The third and final installment in the trilogy that began with Four and Twenty Blackbirds (2005) and continued with Wings to the Kingdom (2006) begins in 1973, when Louise and Leslie, the aunt and mother of the series' protagonist, Eden Moore, are trapped in the attic of an old armory during a storm that floods the Tennessee River. While they huddle under the roof and wait for the waters to recede so the police can find them, they hear a sound coming from the room below, the origin of which soon becomes horrifyingly clear.
Pound, pound, pound went the noise until it was louder than the rain had ever gotten, though less rhythmic.
'Oh shit, Lu. You know what they are.'
'They're hands, aren't they? Listen, do you hear them? Listen, Lu. They're hands. But they ain't alive anymore.' (p. 21, ARC)
Decades later, Eden herself is making plans to move out of her aunt and uncle's house and into a new apartment that's been built along the opposite bank of the Tennessee River. While Louise has been encouraging Eden to move out, she takes exception to the location, and won't tell Eden why. Eden's friend, Christ, has a theory that something lives in the river, and that it's responsible for the disappearance of several people. However, Christ is a less than reliable source, so Eden remains skeptical. She has plenty of her own experience to draw on when it comes to the supernatural, as detailed in the previous two books of the series, and in a neat bit of characterization, it has made her less willing to believe claims of supernaturally sinister events without a certain amount of proof.
One of the more interesting aspects of the trilogy as a whole is the way Priest plays with genre conventions, as in the case of Eden's skepticism. Another example is the way the afterlife works; Eden can communicate with the dead, but when people come to her to help them find missing loved ones, she explains how the afterlife seems to her to be similar to the world as a whole. It's a very large place, filled with a lot of people, which makes locating just one spirit difficult. Furthermore, unless a spirit has specific unfinished business, it's not hanging around where a psychic might reach it. Even if it does have unfinished business, it's not necessarily going to be willing to talk to a complete stranger, such as Eden.
Of course, people still want her to try, and it comes out in the narrative that there's another reason Eden is reluctant to do so. In Four and Twenty Blackbirds, she fought and killed her several-times great-grandfather, Avery, who was still alive due to what he called a "curse." When she killed him, he passed that "curse" on to her.
"Then, after a while, I noticed that I'd stopped getting sick. Ever. And the little nicks, bumps, and bruises that came with being alive began to vanish as soon as I'd acquired them. Some curse, I thought. My health insurance premiums would plummet.
But there was more to it than that, of course. There always is.
I've always had a tendency to 'see things,' as it was euphemistically described when I was a kid. You write it off to imagination when you're young. You let people call it something else because you don't want to stand out too much. But it is what it is, and it does not care what you want.
After Avery it was different. After Avery, I saw the dead in all their states—I saw the ones who hung on hard and kept their forms, and the weaker ones too. I saw the ghosts that sensitive people perceive as chilly spots in stairways." (p. 56)
Not only can Eden see the dead in all their states, but interaction with them has become more draining. While her wounds heal and she doesn't get sick, she does get exhausted from even simple contact, and she doesn't understand why. Avery himself is beyond her reach, apparently disinterested in hanging around to see how she handles his legacy, but she does have access to Avery's half-sister, Eliza. Eliza was holding onto her vitality thanks to an elixir Avery had been brewing for her, and she's been declining since his demise. Eden had sampled Eliza's elixir, which also seemed to make her sensitivity to the dead stronger, and thinks Eliza might have some information regarding Avery's curse and abilities. Eliza is not one of Eden's favorite people, nor Eden hers, but Eden is willing to take the chance that Eliza might not be willing or able to give her any useful information and pays her a visit. Eliza is lucid enough to confirm Eden's worst fears: "She goes closer to [the dead], they come closer to her." (p. 91) Eden's newfound immunity to physical damage, and her newfound vulnerability to spiritual disturbances, is the result of shifting closer to the realm of the dead, both by drinking Eliza's elixir and destroying Avery.
