In Bottled Abyss, Benjamin Kane Ethridge takes upon himself an unenviable task. He sets out, not to re-interpret classical mythology, but to extend it wholesale into the twenty-first century. His landscape is the Southern California desert … where the River Styx, in some inexplicable way continues to flow. Charon, the Boatman, continues to exchange time-worn coins for transport of the recently dead across the river to an afterlife every bit as tenebrous and inconsequential as the Hades of Homer. Furies move seen and unseen among humans, seeking vengeance. And Nyx – or ‘Night’ – continues to haunt the shadows, interfering with mortal lives and feasting on tragedy, suffering, and pain.
All of this is unknown to Herman and Janet Erikson, an increasingly estranged couple living on the perilous edge of aridity both physically and emotionally. They are struggling to reconstruct their lives following the death a year earlier of their only child in an apparently random hit-and-run, yet their own actions merely drive them further apart.
When Herman stumbles upon a strangely shaped bottle containing a thick brown liquid, however, things begin to change … and to change rapidly. Discovery follows discovery, death follows death, until Janet takes upon herself the role of the ancient Erynies – personifications of anger and persecution and vengeance – and seeks out those responsible for her daughter’s death. Along the way, she loses everyone and everything dear to her, including, at least for an eternal moment, her own self.
At times visionary and apocalyptic (in the original sense of ‘to uncover, to discover’), at times grittily realistic and noir, Bottled Abyss is not an easy read in any sense. Its horrors amplify as the effects of the mysterious fluid in the bottle expand, touching more and more lives, devastating and destroying.
I have a couple of quibbles with the novel. There are a number of first-person passages, during which the narrator/thinker moves inexorably toward an inevitable and horrific death. Ethridge must simultaneously allow them to gradually discover their fates (in both senses of the word – ‘fate’ and ‘Fate’) while remaining fundamentally unconscious of them. This requires him to have them speak in at times stilted ways at odds with the ceaseless flow of conscious and unconscious thought; and to make certain that they notice specific elements of their environment that the reader understands as foreshadowings but that the characters, left to their own devices, might not register as important.
In addition, there are a few sentence problems. A headlight “blares;” although given the elliptical nature of events and characters this might have been intentional, the sense of the context would suggest a typo for “glares” or “flares.” There is just enough momentary indecisiveness about meaning to stall the narrative unnecessarily. Later, “statute” appears instead of “statue” and the phrase “track homes” replaces the correct “tract homes.”
I mention these primarily to suggest that the story is enthralling enough, ambitious enough, and largely successful enough that such slight wobbles jar – everything else is handled so skillfully that small things seem large.
That said, my response to Bottled Abyss is overwhelmingly positive. It moves seamlessly from the mundane world of cause-and-effect to the world of gods and powers and magic. Rivers seem simultaneously to exist and not to exist; immortals become mortals and mortals, immortal. It is a fascinating, kaleidoscopic, exploration of worlds material and immaterial, with Herman and Janet enmeshed like unknowing flies in the web of the gods.
[Editor’s Note:] Michael R. Collings is the Senior Publications Editor for JournalStone Publishing; an Emeritus professor of English from Pepperdine University; author of the best-selling horror novels The Slab and The House Beyond the Hill, as well as other novels and collections of short fiction, poetry, and literary essays; and an inveterate fan of all things grammatical and syntactical.