Cherie Priest has earned a reputation as the queen of steampunk thanks to her Clockwork Century series, starting with the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated Boneshaker. I have to say, though, while I enjoyed the Clockwork Century stuff I’ve read, I felt it didn’t quite live up to the nerdgasm you’d expect from throwing zombies, steampunk, and the American Civil War into a blender. Still, it was well-written and entertaining enough that I’d give Priest another go.
Those Who Went Remain There Still—damn, now that’s a fine title for a horror novel, poetic and evocative. What can I say, I’m fickle enough to base my reading choices on cover and title alone. Priest wrote several short horror novels right before Boneshaker catapulted her into stardom, of which this is one. Publisher Subterranean Press first printed it as a limited-edition hardcover with chapbook, per their standard, but have since released an ebook copy that falls into my impulse-buy price range.
1775. The wilderness of central Kentucky. Daniel Boone leads a party of lumberjacks and woodsmen to build the Wilderness Road, cut through ancient forests and over the Appalachians. He’d already passed the Cumberland Gap and was nearing the Kentucky River when the thing first appeared. It started by stealing food and despoiling the rest. Then the flying aberration began to harry them, picking off Boone’s men one by one, stalking them as they huddled around a campfire. Hardy frontiersman all, they continue forward towards the River, each night driving the thing back into the dark forest from whence it came. With the aid of a strong young man named Heaster Wharton, Boone and the survivors make a last stand against the beast…
1899. Leitchfield, Kentucky. Heaster Wharton Junior is dead, and his death may bring an end to the feuding between the Coys and the Manders, two local families who’ve been warring ever since their clans took different sides during the American Civil War. Heaster’s land is to be split between the two groups, finally giving each side enough room to grow and prosper. Those who have left Litchfield and its feud are called back; Meshack Coy leaves the growing family and homestead he’s built in Iowa, while John Coy leaves the utopian settlement of psychics he’s helped to establish in upstate New York. But Heaster Wharton has one final task before the inheritance can be doled out: six elders, three from each family, must venture into a cave called the Witch’s Pit to reclaim Wharton’s will and final testament. For Heaster Junior heard the tales his father told of the horrific beast, and even in death he will force the feuding clans to stand together and fight as family—or die cold and alone in the Witch’s Pit.
Priest crafts a winner right out of the gate. Her prose is fluid with a rustic Americana charm, simple prose that draws you in to the well-plotted and rather fast-paced story. (This is a 175-page short novel, so it’s a neat trick not to make those fast-paced.) The two main characters, Meshack and John, are well-defined and have distinct voices and personalities; Meshack a little more folksy, and John older, wiser, and more eloquent. Each short chapter alternates between these two and Daniel Boone; all three are deft characterizations and vivid characters, some of the best character work in the genre. The setting shares the same amount of depth and detail as the characters, evoking the history of Boone and the Hatfield-McCoy feud and the divisiveness of the Civil War.
The Boone segments are rich in atmosphere, a small group of twenty-some pioneers huddling together against some undefined flying monster lurking out in the woods. The monster itself is not well-described, which works much in its favor; it is the unknown, and thus we fear it without having to know or see it. The reason for its pursuit is left open; it could be hungry, or protecting its nest, or just plain ill-tempered. We do know it’s dangerous, a fact reinforced when it coughs up a monstrous owl pellet of hair and bone and gristle. The 1899 sections of Meshack, John, and the others investigating the haunted mine dispense with subtlety in favor of supernatural onslaught. The atmosphere is still thick, but there’s less need of the fine-crafted dread and suspense—the Boone sections illuminate the horror, the Coy sections send said horrors out to terrorize the protagonists.
Priest weaves a tapestry of early-American folklore and Southern Gothic horror that’s bound to impress—if you want to start with Cherie Priest, get started with this one. The characterization is superb, the atmosphere is palpable, and the plotting top-notch. I’m also very much a fan of the setting—the kind of “rustic Americana” horror that Manly Wade Wellman did so well with his Silver John stories, to name one example. I can’t even complain that the story is too short, since it’s exactly the right length—I just wish there was more like it. Priest wrote several other short horror novels, and I have a couple of them, so I may investigate further and see if they are as well-crafted as this one. It’s also very affordable—for those who took the plunge and have an e-reader or tablet, Subterranean Press prices it at $2.99.