“Days were measured in piling snow, lives in black-rotting cells and time in final breaths. The white-washed landscape was the endless world. To walk there, in that terrible and featureless place, was to take one more step toward heaven or hell…The only refuge from the cold, constant and unchanging place was even worse than the vast frozen desert. Death was written into the architecture of the outpost of humanity before the endless night-world, a prison where men were sent to rot and disappear in fog and ice.”
Whether it was the blasted heath of “The Dunwich Horror” or the dim shores of “The White Ship,” the sanity-stretching bricks of Rue d’Auseil or the colossal piles of bones beneath Exham Priory, one of Lovecraft’s many gifts was to set you with unsettling firmness within his mad geographies. With the indelibility of spilling ink, the importance of a sense of place seeps from his pages staining his settings in your mind as much as any of his quivering professors and eldritch monstrosities. Indeed, one of Lovecraft’s favorite stories was Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” a story based upon the notion that the geography itself is set against you. Of Blackwood’s story Lovecraft wrote, “I am dogmatic enough to call “The Willows” the finest weird story I have ever read…” It was a sentiment he repeated in several letters. (As an aside, if you’ve not yet read “The Willows” you really ought to do so. Lovecraft was right; it’s that good.) Taking inspiration from “The Willows,” our current author, S.L. Edwards, has penned a tale of frosty nightmare and frigid death. “The Case of Yuri Zaystev” can be found in WHISKEY AND OTHER UNUSUAL GHOSTS, the second weird fiction collection released by Gehenna Books in 2019. It will be available for purchase on July 15. I’m grateful to Mr. Edwards for supplying me with an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Yuri Zaystev is a soldier in Stalin’s army with a very singular task. He drives a truck out into the arctic tundra and dumps the bodies of those who have died in the Gulag, some friend, some foe. Burying them is not in the equation for Comrade Zaystev; not only is the frozen ground impossible to dig out, but the brutal, biting arctic winds make burial an unnecessary chore. “The tundra winds would claim human refuse, sweep it back into its cold folds and take the bodies far away from human eyes and memories.” And later, “If they were not eaten by polar bears the winds would be kind to them and strip them of their useless skin until their bones were as white and gleaming as snow.” He’s made this run a hundred times if he’s made it once—now, just think about that given the nature of his task and the real-life horror of this story peeks through—but today, for no other reason than garden variety ennui, he seeks companionship with an old, faithful friend: vodka. Stopping the truck at the appointed place, he gets out and walks to the back where he swings open the canvas covered truck bed and glimpses, to his absolute horror, nothing. To a normal person a truck bed full of frozen, emaciated corpses would provide the fright, but for Yuri, it is the opposite, their absence, that scares. What happens next I will leave to your reading, but I did find it enjoyable, and like “The Willows,” satisfyingly ambiguous.
I found this story to be surprisingly emotionally affecting. I don’t know whether it was reading about the horrific nature of Stalin’s death camps at a time when my own country is running concentration camps along its Southern border, or the howling bleakness of the arctic that Edwards presents, but I was moved by the reading. Did it live up to “The Willows” as a piece of weird fiction? Well, no, but that’s hardly a knock on the story – “The Willows” really is one of the finest examples of the genre, and that’s a tall glass of whisky to live up to. One of the things that made “The Willows” work so well was the long, slow-burn build up of undeniable tension. It’s a fairly lengthy story while Yuri’s tale is pretty brief by comparison. The terror and the weird “otherness” of the stories are very different and so it is difficult to say with any certainty how a lengthening of “The Case of Yuri Zaystev” would affect it. However (and there’s little to suggest that Edwards couldn’t do this well), I think it would improve an already gratifying story. As it is, there isn’t much time for a build up of tension. Rather, there is a presumption of tension already present. That allows the author to jump right into the more terrifying aspects of his tale with a certain, more immediate, ferocity, but the cost is a lot of that which made “The Willows” so successful.
Edwards’ writing is at times evocative and controlled, leading the reader to the edge of the icy crevasse so gently that they never look down to see it coming. And, as I mentioned, it has the capacity to be emotionally arresting. See:
“He could not recognize the face or any other distinguishable thing about the body. There was nothing about the shape of the nose, the sculpting of the chin or any sort of scars or hair that would have caused Yuri to recognize the man. He was part of an endless, unremarkable crowd, only remarkable because he stood out against the decrepit wreckage of what is left in the human frame after its humanity has been forcefully removed.”
Horror works because of empathy; sociopaths who lack it cannot grasp why what they do inspires terror. In passages like these Edwards captures a fleeting empathy amid the wild winds of the tundra. That empathy is present in all of the stories I read in this collection, and is one of the reasons I think he will ultimately be a successful author in the genre. However, at other times, that control I mentioned slips. Even within the beauty of the above quotation, my eye was tripped up when he used the word “remarkable” immediately after saying it was “unremarkable.” Another word might have been more effectively deployed here. I don’t say this to be super nit-picky either, as I found that to be the case several times across multiple stories. Now diction and syntax are incredibly personal, and likely some of those hangups were just my own as a reader. What I don’t think is just me, though, is that it seems like he often uses too many words when fewer will not just do, but be better. I realize that’s hard to swallow following the thought that the story might be improved by being longer, but it’s a matter of the right words, not just extra words.
Here’s the other main reason I think S. L. Edwards will be one to watch in the weird fiction community: the ideas are there, in spades. Across each story that I read, I experienced a genuine, creeped-out “oh crap!” moment. The talent is here folks and I think he’s going to be around for a while. This story in particular, and the collection in general deserve your attention, especially if you’re interested in not just horror and weird fiction, but in knowing early on who are the up and comers. Like all writers, his craft will grow, his skill will sharpen, and when they do, he will make all those ideas running around inside his head bleed. You’re going to want to be there for that.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Yug and Neb,
The Unheard Lament of Yuri Zaystev: “He was not a bad man! No worse than the men he worked with! But he had been a hero! He had been a hero of Stalingrad! Stalin personally had thanked him! This alone should have been a ticket for his salvation, something to save him from whatever cruel tricks the snows and winds were playing on him now! He screamed out his life, that it was not his fault men were killed! He was not the one who decided to leave their corpses unhallowed in the Tundra…”