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Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts Paperback – July 14, 2019
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"In these perfectly constructed, intimately detailed, and emotionally charged tales, Edwards isolates the silent horrors underscoring our lives and woven into our closest relationships, urging them to take psychological and physical form. In the cold hours before dawn his creatures rise, arch their backs, and begin the search for sustenance, feeding off of childhood fears and lifelong grievances. Hidden in memories, abandoned rooms, and forgotten trails, adorned with the fantasies we invent to conceal their nature, our monsters merely postpone the moment of revelation until we're far too vulnerable to escape." -- S.P. Miskowski, author of The Worst Is Yet to Come
"Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts by S. L. Edwards is a startling debut collection whose author has unflinching insight into the political and the personal, into the human and the inhuman alike. A true standout among the new voices in modern Horror. Fans of Nadia Bulkin will find a lot to love here." -- Matthew M. Bartlett, author of Gateways to Abomination
"S.L. Edwards is a natural storyteller, with a keen command of voice, a delightfully twisted imagination and a wily, prodigious intellect. Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts lives up to its inventive title with tales of hauntings that are chilling, funny, moving and--quite often--all three at once. I loved this collection." -- Jon Padgett, author of The Secret of Ventriloquism
"SL Edwards' debut collection is a bonafide marvel. This criminally talented Son of Texas has crafted something incredibly special here, flavored with a singular and deeply affecting voice. Edwards deftly moves from weird fiction, scrawling his lore in the blood of historical horrors, dipping his fangs into unnerving psychodrama with a deftness so sly and slick it's hard to believe this is his first collection of terrors. Wonderful and wily and essential." -- Mer Whinery, author of Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun
"Armed with a taut understanding of power and the damage that power can do, Sam's stories are conscientious, unsparing, and a reflection of the world we've broken. A writer with a vision to watch." -- Nadia Bulkin, author of She Said Destroy
"S.L. Edwards has crafted something truly special with Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts. Phantoms and monsters haunt these pages, but so do far greater demons: loneliness, addiction, lost love. In these stories, there's pain, there's beauty, and beyond it all, there's a profound humanity that will by turns unsettle you as well as break your heart. A sublime debut, and one that should jump to the top of your reading list immediately." -- Gwendolyn Kiste, author of The Rust Maidens and Pretty Marys All in a Row
"Sam L. Edwards' prose is as sharp as it is haunting. Combining horror, pulp, noir, fantasy, and war drama, this debut collection displays a craft of narrative and a depth of emotional resonance that's exceedingly impressive. Not to be missed." -- Sean M. Thompson, author of The D3mon and Farmington Correction
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I hate when reviewers do spoilers, so I shan't. And there will be no talk of condiments. Buy it. Read it neat.
And it maybe didn’t hurt at all that the title implied I’d get at least one story about whiskey and ghosts, and hoo damn, did that one ever deliver! In fact, there were a fair number of stories out of the thirteen collected here that I found quite impressive, with more of them hitting the mark for me than not. Edwards’s is a mighty fine writer, and one thing that struck me in pretty quick order was that he good and truly knows how to craft an opening sentence that immediately hooks you and reels you in. Take, for instance, the opener of “Movie Magic” : “The Haunted Palace Cinema was plagued with premature ghosts.” There’s a great play on words here, and conceptually it left me wanting to know more about these premature ghosts. At only nine words, there’s a lot of story-telling potential here and it sucked me right in. “We Will Take Half” begins with “Miguel held the sad, pale remains of his second child in his hands.” That’s a massive kick in the teeth to start a story with — where does it go from there? What happened to his children? How does it relate to the title? I won’t tell you, but I will say that Edwards knows how to make a massive meteor-sized impact when he lands, and he knows the power an effective short story can have and how to hit you in the right places. His opening lines are incredible, and he doesn’t waste your time in any of the pages that follow.
While there weren’t any stories here that I actively disliked, I did certainly have some favorites, as is to be expected of virtually any collection or anthology. “I’ve Been Here A Very Long Time” is a simple riff on a young boy’s monster in his closet, only the monster actively loves the boy and seeks to fulfill his wishes. Edwards leans hard into the laws of unintended consequences and it gets emotionally brutal along the way. The idea is certainly charming and simple enough, but it’s also incredibly morose, tapping into those universal desires of wishing you could have it all and always wanting things to be better, and yet no matter what you do, realizing that it could always be better still.
Depression is a prominent theme of this collection, particularly in stories like “When the Trees Sing,” about a soldier who had taken part in a Mai Lai-like massacre and who has left his pregnant wife. Although depression and PTSD are significant factors fueling the decisions made here, Edwards is very careful not to blame mental illness for the horrors occurring here. In “And the Woman Loved Her Cats,” an ailing widow begins to take in cats to help her recover from the grief of losing her husband. Nothing can prepare her for the too-aptly named Behemoth, a feline that takes the concept of being an alpha of the pack to the next level. This story was an easy favorite and is one of the true standouts of the collection. “A Certain Shade,” too, is a terrific examination of addiction, its cost, and making deals with the devil.
