Tale of a Blackbird
Cherie Priest's Four and Twenty Blackbirds scared the crap out of me, in that figurative, huddled-under-the-covers, paranoid way. By page 12, I was peering around the book’s gorgeous John Jude Palecar cover illustration looking for ghosts. By the second chapter, I was hooked on the story of young Eden Moore and the haints who surround her.
Blackbirds is a tight, deft first novel that re-spins the old tropes of Southern Gothic. Creepy abandoned asylum? Check. Malevolent spirits? Check. Family secrets? Check. Humidity? Bitter old ladies? Check and check.
Normally, no, I’m not a huge horror reader. I like my fiction full of bug-eyed monsters and chicks in metal underpants and men with quick minds and nimble fingers. But Priest’s work isn’t really straight-up horror. Instead, it starts to nibble around the edges of interstitiality, where it’s easier to define what it isn’t than what it is.
Perhaps the best-known interstitial author would be Gabriel Garcia Marquez. While his works have quite a few of the trappings of genre fantasy, you’d be hard pressed to slap that label on them. Instead, we call his writing magical realism, which seems like a convenient label to bridge both genres. But “magical realism” seems like simply another way to describe “interstitial.” Or, if this description pleases you more, Cherie Priest also writes magical realism -- but about Southern Appalachia rather than Latin America.
If that argument doesn’t work for you, just look at the imprint on Blackbirds’ spine. Priest is now published by Tor, the house best known for speculative fiction.
Blackbirds’ journey to print might be more interesting than debates about where it should be shelved. Priest -- like John Scalzi or Cory Doctorow -- approached her first publication from the heart of blogland. In her first online journal -- Four&Twenty -- Priest published a serialized version of what would become Blackbirds. From there, the book’s further travels get a little complicated -- but serve as a nice cautionary (and, at the end, encouraging) tale for would-be novelists.
Marietta Publishing, a wee business in Georgia, and Priest contracted to publish a version of Blackbirds in 2003. Due to disputes over royalties and sales figures, this edition of Blackbirds was pulled from the shelves. Rather than let this book disappear, Warren Ellis (yes, that Warren Ellis) pointed to this imbroglio in his blog and sales of the Marietta Blackbirds took off.
To this day, however, it remains unclear if Priest has ever received royalties on this edition. Regardless, the happy bit of the tale is that Priest’s work became known to the Tor folk, who snatched her up and signed her to a multi-book deal, with a rewrite of Blackbirds being the first title published. (Incidentally, Priest’s next book, Dreadful Skin, will be released in a limited edition by Subterranean Press. Her next two Tor non-Eden Moore novels will be released in 2008 and 2009.)
By all accounts, Blackbirds has benefited from all of the drama. Priest’s tale of a young girl, a southern city and some secrets is taunt, terrifying and completely satisfying. The time the writer has had to relentlessly rework the text has done nothing but improve it. Also, the addition of editor Liz Gorinsky’s sure hand proved a boon.
Would that were also true of the second book in what is (most likely) a three-book series. Wings to the Kingdom feels like the pudgy brother to Blackbirds’ lean and youthful prose. Priest’s voice, which is honed and sharp in her first book, still retains its sass in Wings but the story itself lets her down. Eden, the heroine in Blackbirds, returns, which is a good thing. This time, however, she really has nothing at stake. Wings lacks that breathless sense of impending personal doom and replaces it with a mere nebulous unease. Despite a few creepy moments, Wings doesn’t come anywhere close to the delightful goosebumps of the first book.
The fate of the third installment, titled Not Flesh Nor Feathers, remains to be seen because it won’t hit the shelves until late 2007. And, yes, I’ll buy it, simply based on how wonderfully written Blackbirds is. But my hope is that the time between books two and three has been used to whittle Feathers’ prose down to its meaty essence, so that the bits that scare the crap out of you have all of the impact they deserve.