Book Review: Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts by S. L. Edwards

“…there’s much to recommend here, and it certainly marks Edwards as a name to watch in future. He clearly has a fertile imagination and the chops to carry his visions through to completion.”

 

In the past, collections tended to be something an author wold release only once they had become something of an established name. It was relatively unusual for a writer to become known from short stories alone. Even now, it’s not really a viable path to a sustainable financial career. Yet due to the nature of the small press, it would seem to be a route many authors, in particular horror writers, take. From anthologies to single story releases—chapbooks, eBooks, etc.—the short form appears to be thriving. And rather than wait on a novel or three to gain a foothold, many writers are jumping straight to collections as their primary output. A short story collection can be a good introduction to a writer’s body of work. Even if there are stories that don’t quite work for the reader for whatever reasons, there will always be others that do. And the great thing is, no two readers will ever agree on which ones those stories are. Collections can also be a signpost for the potential of a writer, especially when it’s a debut collection, containing works from the early days of the writer’s writing life. Which brings us to Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts, the debut collection by S. L. Edwards. Published by Gehenna & Hinnom Books, there are twelve tales pulled from Edwards’ output so far. Accompanied by gorgeous black and white illustrations from Yves Tourigny—cover art and preceding each tale—it’s a rather lovely looking book.

We open with ‘Maggie was A Monster’, a short, sharp piece that follows a young girl from childhood to adulthood. Told in second person to a monster—‘you’—it’s a heartbreaking little story that moves like a bullet. Yet there’s room enough for emotion. It shows just how powerful the short form can be, especially when allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. ‘I’ve Been Here A Very Long Time’ could be a seen as a companion piece to the previous tale. A fair bit longer, this one also follows a child—a boy this time—from his youth onwards. A number of incidents when a child seem to indicate some kind of presence that looks out for him, but is too terrifying to behold. It’s another lovely work, ambiguous at times, with a dark undercurrent and also a seam of hope. ‘When the Trees Sing’ is told as if from a caller to a late-night radio show. A confessional, if you will. It concerns war, the true, horrific story of “Tiger Squad” in Vietnam, PTSD, and mental health. It’s also about ghosts, real and metaphorical, and a kind of harsh justice or judgement. Nicely atmospheric with a well-realised voice, though it doesn’t really deliver much in the way of surprises, robbing it of full impact.

Next up is ‘And the Woman Loved Her Cats’, a rather gothic slice of macabre horror. A fading matriarch is confined to her bed, and adopts cats almost as a mission. One big  one, Behemoth, rules the grand old house, and seems to orchestrate the others in attacks and nasty acts. There’s almost an undercurrent of absurd, black humour in this one—intentionally or not—and it reads like old school horror. A pastiche of Poe or Lovecraft, even King, but with a modern-ish sensibility. Enjoyable, even if the ending is a little bonkers. ‘Golden Girl’ melds the freaky weirdness of puppets with a young man’s love-cum-obsession. There are some really lovely moments in this, and some nice characterisation. The puppets and the slices of mythology are also very well-realised. It does feel a little unfocussed at times, and the ending is—to this reviewer—predictable, but it still oozes atmosphere. This is followed by ‘Movie Magic’, a take on the old “lost movies” trope. This one takes place in a cinema dedicated to the horror fan, both those who love horror and those who live horror, one which is decidedly strange and foreboding. Even if our protagonist isn’t aware, the reader is, and the story tries to balance between a sense of knowing and a measure of uncertainty, not always succeeding. It also ends on a rather ambiguous note, one which doesn’t feel earned but rather forced. A shame, because it’s otherwise a lovely love-letter to big-screen horror, and the oratory by an unseen speaker is quite affecting, almost Clive Barker-esque.

Moving on to ‘We Will Take Half’, this is the beginning of a batch of much longer tales. It reads like an historical recitation, albeit one with intimate personal detail of the main character. Taking in grief, child death, a pact with a supernatural entity, and the rise of the protagonist to the halls of government through military conquest, it packs in a lot. Yet it never feels overwhelming. Essentially a morality tale, a parable if you will, it shows an assured hand and a vivid imagination. ‘The Case of Yuri Zaystev’ recalls the frozen atmosphere of The Thing in a weird fiction about body disposal in freezing Siberia. Ghosts, madness, or something else entirely, it’s hugely atmospheric, yet also feels a little random, as though a scene from a larger work. ‘A Certain Shade’ is, unfortunately, one of the weakest stories in the collection. Though it has some nice ideas—an obsessive quest by an artist for the perfect shade in death—it feels like it needs more to tie it together, to give it some depth.

The next two stories clearly have thematic ties. ‘Cabras’ is about a retired revolutionary whose youngest daughter arrives back in their village attached to the newest leader of rebels. This all precipitates a series of tragic events. ‘Volver Al Monte’ is from the other side of this kind of war, the military “oppressor”. A general heads into the mountains to meet and talk with a band of resistance fighters. In reality, he is forced to confront his own past and guilt. Of the two, the latter is far more effective. The former has some nicely written scenes, but the supernatural element feels forced and arbitrary. ‘Volver’, however, is beautifully rendered, with perfect pacing and some lovely imagery. It’s also very affecting, tragic and epic. Finally, the collection officially ends with the “title” story, ‘Whiskey and Memory’. A man descends into what is clearly a kind of hell, confronted with his past and his wrong doings, but also with a tragic early life that helped mould him. Despite some interesting moments, it feels a little too obvious and unoriginal. It also misses digging into the potential emotional beats, the supporting characters little more than ciphers for the main fellow’s trials.

It says “officially ends” above because following the afterword, there is one more piece. It’s a very short vignette that, according to the author note, was a dream. It details the ending of the world when an unseen, impenetrable object places itself between us and the sun. The ensuing, relentless darkness causes those who remain on the planet to descend into barbarity and savagery. It’s a fantastic concept, and one that would make a fine novella or novel.

So, a mixed bag as most collections/anthologies tend to be. However, there’s much to recommend here, and it certainly marks Edwards as a name to watch in future. He clearly has a fertile imagination and the chops to carry his visions through to completion. The only other criticisms to be had is that there clearly needs to be a more rigorous editing regime. There are many moments within of awkward phrasing, mistyped words, and numerous typos beyond what might be reasonably expected. It’s a pity because it mars what is otherwise a professionally put together book. And presentation is part of the whole package. Nevertheless, there is a lot to recommend here and, as is always the case, other readers’ mileage may vary.

PAUL MICHAELS

 

Publisher: Gehenna & Hinnom Books
Paperback: 191 (pps)
Release Date: 15 July 2019

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