A comprehensive review of “Spirits Unwrapped” by Joshua Dinges

Joshua Dinges is the first guest to arrive at the unwrapping party.

Here is his review:

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I don’t normally post my book reviews directly on Facebook. The ARC I just finished reading, however, doesn’t have a page up on Amazon or Goodreads yet and I really wanted to get the word out about this amazing collection, so I’m posting it here for now and will add it to those pages in a few weeks when the book streets.

Spirits Unwrapped (2019)
Edited by Daniel Braum and (soon to be) published by Lethe Press.

I received this review copy from the editor of the book.

To be honest, I really can’t recall if it was Swan Lake playing over the credits of the Universal film or my father’s battered 1972 edition of Howard Carter’s book that first piqued my interest in mummies. But I was hooked from a tender age. School projects, independent research, films, stories, artwork, trips to museums all over the world…Egyptology had its crooks and flails sunk firmly into my spirit. And at the heart of it all was the iconic mummy.

Hardly a surprise, then, that I positively jumped at the chance when Daniel Braum handed me the ARC for his upcoming ‘mummy-themed’ anthology, Spirits Unwrapped, and asked if I’d be interested in reading it for a review. He smiled and offered me something of a warning as I stood studying the whimsical cover with upraised brows. Something about the book not necessarily being what I’d expect.

And indeed, trust the editor to know his business. Whether you discovered your own interest in mummies through Karloff, Carter, or Brendan Fraser, you’re going to have to take most of your preconceived notions about mummy lore and cast them out into the desert winds. But don’t despair too deeply as they disappear into the dunes, because this collection of unconventional mummy tales is as strong and solid as the pyramids of old.

The strange and unique stories in this anthology are quick to abandon the tired, dusty tropes that surround these ageless beings. In fact, they do so with fierce conviction and deft hands. You may close the final pages of the book before it ever fully even occurs to you that only one story in the collection even occurs in Egypt. And while some of the variations on the theme certainly push the envelope, the breadth of interpretation is refreshing and exciting in equal measure. These stories run the gamut from playful whimsy to stomach-churning unpleasantness…and manage to capture both pathos and terror in between.

In most of the reviews I have written for anthologies, I’ve tended to write in broad strokes about the theme as a whole and pick out one or two works to highlight for attention. This collection is a bit special, however, and I enjoyed it enough that I’m going to address the entire TOC, one story at a time. Spoiler free. I’ll include a link where you can pre-order the book at the end, in the event that my review here encourages you to do so.

The Unwrapping Party
Joanna Parypinksi gets us started off with this 19th century tale of society ladies doing a spot of meddling in dark places that are likely best left alone. I initially felt that this opening story was set up to be a bit playful and was surprised at the direction in which it veered by the end. Its inclusion as the opener spoke well of things to come.

Antiquities
Using the somewhat familiar setting of two English gentlemen trading old tales at The Club, John Crowley spins us a short and whimsical tale of antiquarian caution. Cleverly told and delicately raunchy (it IS an English Gentleman’s Club, after all), the pace is brisk and the mood light, with a fun approach to the theme.

Private Grave Nine
According to the introduction, this sharp little piece of work by Karen Joy Fowler was the editor’s primary inspiration to put the entire anthology together. Knowing this going in, Private Grave Nine was the only story in the collection about which I had any preconceived notions of quality. Suffice to say, I was not disappointed. Bristling with compelling characterizations, clever dialogue, and a sense of deep foreboding not made fully manifest until the closing page, this story is an absolute highlight. I read it twice in succession and marveled both times at how often I worked to suppress either a giggle or a chill.

Mummy Fever
A light and playful piece by David Wellington. His tale of the witty dilettante and her ancient companion was a rather predictable read for me, but the characters were fun and I would later come to look back and afford it a special place for the levity it brought to the collection.

The Mummy of Rue De La Croix
Leanna Renee Hieber’s take on the theme finds us in a low-rent theater in early 20th century Paris. I appreciated the shady POV and the setting itself was well-realized, but the story didn’t particularly resonate with me. Well-written, but I enjoyed the protagonist and the theater more than the actual goings-on.

