YOU’VE TAKEN PAYMENT FOR A DEATH THAT DOESN’T BELONG TO YOU. WHAT WERE THREE ARE NOW ONE, AND I AM FURY…
Herman and Janet Erikson are going through a crisis of grief and suffering after losing their daughter in a hit and run. They’ve given up on each other, they’ve given up on themselves. They are living day by day. One afternoon, to make a horrible situation worse, their dog goes missing in the coyote-infested badlands behind their property. Herman, resolved in preventing another tragedy, goes to find the dog, completely unaware he’s on a hike to the River Styx, which according to Greek myth was the border between the Living World and the world of the Dead. Long ago the gods died and the River dried up, but a bottle containing its waters still remains in the badlands. What Herman discovers about the dark power contained in those waters will change his life forever…
Bram Stoker Award-winning author Joe McKinney couldn’t be more right in his praise quote when he says that Bottled Abyss, the second novel from fellow Stoker Award winner Benjamin Kane Ethridge, is “…a book grabs you from the opening line and refuses to let you go.”
From its first page, when Herman watches his wife, Janet, drowning her sorrows in a bottle of whiskey only to announce she’s going to kill herself, Ethridge launches the reader into this tale of sorrow with an impactful point of entry. The couple’s dog, Lester, has gone missing, and Janet implores Herman to look for him, unable to bear any more loss after the tragic hit and run accident which claimed the life of their daughter, Melody.
When Herman reflects on the death of his child in the following quote, my heart couldn’t help but break:
”People still had to live, didn’t they? People had to carry on after a tragedy, not make it grow into some gigantic life-ending monster. There was work to do. Bills to pay. Air to breathe. And runaway Border Collies to find.”
We know there’s work to do, and that our lives have to go on, but deaths that affect us on a personal level are too real. Herman feels guilt for spanking his daughter the day she passed away, and for every time he chided her for something. He wonders what must have been going through her head. He grieves, even if he doesn’t show it all the time.
For as long as humans have lived, myths and legends have told of deals with gods and other beings to cheat death, to go on living a bit longer, even though we know our time is going to come. So when Herman witnesses a stranger help Lester (even though the hound appears to suffer more and coughs up a coin) and sees the power to prevent the dying from crossing over to the other side, he can’t help but be tempted by the life-saving elixir—what is literally bottled abyss, as in the Underworld.
Janet is ecstatic to see Lester when he comes home. And although she and Herman share a passionate scene, all he can think is that she’s dying inside. In a clever twist, the stranger from the woods who saves the dog is a famous mythological figure tied to the River Styx that Greek mythology buffs will instantly recognize.
Turns out that this character’s appearance is a resurgence, and that Lester happened to almost die on a significant spot related to the River Styx, and the coin certainly has its part to play in re-activating a portal that previously remained shut.
We also meet a couple, Evan and Faye, Janet and Herman’s friends. They announce they’re expecting a child, and although Ethridge could have taken the easy way out in reactions, he chooses a far more interesting route, which leads to revealing that not everything is as it seems, and that adoring, insufferly annoying, happy couples are not as perfect as they seem.
Slowly but surely, fate weaves a tangled web for Herman and toward the second half of the book, things become more about Janet, who gets herself deeper into the mess involving the mythological characters, unable to extract herself, which has dire consequences for those closest to her.
Bottled Abyss is true literary horror at its best, a slow burn, a reading experience that delivers its satisfaction to the reader not in cheap thrills and gross-outs but rather a profound and disturbing exploration of the human psyche, what happens when we examine the decay of relationships between people—relationships that we think are “till death do us part” but that have so many problems hidden beneath the layers—revealing the intricate illusions that we continue to buy into, and most of all, highlighting the stark and ugly realities of life that we so desperately try to ignore, deny, and shield ourselves from.
Ethridge’s approach to mythology is also a high point, wonderful because although readers will recognize the characters, it’s not used in a crass, commercial manner. And though the figures have dangerous powers, they’re far more subtle—and memorable—for refraining from overly showy demonstrations of power. “Clash of the Titans” this ain’t, but that’s a good thing.
Bottled Abyss is dark fantasy at its darkest, the horror elements leaning toward the fantastical side of the spectrum. It’s an absorbing read that will remain with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Ethridge is the real deal, readers. He’s a writer’s writer—a horror scribe who I believe will only continue to rise, his star shining brighter with each book. Here’s hoping that Bottled Abyss garners Ethridge a second Bram Stoker Award nomination, and fingers crossed, the win.