Despite Eden's concern and reluctance, however, she still has friends and acquaintances urging her to make use of her abilities. In Wings to the Kingdom, she first met reporter Nick Alders, with whom she has a rather prickly relationship. In Not Flesh Nor Feathers, Nick enlists her aid to attempt to talk to the ghost haunting a local hotel. Eden agrees partly out of personal curiosity; while the ghost has been around since before she was born, it's been particularly agitated of late, and for all her skepticism and reluctance, Eden still has a fascination with the supernatural and her ability to interact with it. The ghost turns out to be that of Caroline Read, scion of the family who originally owned the hotel. Eden uses a few techniques she picked up from Dana Marshall, a professional "ghost hunter" she met in Wings to the Kingdom, to try to determine what Caroline wants. Unfortunately, Caroline doesn't give her very coherent answers before growing agitated and attacking. It's at this point that the physical extent of Avery's curse is revealed. Caroline inflicts serious damage before Eden manages to get out the room she haunts, even managing to drive a long splinter of wood into Eden's stomach. However, the wound begins to heal immediately, and Eden has to do some fast talking to keep Nick from getting suspicious. It's this incident that drives Eden to pay her visit to Eliza, and learn what Avery passed on to her.
Family entanglements are significant plot elements in Not Flesh Nor Feathers, as they were in Four and Twenty Blackbirds. Along with handling her aunt's resistance to the idea of apartments on the Tennessee River, and talking to Eliza, Eden also has to deal with a visit from her mentally unstable half-brother, Malachi, who tried to kill her twice as a child. They're on better terms since Avery's death, an event in which they both had a hand, but Eden's still wary, and her aunt and uncle are unforgiving.
Two of Priest's strengths as a writer are the ability to create engaging characters and immersive landscapes. Those strengths are on display in this book. Where the previous two volumes in the series focused largely on events in Georgia and Florida, in Not Flesh Nor Feathers, the main storyline takes place in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Eden's hometown and a place in which Priest lived for many years. The city, its surroundings, history, and inhabitants, are all described in vivid detail throughout the course of the book, which lends the storms that come and the flooding of the river greater impact. Furthermore, Eden's past encounters with the dead have largely been ghosts, so the flooding of the river is a potent metaphor for her sense that she is out of her depth when the dead rising from the Tennessee River prove to be zombies. Not only are zombies a supernatural threat she's never met before, but she's also dealing with her ambivalent feelings toward her hometown, her family, and the loneliness her abilities bring. Dana Marshall has offered Eden a job with her team, investigating paranormal phenomena. Eden has turned it down thus far, but she still finds herself considering it, particularly as she deals with the events of Not Flesh Nor Feathers.
While this is the third book in a trilogy, Priest provides enough background information throughout its course that it's not necessary to have read the first two to enjoy this one. If, on the other hand, you've read the other two, there are no boring retreads or infodumps to slog through. Enough information is given to know what's going on and what has come before, but that information arises logically from the narrative, as Eden reflects on past events and makes comparisons in order to determine her course of action.
There's a lot of action for Eden to take. After she's attacked by the ghost of Caroline Read, she and Nick do research to learn of Caroline's life. They discover a link to an old hate crime, and from there a possible link to the disappearances and rumored deaths taking place down by the river. An incident of arson in the new apartments by the river makes Eden more determined to learn what's causing the dead of Chattanooga to stir. Everything comes to a head when Christ leaves Eden a voicemail message on the day Malachi's due to come into town for dinner. Christ says he's found the body of one of the missing in a tunnel near the river, and Eden fights to get to him on a day when the dams fail and the river floods downtown Chattanooga. She makes it into town, but can't get to Christ. Instead, she ends up following the ghost of another missing person into a long-abandoned building, where she finds an entrance to one of the tunnels used to move troops and equipment during the Civil War. As she wonders why the ghost would lead her to this particular spot, she begins to hear the sounds of something moving below the city.
I leaned my head and pressed my ear down low, and there it was. A scratching, or a scuffling. Something slow-moving, but too big to be a rat. Something distant, but not so far away that I couldn't detect the struggling pattern of feet in mud.
