Books

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

I think one of the best indicators that horror fiction is a growing force in literature is that we are continually finding new and exciting voices in our darkest of realms. New publishers pop up, new authors make waves—the circle of life (or death) continues indefinitely. One of these new voices is one S.L. Edwards, whose new collection Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts is out now with Gehenna & Hinnom Books. It’s a collection of quiet horror stories that range from the playfully classic to the political to the intensely intimate, linked by Edwards fine eye for drama and sympathy—for the world, its horrors, and the victims it creates. 

It’s hard being a new author because immediately everyone wants to strap your name to someone’s else’s wagon. We always want to know who writes like who and throughout Whiskey, I found myself comparing Edwards with Michael Wehunt, Nadia Bulkin, and Orrin Grey—three very different authors linked only by genre. The truth is, Edwards is a little like all of these, but more firmly rooted in reality-based horrors than any of them. In an interview with Gehenna & Hinnom, he says, “If I did my job right, the horror stories in Whiskey are more real than the events of the stories themselves. When the supernatural intervenes, it’s a catalyst, speeding up a fire that was already burning.” He is, of course, right on the money. The supernatural element in Whiskey lurks in the background, while regular humans and the regular shittiness that pervades their lives festers. This is what gives Edwards’ stories their lived-in human edge; they are as much about monsters as they are people. 

There is a range to these stories though, and it’s interesting to see how they work together toward a uniform whole, painting a multi-faceted portrait of the author as well. While I’ve always been a supporter of horror becoming weirder and more literary over the years, I always wonder how this new wave of horror will reconcile the genre’s past with these newer, quieter stories. Which is to say: social commentary and accurately depicted abuse cycles are fine and dandy, but what about the EC Comics’ grue? What about the flashlight-under-the-blanket? Grisly monsters and sardonic twists? I think Edwards realizes the richness of this mine, and the story “And the Woman Loved Her Cats” feels almost nostalgic in its form. In it, a cat named Behemoth asserts his dominance over a household, ending in a final shock straight out of a tattered Tales From the Crypt. Of course, Edwards handles all of this a lot more elegantly than his predecessors, but by including this sort of story in his collection, next to quieter pieces, it serves to bridge the gap between where the genre’s been and where it’s going. 

“Movie Magic” is another one of these that serve as a sort of meta-text on the dichotomy of spooky and cerebral horror, and it’s a clear standout in the collection, but it also represents a turning point in the collection, where I feel afterwards Edwards work gets both more personal and empathetic, as if he’s following his gut toward topics that interest him and then subsequently wrestling them into narratives. To be crass: the rest of the collection feels like a man working through some shit.

“We Will Take Half” is a fantastic story where the author’s interest in Latin American politics comes to light, a theme he returns to several times in the collection. Just as horror can feature large, diabolical felines and haunted films, it too can revolve around jungle guerillas and the atrocities of war. “The Case of Yuri Zaystev” continues the author’s preoccupations with human horror in one of my favorite stories of the collection. It largely features one character, and the snow and ice that surrounds him is almost a supernatural threat in itself, so vast and implacable that it upstages the icy, blinking cadavers. Algernon Blackwood is a clear influence here, but its Soviet-era setting grounds it in the real world, and because of this grounding in real-life injustice, the landscape and its supernatural conceits don’t feel like aggressors, but as humbling judges delivering cruel verdicts. 

“Whiskey and Memory” ends the collection with aplomb, bringing us from war-torn vistas to the more personal tragedies of alcoholism and abuse. The story is told in two parallel narratives, that of John the boy, and John the man. One—witnessing his parents’ relationship deteriorate before his eyes, and in the other—watching himself fall into the same cycle, and eventually succumb to far worse. Edwards draws his characters deftly in quick, purposeful strokes. His stories never run particularly long, but he manages to get a lot out of his economy of strokes. This is a horror story, sure, but its scariest scene stars the monster we know—a cowering boy trying to process a particularly nasty fight between his mother and father. It’s a coming of age moment, where Gods are found to be human, and so utterly, disappointingly flawed. 

Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts is a brief, punchy read—the kind that’s easy for me to get excited about. When getting to know a new someone, I find that old chestnut about brevity to hold true. S.L. Edwards efficiently lays out his passions and influences and allows the reader just enough that when the time comes, they are eager for more. 

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