Book Review: Last Case at a Baggage Auction by Eric J. Guignard

“Add brilliant pacing to the intriguing premise and great characters and Guignard has given us an all-around fantastic and fun tale.”

 

Last Case at a Baggage Auction by Eric J. Guignard -coverAs an author and editor, Eric J. Guignard has been nominated six times for a Bram Stoker Award, winning twice; Best Anthology for After Death … (Dark Moon Books, 2013) and Best Fiction Collection for That Which Grows Wild (Cemetery Dance Publications, 2018). He has over one hundred short story and non-fiction credits to his name and under his own imprint, Dark Moon Books, he has edited numerous anthologies including his first, Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations (2012), and his most recent, Pop the Clutch: Thrilling Tales of Rockabilly, Monsters, and Hot Rod Horror (2019). Through Dark Moon Books, Guignard has also released the series, Exploring Dark Short Fiction, where he introduces readers to “primers exploring modern masters of literary dark short fiction” such as Steve Rasnic Tem, Kaaron Warren and Nisi Shawl.

The idea of an unsuspecting character discovering a mysterious object with otherworldly properties in fiction isn’t a new one. What separates the good stories from the not-so-good when using this device is the way in which it is used, and how the author presents the story. Told using flat characters and a stale backstory, it isn’t going to make for an exciting tale and won’t keep the reader’s attention. Thankfully, Guignard’s book begins with an interesting premise and a captivating protagonist that draw the reader in. It is the summer of 1963 in Detroit, and Charlie Stewart is happy with his lot in life. He writes freelance non-fiction for magazines, but his main passion is attending baggage auctions with friend Joey Thurston, looking for a good deal on some hidden treasure, something he can buy for a buck and sell for a hundred. He lives alone—in an apartment filled with “treasure” he hasn’t been able to move on yet—but he is in a long-term relationship with Gail. Life is far from perfect, but it is comfortable, just the way Charlie likes it. Until Joey wins a strange suitcase at the very end of an auction.

The concept of a baggage auction is both unusual and completely reasonable at the same time. Unless you work in an environment that deals with a great volume of lost luggage or abandoned items you may not be familiar with the idea. But, of course, it makes complete sense. A guest at a hotel or a passenger passing through a bus station forget their suitcase and fail to collect it. What are the staff to do with it? Allow strangers to bid on it, of course. They make a couple of bucks, maybe the highest bidder gets lucky, too. Unless, as in Joey’s case, they actually win something most sinister. When Joey opens the suitcase he won, he comes across an antique gramophone and a collection of unlabelled, seemingly homemade records. On them are voices chanting in an unfamiliar language, and the effects are mesmeric and disturbing. Charlie makes plans to discover the nature of the macabre records, but Joey, caught by the compulsive need to keep listening, soon falls under its spell. As Charlie endeavours to solve the mystery, the pull of the never-ending chanting grows, affecting more and more people, until our protagonist is not only fighting to save his best friend from the devilish phantom behind the records, but their neighbours and who-knows who else.

As unassuming as any everyman in fiction, Charlie is immediately likeable and relatable. He is no gung-ho action hero, no tough guy or noirish private eye. He is just trying to make an honest buck—even if it is through trading or betting on horses—and keep his girl happy, while maintaining his own identity. The word “buck” keeps popping up in this review; probably because Guignard has imbued his characters with the parlance of the time, something which only adds to the authentic voice of the story (and seemingly infected our minds while reading). It is quite infectious, and is reminiscent of the gangster movies of the 40s and 50s, creating a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. As we follow Charlie on his investigation, and while the enchanted recordings continue to infect more victims, the story gathers pace and the excitement rises as the shocking truth is steadily revealed. It is not a very long story, but it is well-paced and a great deal of fun.

Clearly, whether he is editing an anthology or creating his own stories, Guignard is a talented writer. The multiple award nominations in such a short timeframe are evidence of this fact. As is this story itself. He takes an interesting premise and gives it an extra twist with the addition of the baggage auction angle. With the story told in first-person from the point of view of the relatable Charlie, we experience the story first-hand, and see the strengths and flaws of his character and how it affects the story. Girlfriend Gail eventually plays a more prominent role than initially thought, proving she is more than capable of playing an active role in Charlie’s race against time. Add brilliant pacing to the intriguing premise and great characters and Guignard has given us an all-around fantastic and fun tale.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Harper Day Books
eBook: 126 (pps.)
Release Date: 3 August 2020

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