The Deep South has inspired countless fantastical tales and Christopher Rice is adding to this tradition in his taut fantastical thriller “The Vines.” A former plantation is the setting for a story of betrayal, lust and revenge informed by the region’s rich history of old-fashioned traditions, intolerance and heated passion. Here we’re in the confident hands of an author that understands the sensory experience of such a specific location where there are the “familiar ticking sounds of a great house cooling in the late hours of a night in the Deep South.” The proprietress Miss Caitlin’s birthday party is spoiled when she discovers her husband in flagrante delicto with a conniving female member of staff. The result of her despair and anger over this sets off a chain of events which raise from the earth buried resentment and fury. The grounds of former slave quarters have been smoothed over to make the location suitable as a wedding venue and tourist site. Nova, the daughter of the estate’s gardener, is a feisty intelligent college student who is very aware of the plantation’s tainted history and the nefarious supernatural events that trouble those who inhabit it. When Caitlin’s estranged best friend Blake enters the scene he carries with him his own complicated history of loss due to a homophobic attack that separated him from the love of his life. Revelations cause all the characters understanding of the world to be upturned and “suddenly no one seems knowable, every promise the seed of betrayal.” The truth is rooted out as a paranormal force takes form. The true motivation behind this power and the crime committed against Blake’s boyfriend come as unexpected surprises that had me gripped throughout the many twists in the story.
The author paces his novel well to immerse the reader in the full experience of this creepy Southern landscape. Moreover he introduces a refreshingly complicated sense of morality and the real meaning of revenge in his story: “They are seeking their own twisted form of justice, and this fact leaves her with the despairing realization that all forms of justice are somehow twisted at their core.” This puts forward a concept that justice isn’t necessarily about administering what’s right, but subjectively addressing what’s most pressing for the prosecutors involved. The author overcomes the simplified concept of spirits or ghosts seeking to redress a balance for some wrongdoing by putting forward the challenging inverse notion that “It is not the living who are haunted by the dead – it is the dead who are haunted by the living.” Moreover, for the living, the crimes of the past don’t simply cause despair but haunt the mind in ways which impinge upon any true feelings of contentment. At one point a character realizes “That’s what guilt truly is… a fishhook’s tug on the third or fourth minute of every happy moment.” The dynamic tortured characters in this story add credence to the expressive forms of unwieldy vengeful emotions overflowing from the supernatural powers at play. It’s what makes this novel not only a riveting read, but one that is also heartfelt.
Christopher Rice’s new novel “The Vines” delivers fully in the suspense and charm that you want from a Southern gothic thriller. It combines the edgy fantasy of ‘True Blood’ with a cheeky Tennessee Williams’ wink. A clever, fast-paced, enjoyable read.