The Hand of Annie Jones
From the tenebrous streets of Paris all the way to colonial Australia in 1820. The levity of some of the earlier tales has been left behind now as Casilda Ferrante shares her sinister and dire interpretation of the mummy theme. Dead and wrapped indeed is the titular hand in this dark story of two wayward girls and their forays into black magick. I quite enjoyed this story and earnestly appreciated Ms. Ferrante’s creative approach to the topic.

Fog Marsh
Depending on your anthropological pedigree with ancient pagan cultures, Rudi Dornemann’s foray into pre-Roman Germania may benefit from a quick bit of research for proper context. A somewhat disturbing approach to the theme by way of the Suebi cult of Nerthus, this tale of future hopes and crumbling pasts in brutal collision is a very worthy addition to the collection. Unique, well-written, and abundant with flavor and antiquity, this sinister tale is one of my favorites in the entire anthology.

In the Ancestor’s New House
Marissa Lingen takes us to South America next for a rather touching and effective tale of cross-cultural understanding in the face of shared adversity. Incan mummies are the order of the day here. One in particular. Clever dialogue and a lot of heart round out the engaging setting and make this story another of my favorites.

Leather Man’s Holler
Down to west Texas next, with Rhodi Hawk’s tale of scrub plain horror. Opting for a rather feral, ghoulish approach to the theme, she weaves us a story of multi-generational revenge and rural legendry all wrapped around a plucky 9 year old girl and her indulgent father. Great setting and a well-crafted story with a truly unsettling and terrifying interpretation of the mummy concept.

Their Silent Faces
You may or may not have read enough of my reviews to know that Michael Cisco is one of my favorite authors in the world. I was giddy with excitement when I saw his name in the TOC and anticipated this story from the outset. I was anything but disappointed. Cisco’s mind works in so many utterly unique and brilliant ways that it is often virtually impossible to sum up his themes in a way that makes sense to mortals. His contribution here is no different, but I’ll give it a shot. An alcohol-soaked, existential fever-dream, replete with mummies interred within plastic dummies, cadavarine injections, body-collecting, and the ultimate dissolution of self in the face of the insurmountable, confining hideousness of being. I hung on every word.

Birthright
Inna Effress introduces us to an altogether different sort of wrapping in this visceral, deeply-unpleasant tale of the life cycle. Probably the most unique take on the theme in the book, I found this story to be unsettling and profoundly disturbing. It is short, so I can’t include much detail without spoiling, but it troubled me on more than one level. High marks indeed, if vaguely inscrutable.

Into Something Rich and Strange
A jaunt into the far-flung future in this syfy take on mummies and their wrappings. A broad approach to the theme, no doubt, but an effective one. A scientific recovery team make land(water)fall in search of a missing colony ship and memories of LV-426 begin to stir. Thana Niveau constructs a very effective and ultimately terrifying tale of beauty and deadly discovery.

Oscar Returns From the Dead, Prophesizing
John Langan brings us back to the present for this very special take on reptilian mummies in the Albany suburbs. What simply MUST be an innocuous tale from the start gradually winds its way down a path of true horror. I was halfway through this story before I finally fully realized that it wasn’t just a tongue-in-cheek approach to the theme, but a masterful example of taking something utterly non-threatening and using it to inspire fear and loathing. And all while hewing to the theme itself. The penultimate tale in this collection also winds up being one of the best and most chilling.

Flowers For Bitsy
Given what Daniel Braum had put together for us thus far, I certainly expected the last entry in this collection to be something truly special. I was not, however, expecting Lee Thomas’s poignant tale of a man’s final days on the cusp of an epidemic. A hazy recollection of a lifetime of companionship, filtered through the morphine haze of jump cuts and shifting time, this application of the theme is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at alternating moments. A well-chosen piece to end a fantastically constructed collection.

This was, for me, one of those very rare anthologies that contained no ‘bad’ stories. Even the ‘just okay’ ones were well-written enough to be elevated beyond mediocrity. As aforementioned, the theme was close to my heart, so you should probably allow for some reviewer bias. But I stand by my convictions in stating that this was a truly solid collection with some amazing talent and a wide range of creative approaches to a venerable concept.

The book is due to be released next month and can currently be pre-ordered from the publisher’s page:

https://www.lethepressbooks.com/store/p572/Spirits_Unwrapped.html?fbclid=IwAR2IlOXZ43BvQUxvgtbgVeACft7lg8dzqJNo7mBiEjjL1UCZfCc6xNht1Y0#/

 

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