On an island that’s no more than a sandbar situated in the Gulf of Mexico stands a hotel with one bad rep. Over the years, the Jacaranda Hotel had been the epicenter of several gruesome deaths, starting with its original owners and eventually claiming both occupants and staff alike. The hotel’s skittish manager Sarah and long-term guest (and Irish nun) Sister Eileen are desperate for any help in stopping these grisly deaths.
The local authorities turn a blind eye. The former Republic (and now reluctant state) of Texas also ignores their repeated requests to send a Ranger to investigate. Padre Juan Miguel Quintero Rios, a former gunman turned man of God, however, receives Sister Eileen’s cry for help and makes his way to the Jacaranda.
Unsettling and creepy, Jacaranda, Cherie Priest’s latest novella in the Clockwork Century series, is a classic take upon a horror staple. This work is an outlier in her established universe of alt-hist steampunk zombie Civil War adventures, but fulfills its promise as a quick, chilling read.
Upon arrival, Rios views the grisly scenes of carnage from the hotel’s latest deaths with increasing unease. He can’t fully understand what compels its current population to remain as guests or staff. Nor can he discern what’s so unsettling about the hotel lobby’s mosaic floor, designed after its flowering namesake. On top of everything else, a hurricane is predicted to hit landfall within the day. He and the unfortunate residents of the murderous hotel also must figure out a way to prevent the whole building from being washed out to sea.
Thankfully, some extra help comes with the arrival of Texas Ranger Horatio Korman, best known from his previous roles in the novels Dreadnought and Ganymede. The storm arrives and everyone must brace themselves for the unspeakable horror they are locked in with — and the haunting secrets they keep inside themselves.
The premise is a bit worn, but Priest’s sure-handed execution hits all the right beats at the right moments. The level of dread increases as steadily as the novella’s approaching stormclouds. Plus, like all good horror stories, the true terror lies in the metaphysical questions the story poses about the human condition. In Jacaranda, the roots of a character’s condemnation spring from the seeds of everyday human foibles. Every character is an oath-breaker in one way or another. Although some of the promises broken appear to be more forgivable than others, all are doomed to suffer equally. It is this black-and-white punishment placed upon a gray area of misdemeanors that makes the evil in the book so disturbing.
The three mains also help carry the novella along. Rios is especially sympathetic man whose backstory comes straight out of a Quentin Tarantino film. Sister Eileen’s character feels a bit elusive, partly because in contrast to Rios, her background is never fully revealed. Korman fits into the story like a glove and his presence is certainly enjoyable for fans familiar with his character. The rest of the trapped guests are a motley assortment of supposedly ordinary people who prove to have nasty pasts. The most engaging of them all is Constance Fields, a caustic elderly matron whose feisty spirit lingers long after her death.
Jacaranda, perhaps, would have benefitted if it were completely separate from the Clockwork Century universe. Indeed, the events of this book happen a full fifteen or so years after their alt-hist Civil War ends, which further makes it feel like a different sort of book entirely. Substitute Korman for a new Ranger character, have another character’s twist changed up, and Jacaranda becomes an equally solid Weird West tale. Still, Clockwork Century fans looking for another opportunity to return to Priest’s well-loved universe will be satisfied. I think fresh readers of Priest as well as horror fans who are keen on haunted hotels would not find this amiss in their reading pile, either.
Jaracanda is available now from Subterranean Press.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker (or in other speculative lights, Diana M. Pho) works at Tor Books, runs the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana, pens academic things, and tweets. Oh wait, she has a tumblr too.