Much of the horror elements in these stories are subdued and subtle, rather than in your face. Edwards manages to craft some grisly imagery now and then, but he prefers the road less traveled and keeps the horrors on the down-low more often than not. Such is the case with “Cabras,” a wonderfully crafted story told from the perspective of an old revolutionary fighter who had his tongue excised by the next generation of revolutionaries. The supernatural elements are light but highly, highly effective. “Whiskey and Memory” closes out the collection in grand fashion, tackling alcoholism and the ruin liquor can bring to addicts, particularly when coupled with a history of abuse at the hands of an angry, alcoholic father.
Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts is a hell of a debut collection, and Edwards writes like a seasoned pro. He has a wonderful insight into the human condition and couples that with engaging, real-world horrors, in addition to more spectral encounters, that make for some truly haunting stories.
Spirits haunt us. It’s what they do, whether they’re the kind that come from beyond the grave, or from a brown paper bag with a liquor store logo on the side. S. L. Edward’s debut collection, Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts, is well-named, because just like a whisper from the dark or an all-too-familiar dryness in your throat, this book haunts. We’re not just talking about leave-a-nightlight-on heebie-jeebies here, but real haunting, the kind that comes from memories you can’t lose, heartaches you can’t mend, and secrets you can’t share. It is a haunting that comes from intimacy.
Though few of Whiskey’s 12 stories are told from the first-person point of view, every one of them feels like a confession. That tone is set right from opener, “Maggie Was a Monster,” which is actually told in second-person POV, making the reader a participant in the narrative. Hard to get more intimate than that. Said narrative is oblique, somewhat hard to describe, more so than many of the stories that follow; it concerns a pair of siblings—although either or even both of them might not be entirely “real,” at least not in the traditional sense—playing a game. One is chosen to be the “monster” and the other its victim. What exactly happens from there is open to interpretation (indeed, one view could arguably make the story’s own title a spoiler), but overall the piece deals with themes of growing up, of family dysfunction, of innocence lost. Similar themes and images reoccur in “I’ve Been Here a Very Long Time,” a more straightforward tale about a boy who discovers something living in his closet, something that refuses to be seen but yearns to make the boy’s every wish come true, whether it be his childhood prayer for parents that don’t fight or his adolescent desire for the girl he loves to loves him back. Even still, happiness proves elusive, and what “happiness” is in the first place eventually finds itself under interrogation.
None of these themes may be especially fresh (there’s nothing new under the sun, after all), but they are still themes which every person—and every author—must grapple with at some point or another. What makes these themes resonate so strongly in Whiskey, though, is how Edwards opens up himself to the reader. Universal allegories feel more like personal revelations when presented with this much sincerity and emotion. Surprisingly enough, the emotion that dominates this horror collection is not fright, but sadness. Edwards employs the trappings of the horror genre—monsters, murder, madness—in service of more than just lurid thrills (though there are surely enough of those to be had, as well as the occasional macabre grotesquery). To wit, the loss of loved ones and the effects of such loss on those left behind is revisited again and again throughout. Characters frequently struggle in the shadows of their lost husbands and lost wives, lost fathers and lost mothers, lost siblings, lost children. And through a diverse assortment of characters, a diverse assortment of experiences are reflected.
There’s grief which can eat a person alive with the same ferocity as a clowder of feral felines, as explored in “And the Woman Loved Her Cats” (a collection highlight which just so happens to house the creepiest kitty since Stephen King’s “The Cat from Hell”). There’s rage which can make a man into a machine fueled by vengeance against an unseen enemy, as explored in “We Will Take Half” (which begins with one of the most bluntly heartbreaking first lines you may well ever read). There can even be a kind of morbid fascination that threatens to supplant one’s capacity to value life, as explored in “A Certain Shade” (the first published appearance of an enigmatic assassin called The Matchmaker, whom Edwards teases as a character with many more tales to tell).
In stories such as these, “horror” as many tend to think of it comes second to sorrow or bitterness or obsession. Still, there is plenty in Whiskey to horrify any reader. The worst horrors rarely arise from the supernatural elements, however; those are often just mirror images of characters’ individual traumas. The real horror is in what causes those traumas or what further traumas are eventually caused. Looming largest in this regard are the specters of war and political violence. Compared to the vain young men who idolize killers and dream of battlefield glory without understanding the true cost of conflict (as in “Cabras,” another collection highlight) or to the mountains of nameless prisoners from Stalin’s Gulags whose bodies fill mass graves of ice and snow (as in “The Case of Yuri Zaystev”), ghosts seem downright agreeable, no matter how unusual they may be.
For all its virtues, though, Whiskey proves a curious beast. A somewhat uneven mix, almost split down the middle, the first half of the book comprises stories that are likely more relatable to the average North American or UK reader. Yes, they feature organ-stealing puppets and haunted forests, but they also feature suburban families and wealthy widows. They take place in dive bars and crowded movie theaters. The second half, meanwhile, comprises stories with a more international, politically charged flavor, stories which delve deep into the histories of Latin-American civil wars and the lives of jungle-dwelling guerilla fighters. Both sides of the coin are equally enjoyable, but one wonders if a slightly rearranged table of contents would’ve reduced reader whiplash.
In any case, even with the contrast between its two halves, S.L. Edwards’ first collection finds common ground among even the most dissimilar scenarios. Whether transporting readers to some war-torn country halfway around the world or to the bedroom closet of a lonely little boy clinging to his teddy bear, there remains a unifying through-line in the author’s empathetic treatment of his characters. It is that empathy, and the genuine emotion it provokes in the reader, which makes Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts such an intimate, earnest, and affecting debut.