Edward M. Erdelac
It is difficult to even begin to comprehend the horrors, the cruelty and the suffering that were faced by the Union soldiers that were incarcerated in the Camp Sumter prisoner of war camp (known more colloquially as Andersonville prison) operated by the Confederacy during the American Civil War. The accounts that have been left by survivors, including both diaries, written statements and even early photographic evidence, are nauseating beyond belief and depict a camp that can genuinely be described as ‘hellish’ in nature: the cruelty of the guards and the commandant, the lack of food, nutritious or otherwise, the complete lack of shelter for the prisoners apart from what they themselves could construct, the rampant diseases that ravaged the population unchecked by medical assistance – this entire review could feature nothing more than a litany of the conditions that the POWs had to endure, and which so many failed to survive. It’s therefore a ready location to set a horror novel in, and I’m surprised that more authors haven’t utilised it as a setting. However, that’s where the subject for this latest review comes in – the cosmic horror novel Andersonville by veteran horror author Edward M. Erdelac.
I’ve been a fan of Mr Erdelac for a number of years, ever since reading the first of his Merkabah Rider novels – a series of Weird Western novels about the last of an ancient order of Jewish mystics hunting down a renegade. It’s a fantastic novel (and which is happily coming back to print, with new artwork by the amazing Wayne M. Miller) and I’d always meant to go back to the rest of the series, and also investigate the author’s other titles. Fortunately a few months ago I was trawling through the Cthulhu and Lovecraftian titles on the Kindle, and came across Andersonville. Familiarity with an author, and knowing they do good work, is always something that will attract me as a reader, but the ridiculously low price for the novel (a mere £0.89 at time of writing) and a simple but effective piece of cover art readily drew me in and sold me on the title. In fact, the cover art (by David G. Stevenson) is a lesson in how to create an attractive cover with only a few elements: a black and white picture of a maimed Andersonville survivor, paired with a grim visage of rows of tattered POW tents, successfully sets the grim-dark tone of the novel, alongside some well-chosen fonts combined with an ominously occult symbol replacing the ‘o’ in Andersonville.
It would be incredibly easy to create a pulpy, schlocky piece of cosmic horror fiction set in Andersonville, given the already hideous nature of the historical conditions – a few shoggoths, some cultists and an altar somewhere, sacrificing prisoners of war under the cover of the grim conditions in order to raise some generic Lovecraftian deity to destroy the world, foiled by a group of stout, good-hearted Union soldiers. Something that would get in a few shocks based on how the prisoners suffered, but not really doing anything with the material, or doing justice to what those poor souls had to endure. It is therefore to the eternal credit of Mr Erdelac that he did not give into the temptation to go for such cheap, low-hanging fruit, instead taking the high road by slowly (ever so slowly) ramping up the tension and skilfully exploiting the revulsion of the reader in the conditions present in the camp. Indeed, it isn’t until about a quarter of the way into the book that Erdelac even begins to hint at an inhuman horror present in the camp, instead spending those first, crucial, chapters in establishing the appalling conditions in Andersonville, the indifferent and often unrelentingly cruel attitudes of the guards and camp commandant, and the wretched, base conditions that the Union prisoners have had to descend to in order to survive. Such is his skill at writing something like this that I would readily pick up titles by Mr Erdelac that were solely historical fiction set during the period, without any horror content – I suspect he would be highly adept at writing such titles.
However, once the demonic and Lovecraftian elements are introduced into the story, the author deftly and seamlessly integrates cosmic and inhuman horror with the normal and very human horror caused by such conditions, playing one off against the other and using both to build one of the best Lovecraftian novels I’ve ever read; indeed, perhaps one of the best horror novels period. The plotting is superbly paced and constantly draws you in as a reader – just when you think you have a handle the nature of the horrors that plague Andersonville, the author pulls the rug from underneath you and reveals something even more horrific, or destroys your assumptions about a character or situation. In addition, the writing can only be described as perfect, both stylistically and editorially – there are no typos, missing words or confusion that might bring you out of the book, and Erdelac knows exactly how to write in order to convey exactly what the camp was like, and is equally at home in conjuring up some pretty disturbing and demonic characters later on in the novel, as the real antagonists and their objectives are revealed.
The characters inhabiting Andersonville are also just as sharply observed and well fleshed-out. The protagonist, Barclay Lourdes, is a mysterious character whose motives are difficult to fathom, with the novel beginning as he breaks into the prison camp; given the horrors found within its walls, it’s difficult to understand why he would want to enter the camp, but Erdelac does an excellent job of simultaneously maintaining this mystery while giving just enough hints to string the reader along and keep them satisfied. And while the focus may be on Lourdes to progress the plot, the supporting cast are just as brilliantly imagined, particularly the cast of guards patrolling the camp and keeping the Union soldiers in check; while at first their motivations are purely human in nature, Erdelac slowly but surely reveals their true nature. I particularly enjoyed the way in which the guard dogs were portrayed; while they would usually be nothing more than a plot device in most novels like this, the author manages to imbue them with both personalities and an element of almost human malice, turning them into characters in their own right.
Andersonville is engagingly written, sharply plotted and has a well-realised cast of characters, with even minor characters deftly fleshed-out and given some kind of motivation within the wider plot. This is combined with a fantastically tense and creepy plot which slowly but surely unwinds until the true horror of the situation within the camp is revealed to the reader, introducing cosmic horrors like demons, spirits and monsters while avoiding the trap of becoming trite and ignoring, or devaluing, the true-life corruption and misery endemic in the camp. This is one of the best horror novels I have ever read, and cannot recommend it highly enough.