Let My Heart Be Still a Moment and This Mystery Explore
A Review of The Gravedigger's Brawl by Veronica Vishous
I'm supposed to be writing a review of The Gravedigger's Brawl by Abigail Roux. I really am. But I've learned this about myself: I do not know how to write reviews.
The Gravedigger's Brawl is a good book. I liked it. You should read it, too. End of review.
I could write about what I liked. I like that the main characters are "out;" as someone whose primary m/m experience is the Cut & Run books this was a nice change. I like the atmosphere at the Gravedigger's Tavern; it's a cool place and in my younger days I would have liked working with Ash and Ryan and Delilah. Even Caleb would be cool to work for; he's gruff but he takes care of his people. I think Wyatt and Ash are a good match for each other. Even though they don't think they fit into each other's worlds very well, I think they fit just fine. A historian with an interest in the Victorian era and a flair bartender with a gaslight style? Just fine.
What I did not like was the feeling of frustration I had reading much of the first half of the book. And then I figured it out. I was supposed to be frustrated. You see, so much happens in the first three chapters of the book, and then. . . nothing. Rather, not much, anyway. In the first three chapters, Ash and Wyatt hook up, Caleb and Noah hook up, mysterious happenings start up at the tavern, and Wyatt is in a world of trouble at work and might lose his job. Then, in Chapter Three, after the grackle comes flying through the tavern door, not much happens until about halfway through the book.
A grackle? A raven-like bird comes flying through the door in a flurry of dust and feathers, scaring the hell out of Ash and Delilah and comes to a perch "on the decorative molding on top of the front window (loc 695)"? This sounds oddly familiar.
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he,
But, with mein of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door--
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door--
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
~~The Raven, Edgar Allen Poe
Screw the review. Is it possible that the author threw in a reference to The Raven (known for its tension and suspense) and intentionally followed said reference with one hell of a suspenseful interlude in the action? What other parallels exist between The Raven and The Gravedigger's Brawl? Click through to find out.
One of the more obvious parallels between the two works is the initial signs that something is wrong: The noises. For the narrator of The Raven, it's the tappings, the rustling of curtains, the insistent tapping. But when Poe's narrator opens the door, nothing is there. For our friends at the tavern, they hear thumps, loud bangs, fingers drumming on a wooden table, skitterings across the floor that sound too big to be mice. Yet, whenever they go to check for some poor drunk soul lost upstairs, they find no one.
A loud bang from upstairs accompanied his answer and they all jumped and staggered closer to the door.
"What the shit was that?" Ryan asked. "Did someone get up there?" He began stalking toward the door that led to the upstairs.
A rush of stark fear flooded Ash's body. "Ryan!"
Ryan turned and eyed him in confusion as a gentle tapping began to sound from upstairs.
Ash realized he was close to panicking. He had no idea why, other than something instinctive in him that desperately wanted to leave.
"But what if someone's trapped up there?"
A low, insistent thumping began to echo across the ceiling. It crawled up Ash's spine and into his body, sending icy chills through him (loc 1235).
~~The Gravedigger's Brawl, Abigail Roux
They can blame the noises on that refrigerator all they want, but I'm not buying it. Which brings me to another parallel between the two literary works.
Ash alternates between believing his vision to be a ghost (and being frustrated that no one is taking him seriously), explaining it away as a product of his concussion (although I don't think he ever really believed that), and flat out refusing to acknowledge that anything out of the ordinary is happening.
Actually, most of the others are pretty convinced something out of the ordinary is happening at Gravedigger's, but do an excellent job of remaining in a state of denial themselves. Most of the characters throughout the book bounce back and forth between entertaining the possibility that the place is haunted and being convinced that ghosts don't exist. Sometimes in the same sentence. It's maddening.
Poe's narrator is in a special sort of denial, depending on how you interpret the poem. Is Lenore really going to be standing outside his door? Is this bird really going to tell him about his lost Lenore? Does this bird really have all the answers that the narrator seeks? Surely the narrator doesn't believe any of this, or one might think the narrator crazy.
