Talk about an uneasy opening, one of the two main characters threatens to kill herself in the first paragraph. Things are not going well in this home. But that is okay because we are reading a horror novel, and setting up the anxiety from the first lines it what the best writers do.
So how bad is it here? Well, Bottled Abyss opens with Herman and Janet Erikson who are barely hanging on after the tragic death of their daughter due to a hit and run. They have both given up, on each other, on life, on everything. But then, Herman goes into the woods to look for their missing dog and finds a stranger who has a bottle with a liquid that can bring things back to life. Herman and Janet get obsessed with this bottle and, Janet in particular, wants to use the powerful liquid to hurt those responsible for their daughter's death.
Turns out the liquid is from the River Styx which according to Greek myth marked the line between the world of the living and the dead.
Bottled Abyss is more of a literary horror novel than an action oriented one. The menacing atmosphere is intense and never lets up. It simply goes from bad to worse. This dark atmosphere is tempered a bit though by the lyrical writing. The lyrical language underscores the mythology frame well. But the sense of dread is unrelenting which is something horror fans pine for.
The point of view shifts frequently, but the shifts are marked with a skull graphic so following these changes in perspective are easy for the reader. This shifting narrative also speeds up the story.
It is character development that is king here. Personally, I prefer that in all of my leisure reading, so I was happy. But depending on the reader's personal tastes, this could be a problem. Just don't expect big chase scenes here. The tension comes from watching the characters make bad decisions and then watching the consequences unfold.
Ethridge's storyline for Janet is the most interesting here. In fact, she is one of the better horror protagonists I have read in a while. She is seriously flawed but fascinating to watch. Unlike a book like The Donors (reviewed here on Day 11) where the good guys are white knights, Janet is a mess. Her storyline is complex, psychological, and constantly shifting. I never want to meet her, but I really liked watching her.
The Greek myth angle introduces a unique evil element. Our monsters are ancient gods who hold a dangerous power in the water from the River Styx. They are not benevolent gods either.
This is a horror story for fans of intense psychological drama. It is also a great option for people who are bored of the boil plate storyline. Anything can and will happen here, and the ending is perfect--uneasy, upsetting, unsettling, and unresolved.
Ethridge has proven that he is a writer to keep an eye on. This book is both beautiful and disturbing, an uneasy combination that works perfectly. This is a second great novel in a row for a horror author I will put on the must buy list for our library.
Three Words That Describe This Book: psychological, character centered, tense
Readalikes: Another book that is getting a lot of attention this season for being "literary horror" is Victor LaValle's Devil in Silver. As I said about that book in Library Journal:
"...might be described as Ken Kensey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest meets Frank Peretti's Monster. Unjustly committed to a mental hospital, Pepper quickly realizes that not only are the inmates more sane than the staff, but that an animal-headed monster is killing the patients at night. Character is king here as the action comes in quick spurts between Pepper's interactions with others and his internal struggles..."Janet also reminded me a lot of Ig from Joe Hill's Horns. In fact, the flow and appeal of these two novels is very similar. And both involved the death of a loved one. Click here for my review. Horns is one of my all-time favorite horror novels because of Ig. Janet is similarly as fascinating.
For a non-horror suggestion, Bottled Abyss also reminded me of Gillian Flynn's Dark Places. Again we are dealing with characters who make terrible choices, and as readers we just sit there watching everything go from bad to worse, to unthinkable. The storyline also involves death of family members. Click here for my full review of that psychological suspense novel for more details.
*Full disclosure: Etheridge sent me a free copy of this novel for my library.