Yes, it was distant still. But there wasn't a doubt in my mind that it was coming closer. (p. 182)
The reader has enough information to suspect zombies, and Eden at least knows she's not dealing with ghosts this time. She's contacted Malachi and Harry, his caretaker, to urge them to leave the area if they can, and she contacts Nick to let him know she's in the city, and that she thinks whatever's in the river is finding its way out. Nick has been filming down by the flooding river, and he agrees. He has seen what's in the river, and when he and Eden meet up again, he has the proof she needs to know what they're dealing with.
Priest starts this book with an encounter with the walking dead, and from there moves quickly to Caroline Read attacking Eden. In less sure hands, this approach might kill any suspense or sense of building horror the story might contain, but Priest uses these events as a teaser, allowing both the reader and Eden time to react and consider what's coming. Even so, there's a sense throughout the book that what's coming cannot be turned aside. In Not Flesh Nor Feathers, the horror, like the dead themselves, is relentless.
It's also multi-layered. While Priest imbues her zombies with the dogged, murderous determination for which such creatures are so popular in horror and dark fantasy, she also gives them reason for their actions, victims of an horrific crime that continues to be covered up. Nor does she neglect the more mundane threats of severe storms and a flooded river, trapping the inhabitants of Chattanooga and shutting down the city. As Eden observes: "But any fool could see it was the river rising between us ... Any fool could tell that trouble was coming. I could smell it in the fear, in the confusion and desperation that made the throngs crowd forward towards the river—even as the river stretched itself up and out to meet them" (p. 162).
There are clear parallels to several natural disasters from the past few years. In the Author's Note at the end of the book, Priest writes, "... this book was sold and proposed before Hurricane Katrina ever happened—though much of it was written in that disaster's wake. It would be ridiculous for me to pretend that this is not a novel about a flood that overwhelms a southern city; and it would furthermore be ridiculous for the characters herein to pretend that their situation does not call to mind the hurricane and its aftermath ... But let me be clear: this fictional story is not about that real life story."
She's right, of course; while the flood and its effects are devastating, the central terror of this book is the zombies that come with the flood. Priest chooses to portray her zombies as mindless, soulless, driven only by a long-nursed hatred, and the chilling descriptions throughout the book show it's a frighteningly effective choice. These creatures are clearly dead, and clearly angry, and even Eden, accustomed to dealing with the dead, doesn't know how to approach them.
At the corner of the screen I saw a smaller figure too, about half the size of the man in shadow. Nick said there was a girl, too ...
God, at the last second when the face—when you could see the little girl's face—and you could see the anger there, and the rage, and the pure hatred ... it took my breath away." (p.251)
In the face of such rage, all Eden can think of at first is evacuating the city and destroying the zombies. She has her doubts that's even possible, however, and so considers how to reason with them, how to placate them, even as she works to help get other people out of Chattanooga.
While the entire trilogy is clearly influenced by both horror movies and Southern Gothics, Not Flesh Nor Feathers is particularly cinematic. The descriptions of the zombies are dramatic, as are the descriptions of the rising of the river and its impact. The action, too, is more in keeping with the tropes of horror movies, particularly the monster movie subgenre. Whereas Four and Twenty Blackbirds focused on Eden and her family, and the showdown took place in a small shack in Florida, with only herself, her brother, and Avery involved, and Wings to the Kingdom involved an urban legend centering on a Civil War battleground that had been turned into a national park, with a climax set at night in a heavy fog, Not Flesh Nor Feathers features the flooding of an entire city and a final battle that involves both explosives and a downtown hotel. While the venue is larger, Priest maintains tight control of events, so that the conclusion is neither gratuitous nor incoherent.
The ending of Not Flesh Nor Feathers shows Eden preparing to take a new direction in life, very different from the plans she made before the flood and its consequences. It's a good point at which to draw the trilogy to a close, and Priest leaves her conclusion bittersweet and untidy, in keeping with the atmosphere of the series. The reader is left to imagine what happens to Eden, and to the city of Chattanooga, but there are enough clues to suggest that both will get back on their feet. Since her determined stubbornness is part of Eden Moore's appeal, it's a satisfactory note on which to end.
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