In the Devil’s Cradle
S. L. Edwards
Word Horde (November 8, 2022)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers
I previously reviewed S. L. Edwards’ short story collection The Death of an Author, and enjoyed it immensely, so I was very much looking forward to Edwards’ debut novel, In the Devil’s Cradle. Many fine horror writers have already blurbed In the Devil’s Cradle, and several described it as a kind of “political horror,” an evocative sub-genre that I don’t think I had ever before encountered. The book was also described as “a captivating haunted house story where the house is an entire country.” Needless to say, I was intrigued.
In the nation of Antioch, Senator William Esquival has brought his wife and children to the town of Rio Rojo because of rising tensions in the capital and a growing Marxist insurgency in the countryside. Rio Rojo is the hometown of Esquival’s ancestor, who also happens to be the founder of the nation and its greatest hero. The family moves into the ancestral family home, but they soon find themselves under siege literally and figuratively as the children realize that the grounds are inhabited by legions of spirits and the forces of revolution come to Rio Rojo. Tragedy, of course, ensues, and the Esquival family is put to the test by their many enemies, both living and dead.
Because of the importance of geography and nationhood to the story, I should say a bit more about the time and place in which In the Devil’s Cradle is set. The book is set somewhere in the middle part of the twentieth century, and is intended to be timeless, or at least a tale that could have happened at any point between the end of the Second World War and the end of the Cold War. Edwards is careful to note in his afterword that Antioch is not simply Colombia, a country he has spent a great deal of time in, with the serial numbers filed off, nor is it just a generic stand-in for any Latin American banana republic. Rather, Antioch is intended to be any country suffering the kind of political upheaval he’s describing. I suppose that’s true, but Antioch’s culture and society do seem decidedly grounded in Latin American traditions and cultural norms, and its history is one of colonization by Europeans and successfully liberating itself first from the Spanish and then the British. The nation’s history and mythmaking is very much all about breaking free of those chains and charting a new, independent course into the future. Conflict emerges over who gets to chart that course on behalf of the nation.
The characters are well-illustrated, and they do feel like a true family. The weight of their shared past, and their interconnections, is felt throughout the novel and feels genuine. Pacing and atmosphere are excellent; this feels like a doom-laden Gothic novel in many ways, with a kind of terrible inevitability that builds momentum and speed as the story advances. In looking back on In the Devil’s Cradle, I think I’d have liked to see the supernatural horror elements enlarged to play a more important role in the novel. They are present, to be sure, but they’re very much minor elements compared with the horrors of a country thrown into political turmoil and suffering a revolution (or two simultaneous revolutions as is the case here).
I’d be very curious to see Edwards (and other authors, perhaps with radically different takes on the genre) return to other iterations of this kind of political horror, and the idea of an entire nation being haunted. This was a fas
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