S. L. Edwards’ Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts: A Review by Justin A. Burnett

There is no true end to becoming. The future winks in the distance like a promise that the past whispered from the shadows. Bridging these ends is the present, an epiphenomenon resulting from the narrativization lent by consciousness to the messy business of being. Although depression might be characterized as the sense of letting the narrative strand go–the sudden dissolution of the past and future elevates the present horribly into naked meaninglessness–the narrative can’t truly disappear. The human enterprise is always teleological, and as such the story must go on. Undoubtedly, the strand may twist: turgid personal histories tug painfully against futures, limiting their range of potentiality; unhappy childhoods lubricate the atmosphere for fierce storms in later life; acts of extreme violence inject the circular causality of trauma into entire cultures, but the narrative never vanishes. More than anything, Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts is an account of narratives that feel broken but live on despite themselves.

Another way do articulate this might be to compare S. L. Edwards’ debut collection to The Shining. There’s a certain lack of artifice that inhabits Whiskey, a willingness to forgo the trappings and rhetorical nuances of the kind of writing that thinks of itself as “literary” in favor of a steady gaze towards life at its most repulsive. Stephen King famously opposed Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, which, in my opinion, appeared to obscure Jack Torrence’s struggle against alcohol under a distorted lens that prioritized mystification over character motivation. Kubrick’s tendency towards obscurity is actually a groping towards something similar to what Frederic Jameson calls “formal contradiction” in his discussion of Mahler, that unanswerable question that “secures the work’s position in history” (loc 1325). Kubrick, in other words, aspires to reach beyond King’s novel into the realm of high art. While much has been said online about King’s reaction to Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, one observation stands out as particularly relevant to Edwards’ work. While I can no longer remember or locate the source, the formulation went something like this: “while Kubrick approaches The Shining as an artist, King’s first concern is always man.”

In the context of this opposition, readers can expect much more of King than Kubrick in Edwards. That isn’t to say that Edwards wields the stripped stylistics of Brian Evenson or Cormac McCarthy, but that Edwards deploys every narrative device in utter deference to the human concern he wishes to explore. “I’ve Been Here a Very Long Time” isn’t about a monster in the closet; it’s about abuse and the hideous scar it leaves on a life. It’s about dreaming into existence a different life, that omnipotence childhood pretends to in its most painful moments; it’s about disappointment and reluctant acceptance, things that many of us have somehow lived through. It’s never truly about Edwards’ “simple premise” to which he admits in the author’s note following the story: “the monster in the closet loves you” (30). We can dismiss that with a chuckle, since the “monster” never seduced us–it slithered into the light to perform its mechanical duty and vanished, moving the plot to the next plateau of despair. The horror here is the impotence of the child amidst the violence of its parents. Edwards concern is always with the repulsively human rather than the supernatural.

There’s something deeply admirable in Edwards empathetic concerns, despite the fact that art can never be life (it arises from life, certainly, and nuances our life perspectives without a doubt–it is never, however, being in and of itself, and shouldn’t aspire to be). Nevertheless, the strongly human locus has led to brief moments of narrative weakness. The lower functions that devices of “horror” play throughout Whiskey do, at times, come with a price–the darkly supernatural Golden King in “Golden Girl” supports a depiction of the rather pedestrian anxiety of physical attraction. Here, without the backdrop of a historical or strongly-felt personal trauma, the narrative pressure is intensely focused on the supernatural aspect. Every writer has an Achilles’ Heel, and, in this collection, the supernatural isn’t Edwards’ strong suit. “Movie Magic” is a unique point in Whiskey that, lacking a deeply-felt human struggle, relies entirely on truly effective horror and spends a lot of time covering very little ground. What’s missing in these stories is what could be termed  “The Call of the Void.”

I would be tempted to advocate the use of l’appel du vide to represent the central attraction of weird fiction if the term weren’t associated now (rather indelicately) with mere “suicidal impulse.” I associate it with the strange magic of immense spaces, the soft conjurings that truly immense weirdness makes when we stumble across it. In this sense, weird fiction is characterized by the reader’s seduction by the otherworld, or, as in Ann and Jeff Vandameer state it in their introduction to The Weird, “the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane” (loc 211). Although this seduction does surface in Whiskey–slowly in “Cabras,” and fiercely in the beautiful “We Will Take Half,” a story that still fascinates me–readers shouldn’t go into Whiskey expecting pure weird fiction.

What readers would do better to expect is a solid debut that owes more to the author’s reading of humane authors like Tolstoy rather than the cold but brilliant Ligotti. While I’ve noted the places where Edwards’ focus extracts a fee, we should by no means consider his focus a weakness. Writing–particularly in the short story form–is always a matter of sacrifice, and often Edwards does so to strike a magnificent balance that forces the otherworldly to enhance the gritty concerns of life. I’ve already mentioned “Cabras” and “We Will Take Half,” two effective stories about war; “Volver Al Monte,” “When the Trees Sing,” and “The Case of Yuri Zaystev” neatly complete this category, and it should be noted that Edwards deeply empathetic perspective makes him admirably suited to engage in themes of universal import.

It takes a certain boldness in a writer to put war to paper; it’s a theme much larger than God, and that Edwards can successfully evoke it without cheapening it is an event worth celebration. In “When the Trees Sing,” a man comes back from Vietnam to infect a loving family with the destruction the war wrought on him. When supernatural voices call him sweetly to the void (l’appel du vide again, literally this time), one can still tie the narrative strand back to the primal trauma a continent away. Nothing is subtracted from the human horror in the manufacturing of the otherworldly; in fact, it heightens the weirdness of the war itself, locating both on a plane beyond the immediate, where they rightfully belong. Despite the terrors the soldier has committed, we feel his loss is fated by the blind mechanisms of violence rather than deserved.

The “stories of war” uniformly follow suit, combining the blind force of the supernatural almost allegorically with the senseless cruelty of war. The others are (with only a few exceptions), “stories of growing up.” Although war and maturation seem thematically distinct, Edwards’ strength is his ability to underscore the universal aspects of both. In lieu of the division between “war” and “maturation,” we could posit the “communal” and “individual”–nothing would be lost, and we could still note with astonishment that Edwards is at home in either affective realm.

In “Whiskey and Memory,” a father towers ferociously over a young man’s life. The young man, true to trauma’s circularity, learns to replicate the transgressions for future generations, creating a dark stain that descends through time with the persistence of an inheritance. A cursed bottle of whiskey is the supernatural mechanism here that revives the father in all his terrible majesty, allowing him to loom in the flesh as the bloody idol that suffering and memory built to withstand like a sphinx the ages. The father is like war in Whiskey; both swell monstrously with the individuals they swallow; both are beyond hope, and carry with them the chiming doom of the inevitable.

Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts admirably aspires to be one of those immortal debut collections of dark fiction, such as Michael Wehunt’s Greener Pastures and Nadia Bulkin’s She Said Destroy. Only time can tell if Edwards succeeds in this. What can be said is that Edwards’ efforts are well worth experiencing, so long as we appreciate the deeply empathetic soul of this collection. Given the current rift in political and socioeconomic perspectives, something should be said about fiction’s empathetic responsibility; no better case could be made for this collection than the stories themselves. Do not plan for escape. Prepare, instead, to engage.

Justin A. Burnett

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