(This first appeared on Innsmouth Free Press on September 9, 2015.)
Review: Andersonville, Edward M. Erdelac, 2015.
If they didn’t invent it, they were early adaptors of the term “dead-line” at Andersonville. That’s “deadline” as in cross it and you’ll be shot dead.
Eighty years before the world saw the corpses and the unflensed walking dead of Auschwitz and Treblinka, it saw photos of the survivors of Andersonville. More than forty-five thousand Union prisoners of war entered its gates during the American Civil War. Almost thirteen thousand died there. Its commander was the only person executed for war crimes at the end of the war.
Erdelac accurately diagrams the horrors of Camp Sumter, Andersonville’s official name: the stockade, the guards enforcing the deadline, the cramped and open area designed to only hold 10,000 prisoners, its single contaminated stream serving as drinking water and sewer, and the “raider” gang that preyed on fellow prisoners. The prose is clear, the nouns unadorned.
The adjectives are mostly reserved for the tentacles, demons, sacrifices, brandings, whippings, and magic rites.
Erdelac starts out with a helping of Jewish mysticism and myth, as used in his Weird-western Merkabah Rider series, adds voodoo, Catholicism, and Mound Builder magic, and ends with a surprising secret history that nestles down nicely beside ours at novel’s end.
Erdelac’s plot twists and turns and, for my taste, goes on a scene or three too long, but it’s not typical or predictable. For starters, the novel begins with our hero Barclay Lourdes breaking into Andersonville. Barclay is a man of several agendas, but one is to kill a Confederate officer named Quitman Day, the man once close as a brother to him and almost a brother by marriage.
Barclay is a free black, never a slave, something of a New Orleans blueblood but stripped of his rank in the Crescent City Native Guards at the outbreak of the War, his father imprisoned, his family inheritance confiscated. And Day is the white man who left Barclay’s sister and their son to die when he went off to fight for the South.
For me, Erdelac never quite justified the vehemence of Barclay’s hatred of Day, but he does, with the people Barclay meets in and out of the camp, present the many valences of black-white relations in Civil War America. However gaudy his blood and hellhounds are, Erdelac doesn’t give us a cartoon humanity.
But, when the book was done, it wasn’t the magic and hangings and abominable food and deadlines I remembered. It was the voices, the language, the words, the rhetoric of the story. I don’t just mean the dialogue of his men (and a few women). That was realistic for the time.
If you must have one of those glib and facile lines reviewers and blurb writers love, it is this. Sergio Leone meets John Milton in a quest for revenge and the return to a lost world. Like Milton in Paradise Lost, Erdelac gives the best lines to his fallen angel. When he speaks of his old home, for one – very brief – moment, I heard only the sorrow and aching of a lonely exile, and not the evil behind Andersonville’s horror.
In the end, this is a story of families and relationships shattered, and if any part can be salvaged – on Earth and in the hell of Andersonville.