Signal Horizon

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{Book Review} In the Devil’s Cradle by S.L. Edwards

We’ve come to know S.L. Edwards as a short fiction writer who uses genre to dissect our world. His collections Whiskey and Other Ghosts and The Death of an Author both played in the sandbox of genre, set against real-world power structures and geopolitics—exploring them from a ground-level, feet-on-the-street perspective . Edwards is a student (and teacher) of Latin American studies, and this passion runs deep throughout his work. In his stories, you’ll find struggle depicted with a keen, empathetic eye for those affected by great upheavals. 

In the Devil’s Cradle is his debut novel, where he enters the pantheon of Word Horde-certified greats like John Langan and Nicole Cushing. Similar to his short fiction, Edwards plays to his strengths. Here, we have the fictional nation of Antioch, a stand-in for a great number of nations who have struggled in the wake of political tug-of-wars. In the Devil’s Cradle focuses on a socialist senator and his family as they move to the politically opposed rural town of Rio Rojo. There is a culture clash here. The children are trained with rifles; they relish the chance to execute communists. Specters wander the woods. And as the country hurtles toward a violent coup, ancient evil and human politics drag the senator’s family into a chaotic present. 

The bones of this story are unearthed from several horror traditions. Edwards often uses classic tropes to tell his stories, which in my mind, gives credence to the idea of horror, the genre, as a language beyond anything else. There are many ways to tell the story of a nation in crisis, but Edwards uses the vocabulary of ghost stories, folk horror, and gothic fiction to craft something sinister and acutely recognizable. As he notes in his afterword, there is a notion among readers, that when they read of political instability, that it is always not here. As if, where we sleep is perpetually, and inexorably safe. But where they—the other—sleep is not. By using the language of horror, using its ghost children, old family secrets, blood pacts, back-to-the-country springboard, Edwards paints a situation we want to keep at arm’s length, with a language we know so well it might as well be in our DNA. By the end of In the Devil’s Cradle, there is an immediacy to the instability that makes it not there, but anywhere. To borrow an old cliche, it places Antioch’s coup squarely in our own backyard. 

Edwards prose oscillates between clarity and wounded desperation. If I were to typify his voice and articulate what he brings to the genre, it’s a sort of open-hearted plaintiveness. He wants you to feel, he wants you to see, he wants you to succumb to the powerlessness, just as much as he wants to believe that there’s still hope swimming in spilled blood. While I could see some readers finding this earnestness cloying, I personally found it refreshing and well-balanced. Edwards, on a storytelling level, writes interesting scenes built on interesting interactions. The conflict at the heart of the story leads to territory worth exploring, and Edwards explores it with an eye toward propulsion. It goes to say that although this novel covers big themes, it also does so in a short amount of time. In this way, it reminded me of Michael McDowell’s Blackwater books—which weave in and out of history, spanning decades in a single breath, before zooming in on a character’s present. 

This approach does uncover some flaws though. In the Devil’s Cradle has more characters, in my opinion, than its length can sustain. There were times when I struggled to keep track of the senator’s family, along with the townsfolk of Rio Rojo (and the off screen characters who are treated just as intimately). As a lean book, this much character work comes off as too much of a good thing in parts. And while it is a small nitpick, I could see a more concise version of this book with a smaller central cast—or a much longer book, where the mystery and cast is free to languish, discover, and let tension build in an agonizing crawl. 

But that’s not the book In the Devil’s Cradle is. In some ways, its rough edges serve to strengthen its central chaos. This is a book where too much is happening to too many people at the same time, and yet, it’s still not necessarily hard to follow. It’s just a lot. But by the end, when the blood has been shed, Edwards does make us feel. In the Devil’s Cradle is a story of the people that make nations, the ghosts of the past, and how history is written by the victor. Because of this, it’s also a story of terror, hopelessness, and defiant optimism—a fitting ode to the people left mourning in the wake of history.