Though presented as a novel in three parts, Dreadful Skin reads more like three novellas bundled together. Part of this is author Cherie Priest's choice of narrative structure: part one, "The Wreck of the Mary Byrd," is told in first-person points of view that rapidly alternate between several characters. Part two, "Halfway to Holiness," is told entirely in a tight third-person POV from the heroine's viewpoint. Part three, "Our Lady of the Wasteland and the Hallelujah Chorus," is told in modified epistolary form, letters and journal entries interspersed with dated first-person POV chunks that nevertheless don't quite read like the journal entries. Each choice suits its tale, but the overall effect is jarring for a reader expecting one narrative structure throughout the book. Really, though, this is a criticism of presentation rather than the work itself.
I believe the volume would have benefitted from being labelled a collection of three novellas rather than a single novel, but that didn't prevent me from enjoying them all and the interplay between them. Eileen Callaghan is an Irish ex-nun on the trail of Jack Gabert, an Englishman infected with lycanthropy on a trip to India. Jack flees to the United States shortly after the American Civil War, and Eileen follows him, her pursuit culminating in a small town in west Texas. Before that final showdown, however, Eileen comes across other werewolves, and those encounters also feature in the novellas that constitute this volume.
Each part of Dreadful Skin begins with a summary that sets the scene and gives an overview of the plot. The style of the summaries is very like the advertisements for penny dreadfuls that appeared during the period in which the book is set. The conceit works brilliantly, giving the reader a sense of what to expect not only from the plot but also from the prose and Priest's unique spin on several conventions of the horror genre. In the case of "The Wreck of the Mary Byrd," the summary reveals that almost none of those aboard the titular boat survive the course of the story. As a result, the multiple first-person viewpoints quickly take on the atmosphere of ghostly voices rising from the river, overlapping as they tell their sad tale. This effect, in conjunction with Priest's strong talent for establishing atmosphere and for vivid description, makes "The Wreck of the Mary Byrd" a harrowing and thrilling reading experience.
"Halfway to Holiness" is a satisfying follow-up. Eileen is still on the trail of the antagonist of "The Wreck of the Mary Byrd" several years later. While hunting him, she hears rumors of a travelling preacher that indicate he might also be a lycanthrope. Priest's description of her werewolves shows a great gift. They are primal and terrifying, yet still seductive in the way they represent nature unleashed.
In fact, the descriptions of the werewolves are often laced with descriptions of the landscapes in which they're encountered, so it can seem that one is a manifestation of the other. In "The Wreck of the Mary Byrd," the storm and the werewolf strike together:
Lightning showed me its eyes, and they were the color of new pennies. It was walking hunched over. Its feet made clicking noises on the deck, not like it was wearing shoes but like it was walking on claws. It definitely had teeth; I saw those teeth shining sharp as it breathed and chewed at the wet air. (p. 83; advance copy)
The werewolf in "Halfway to Holiness" attempts to subsume his affliction in religious fervor, determined to channel his animalistic urges into a manifestation of belief: "Gazing out beside the beast was a very human defiance—a very mortal resolve that stood beside the wolf and wrapped its fingers around the wolf's throat" (p. 127). Even so, he can't deny his nature entirely, and it comes out in the vast darkness of a desert night:
Inside [his] chest black things were bubbling and a growling thing was forcing its way out, up, into the desert. The afflicted man rolled onto his side, and using his misshapen hands to pull himself forward, he dragged himself head-first towards the rippling stream. (p. 135)
In "Our Lady of the Wasteland and the Hallelujah Chorus," the antagonist from "The Wreck of the Mary Byrd" returns, and the intervening years have only tied him more closely to nature, subsuming the human into the beast. When he joins forces with another werewolf, they become symbols of the devouring wilderness:
But both of them were transformed into monstrous things—beasts, covered with hair, and with faces that stretched to shape themselves like the snouts of dogs. . . . And these two men, now beasts, were frolicking together like puppies. They were tugging at something heavy between them. . . .
I could see, well enough, that it was a corpse they teased and picked apart. (p. 148)
Of course, Dreadful Skin's third part also more overtly raises the question of how much of the antagonist's monstrosity is the result of his becoming a werewolf and how much is a product of his pretransformation nature. It's an intriguing idea that Jack is a serial killer who uses his changeable skin as a weapon, and that he would have used another had this one not been available to him. It adds another level of horror to this tale and denies an easy separation of human and monster, or at least human and monstrous.