Not that any of Ash's friends think for one second that Ash might be going crazy.
He had a blanket draped around him and a cup of tea cooling in his hands. Wyatt, Caleb, Noah, and Ryan were sitting around his little dining room, talking.
They were treating him like a child scared by the bogeyman, but did he give a fuck? Hell no.
Ryan and Caleb filled Wyatt and Noah in on the incident with the man in the mirror. Ryan also discussed the banging and the music they'd heard, but then explained it away by saying that the batteries in the radio had been ruined and so was the refrigerator.
"So he's seeing things," Wyatt said grimly. "We should take him to the hospital."
"You don't believe in ghosts?" Caleb asked.
"No. Especially when the person seeing them might have brain damage." (loc 2304)
~~The Gravedigger's Brawl, Abigail RouxOuch, Wyatt.
And, finally, the big question for much of the book (and of Poe's poem). How much of this is real?
Poe's narrator is already in a fragile state; he is stricken with grief for his lost Lenore. The narrator could be having a grief-induced hallucination.
Or, he could be asleep and dreaming.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore--
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
~~The Raven, Edgar Allan PoeIt's also possible the raven is there in his room, but not really speaking to the narrator. It's possible the raven is there and repeating the phrase "nevermore," but the narrator is asking his questions in a certain way and assigning his own meaning. (Did you know ravens can be taught to talk?)
Ash is in a fragile state (how many knocks to the head did he take throughout this book?). Both Ash and the others attempt to explain away his "visions" by blaming them on the concussion. Still, until Wyatt has experiences of his own, we are never entirely sure what Ash is experiencing is real. We want to believe Ash. But beyond the others hearing strange noises upstairs (which are, mostly, explainable), nothing experienced by Ash is corroborated by anyone else. Strange things happen, sure (Ash's bathroom being locked, for one), but everything is, in theory, explainable. At one point, Ash even starts to doubt himself.
From Abigail Roux's tumblr November 4, 2012:
Sidenote from when I was writing the book, the term gas lighting is a psychological term. "A form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. It may simply be the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, or it could be the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim."~~Abigail Roux
One difference between The Raven and The Gravedigger's Brawl? The Raven ends ambiguously. We never really find out what was up with that bird, or how the narrator's story ends. The Gravedigger's Brawl, on the other hand, gives us a satisfying ending. The ending allows it to remain a standalone book, yet leaves things open to allow for sequels or for the characters to cross over into other books.
The tone and atmosphere of The Gravedigger's Brawl is set very intentionally and makes for a satisfying read. When I read it, I feel like I'm in the tavern. I feel like I'm walking down the street in the Fan District. I feel like I'm in a dark and spooky place. In fact, the tone of the book is not that dissimilar from the tone of The Raven. Oh, The Gravedigger's Brawl is not a reinterpretation of The Raven; they aren't even telling the same type of story. But the suspense, the sense of being on the edge of madness, the darkness, it's all there.
All that from a grackle.
From the publisher:
The Gravedigger's Brawl
When the past comes back to haunt you, order a double.
Dr. Wyatt Case is never happier than when he's walking the halls of his history museum. Playing wingman for his best friend at Gravedigger's Tavern throws him way out of his comfort zone, but not as much as the eccentric man behind the bar, Ash Lucroix.
Ash is everything Wyatt doesn't understand: exuberant, quirky, and elbow deep in a Gaslight lifestyle that weaves history into everyday life. He coordinates his suspenders with his tongue rings. Within hours, Wyatt and Ash are hooked.
But strange things are afoot at Gravedigger's, and after a knock to the head, Ash starts seeing things that can't be explained by old appliances or faulty wiring. Soon everyone at Gravedigger's is wondering if they're seeing ghosts, or just going crazy. The answer to that question could end more than just Wyatt and Ash's fragile relationship--it might also end their lives.