Letters from the Well in the Season of the Ghosts by Raymond St. Elmo review
AUTHOR INFO: Raymond St. Elmo is a programmer of artificial intelligences and virtual realities, who has no time for literary fabrications of fictitious characters and world-building. And yes, that was meant to be ironic.
A degree in Spanish Literature gave him a love of Magic Realism. Programming gave him a job. The job introduced him to artifical intelligence and virtual realities; as close to magic as reality is likely to get outside the covers of a book. And yes, that was meant to be cynical.
The author of several first-person comic-accounts of strange quests for mysterious manuscripts, mysterious girls in cloaks whose face appears SUDDENLY IN THE FLASH OF LIGHTNING. And yes, that was meant to be dramatic.
Publication date: December 13, 2020, Page Count: 293 Cover art: Virginia Mori
“This here is Hell, Texas. Dullest blister on the planet’s ass. Can’t blame the local kids for getting excited, acting silly when a bit of ground goes ‘pop'.”
Hard to disagree. Nothing happens in Hell, Texas. Getting wild in the middle of nowhere presents its difficulties but Hell's teenagers are a decent sort. Maddy, for example, starts a summer job at the local post office. Selling stamps, sorting mail, dealing with clients trying to recover letters sent to dead people in moments of deep emotion and honesty. Such letters usually end deep down in a local well.
Things get interesting when certain Tatterpatch starts writing to Maddy from the bottom of the earth in the abattoir below existence where fire and worm consume everything except that which perishes not. It seems he wants to learn about s'mores, and go with her to the mid-summer dance.
Things get even more interesting when you a band of (possibly) cannibal gypsies enters the scene and when Maddy's "friends" unknowingly summon something hungry and dangerous. You don't fool with the well, not without consequences.
I love St. Elmo's writing and I had no doubts I would enjoy his newest oeuvre. But I'm surprised at how much I did. This book is awesome, possibly his best yet*. It's both funny and serious, light and dark, emotionally engaged but humorously detached. It accepts that life sucks but instead of finding new ways to destroy everything characters touch and love, it focuses on the joy of discovery (of life, friendships, parenthood, and more).
I would describe it as a slice of life novel laced with comedy, teenage drama, horror, and coming-of-age arc. Not to forget plenty of deeper thoughts on life and witty remarks. It's a book you pick up and read when you’re tired and sad, or when you simply want to relax. It offers a balanced mix of imaginative worldbuilding, witty prose, subtle humor**, and decent people doing their best.
The plot of Letters From the Well in the Season of the Ghosts*** is both focused and minimalist. Most of the book is dedicated to Hell's teenager's everyday life, a (possible) murder investigation, and mysterious Tatterpatch breaking to our reality. Day after day Maddy, and her peers, face teenage problems, including low self-esteem, boredom, and insecurities, and yet somehow this manages to be endlessly intriguing. While I could have read about their lives forever, St. Elmo delivers a solid build-up towards the main event.
Maddy and her freakishly big and ugly father are fantastic protagonists. Maddy leads a double life, as an unnoticed, shy girl in everyday life and as a leather-clad Valentine the Bard admired by her online guild in virtual reality. As expected, borders between realities start to blur and dissolve so that madness can ensue. Everyone likes Rupert, Maddy's father. He's huge, ugly, and scary but he's also the best dad and the best Sheriff. Not to denigrate the Betty and Wulf, the sheriffs from neighboring cities, but where they make you laugh or roll your eyes, Rupert does all of it better. And more. Plus, parents will easily relate to his concerns:
He wondered where she’d found that weird cloak. And the damned sheath knife. He wondered more where his lonely daughter had gotten four sudden friends that summoned her to midnight adventure. He wondered very much what story occurred. But more than anything, he wondered if he should follow. Every possible crime, death, depravity and delinquency of adolescent insanity came to his lawman mind, complete with correct numeric coding for state prosecution and autopsy.
St. Elmo's prose is elegant, imaginative, and witty and it never fails to impress. It's effortless and smooth and somehow manages to convey a deep understanding of life with humor and compassion (and occasional self-deprecation). I consider reading it a treat.
My only nitpick is rather technical and I expect most readers won't care. In a few places, the narration falls victim to head-hopping, a thing nitpicky reviewers are conditioned to sniff from far away. And when it happens in a single paragraph, things get tricky. Admittedly, though, the vignettes of inner thoughts of non-POV characters are humorous. That said, I would prefer to see them thrown deep, deep down into the well.
Other than that, I have no issues with the story and I loved it. I rounded the score up (5/5) because as soon as I finished it, I felt the need to immediately reread it. I vigorously recommend it.
* Debatable, of course, but it's the one that's easiest to follow and most linear. And this makes it compulsively readable.
** I used to love humorous writing. Nowadays I rarely connect with it. I hope it has more to do with writers trying too hard to be funny than with me getting old and grumpy. St. Elmo writes subtle humor, living a lot to the imagination and never crude or gross.
*** Is Mr. St. Elmo trying to take the crown of the creator of the longest titles from Benedict Patrick? Possible. Texans are like that.