This idea has an old pedigree. Despite the English origins of the main antagonist, the Irish origins of the protagonist, and the Southwestern United States setting of the second and third parts of the book, there is nonetheless a dark, rich, and fevered atmosphere to Dreadful Skin that feels quintessentially Southern Gothic. Given that this subgenre can trace its roots so clearly to the Gothic novel, which gained such popularity in the nineteeth century, it's only to the book's credit that it evokes such a connection, despite the absence of old mansions and steely matriarchs with complicated, deadly families. Eileen is no matriarch, but she is steely, and it might be argued that she and her various prey make a kind of strange and monstrous family, destructive to those who cross its path. Furthermore, the Southern Gothic novel, like its antecedent the Gothic novel, deals with the questions of human darkness and monstrosity that lie at the heart of Dreadful Skin.
Along with this, Priest also does some interesting things with historical attitudes regarding the connections between women, nature, and animals, showing the contrast between popular perception and the reality of the events of her tale. Both Eileen and the other major female character of the book, Melissa, are treated as more fragile than they prove themselves to be. In fact, one of the most interesting and engaging aspects of Dreadful Skin is the protagonist. Eileen is a petite woman as well as a former nun, and those around her, particularly the men, react to these characteristics with protective and self-censoring behavior. However, Eileen is a monster hunter on top of being small and female, and the combination of these traits makes for a rare character type even in this post-Buffy, post-Anita Blake age. That she is a former nun makes her even more unusual than those creations. Nor does she ever formally renounce her vows, nor have a sexual relationship with any of the male antagonists. Nor indeed with anybody.
This is not to say that Priest completely abandons the metaphor of supernatural power as stand-in for strong sexual urges, but she wields the connection carefully, never allowing that reading to overwhelm the possibility of others, nor such imagery to take over the story. It can in fact be argued that the lack of any overt consummation is what allows the tension between Eileen and her own nature and between her and her prey to rise, up to the last, climactic scene. Priest even adds a foil to Eileen and to her relationship with those she hunts: Melissa, whose perspective on events in "Our Lady of the Wasteland and the Hallelujah Chorus" shifts the connections between women, nature, and beasts, and the supernatural and the sexual yet again. Jack takes an interest in her, and her reactions to his conversations with her aren't those of a woman enamoured of werewolves and their connection to the natural world.
"Would you like that? To be the queen of our kind? Our mother and wife, empress. Maybe that's the way it's meant to be, after all. One woman. One muse, one divine feminine. Isn't that the way the church already tells it? One woman in a story at a time. It seems to be all the public can bear." . . .
I was afraid, for a moment, that I'd invited some new assault or injustice with my protests, but his attention had left me and he followed it close behind—out the flap and into the early night. I sighed with relief and remained on the cot, too tired and miserable to move. Who would wish for such royalty? Who would ask to be queen of all she surveyed, if this was all she could see? (p. 178-79)
Melissa's experience of the sexual aspect of the book's werewolves is one of destruction and savagery, an aspect that Eileen herself seems instinctively to understand but never consciously considers. With the addition of Melissa's insights, the stakes of Eileen's mission are raised, and the book remains an intense reading experience from beginning to end, aided by the reader feeling Eileen's drive, her enemies' frenzy.
Dreadful Skin's design is carefully crafted to evoke the penny dreadfuls and melodramas so popular in the nineteenth century, another way in which the connection with Gothic novels is made. But while the prose rushes forward with a kind of breathlessness well suited to the promise of the summaries, there's restraint in the levels beneath the plot. Priest is tackling classic genre questions that feature prominently in such nineteenth-century speculative works as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus and Bram Stoker's Dracula: What separates humans from monsters? How well can we control our beastly instincts? Like her genre forebears, Priest doesn't offer any easy answers, and her work is all the more memorable as a result.
J.C. Runolfson has previously reviewed Oracles: A Pilgrimage, by Catherynne M. Valente, and The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold, by Francesca Lia Block. She is a speculative poet and short-story writer whose work has appeared in Lone Star Stories, Goblin Fruit, and Reflection's Edge, among others. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.