flamed up inside and outside of his house, and he keeps smelling smoke and having fiery dreams. In the ashes of each fire, he sees the same soot-drawn profile of a woman. Tomás is convinced that these are silhouettes of his beloved wife, Evelyn, who must be trying to contact him from the afterlife. In fact, sometimes during the dreams he can hear her voice. As days pass, the fires become larger and more destructive, even taking the lives of people he cares about.
As the chapters alternate, Alice meets a woman who becomes her mentor, and Tomás deals with the anxiety-inducing after-effects of the fires. Tomás is beginning to believe that he is haunted—that he is going insane. One night, he hears a radio broadcast mentioning the spiritualists in Cassadaga, and because he has nowhere else to turn, he decides to seek help from them. Then, he finds a pamphlet from Cassadaga mentioning Alice, and as soon as he reads her name, he instantly knows that she will be his salvation. He writes a letter to her describing his situation and asking for her help. Then, days later when a fire decimates his shop and kills one of his partners, he gathers his possessions and heads for Cassadaga and Alice.
As Tomás and Alice narrate their trials and tribulations during the days of January 1920, details begin to emerge and patterns begin to form. Alice attends classes and does a spectacular reading in which she stands in front of an audience and invites spirits to use her to send messages to several of those in attendance. Unfortunately, one of the spirits she summons is a huge, smoky, fiery, man-shaped monster that threatens her and the entire Cassadaga spiritual community. At the same time, Tomás is trying to figure out what the fires and the nightmares mean. He is certain that they are messages from his dead wife, but he can't imagine why Evelyn is manifesting in such a dangerous and frightening manner.
Eventually—just over halfway through the book—Tomás finally arrives in Cassadaga and meets Alice, which signals the beginning of the lengthy build-up to the inevitable showdown that will resolve the conflict: spiritualists versus fire monster. Priest has dropped more than enough clues throughout the story for the reader to be pretty sure who/what the monster is, but the climactic stand-off is still quite dramatic and suspenseful.
Although the initial pace of the story-telling is slow and meandering (due in most part to the alternating voices), the action really picks up just before Tomás flees to Cassadaga. Priest hangs her story on the narrations of her two lead characters, and in Tomás she is entirely successful. Tomás is a sympathetic character: intelligent, well spoken, bereaved, and traumatized. He instantly gains our sympathy and support and his anguish is almost palpable as he yearns for a message from Evelyn but recoils from the dark and fiery episodes that occur around him more and more frequently.
I wish that I could say that Alice's character is as effectively drawn, but I can't. As I read Alice's chapters, I felt that Priest hadn't truly thought through who she wanted Alice to be. For the most part, Alice comes across as naive and younger than her years, but early in the book she reveals a thirst for good bourbon (which she swills down at an alarming rate). At first, I thought that Priest threw in the bourbon drinking just to underscore the fact that the story takes place during r, but Alice doesn't just have a drink or two at the local speakeasy (although she does do that, too). She carries several bottles of Maker's Mark in her luggage, and hits the bottle each and every night and sometimes during the day. Then, after 270 pages of profanity-free dialogue, Alice twice utters two different four-letter expletives—something that is both shocking and totally unexpected. I realize that this is the 1920s—the beginning of the rise of independence for women—but Priest never builds anything into Alice's backstory that would lend credence either to the hard drinking or the unexpected use of foul language. Such behavior would have been more believable if Alice had been out on her own for a few years, but she has always lived in her parent's home, where her mother was a strict, Methodist, church-going lady. Would her parents have allowed her heavy bourbon-drinking and her cursing? Doubtful, I think.
Priest pushes hard to establish her time frame, including many references to new technology, like electric lights and telephones in people's homes and businesses. Prohibition also gets an in-depth discussion. Actually, the main platform for this novel—the rise of spiritualism after World War I—is actually based on historical fact. People who lost family members and friends in the war or in the influenza pandemic were desperate for contact with their loved ones. Sometimes, the historical details slow down the pace, but in general they add depth and meaning to the story line.
I realize that this is a mixed review, but I do want to say that I am glad that I read the book. Tomás, in particular, is an unforgettable character who exemplifies the tragic effects that war has on the men (and now women) who serve on the front lines. Back then, the mental and emotional after-effects were brushed off, and the soldiers were expected to return to normalcy by the time they returned home. At least now we know better and are learning better ways of dealing with the long-term effects of battle stress.
FINAL NOTE: After you finish the book and learn the name of the villain, you can go to Wikipedia and read an article explaining the true historical facts about this person.