When it comes to horror fiction, I love it all. Stories that deal with the supernatural, cosmic horror, monsters, and everything in between. The thrill I get reading these stories is why I love the genre so much and one of the reasons I got into reviewing in the first place. I wanted to do my own small part to try to introduce that thrill to other readers. I could never pick a favorite type or subgenre, but there is one type of horror that sticks with me the most. It has nothing to do with personal preference, because I honestly don’t think I have a choice in the matter. This particular type of horror just slowly takes over my thoughts long after I finish reading. The sort of horror stories I’m talking about are the ones that have an emotional slant to them, where you could rip out all the otherworldly stuff and still get that same thrill. That’s exactly how I felt after reading Chad Lutzke’s brilliant and powerful new novella, Stirring the Sheets.
Stirring the Sheets follows the widowed Emmett, who is a man of routine. He wears the same clothes every day – a white t-shirt over a long sleeve thermal and a pair of blue Dickies. They are both familiar and comfortable to him, his unofficial uniform that he wears to work at the Griffin Gardens Funeral Home. He has been working there for over 40 years, starting there fresh out of high school as a landscaper. It was something he was good at, transforming the outside of the Griffin’s funeral home into a work of art that even caused them to change the name to Griffin Gardens. He became friends with Jonathan Griffin who owned the home and became an unofficial assistant. His talent transferred to that job as well and he even went to mortician school. He would have been in line to own the business if not for another son in the Griffin family and was even offered promotions. However, he preferred the work that went on behind the scenes rather than consoling those who lost someone even though he was good at that too. He parks in the same spot every morning, just another routine that has become an integral part of Emmett’s life.
While Emmett sticks to his routines in a desperate attempt to maintain control and normalcy in his life, the truth is things haven’t been quite the same since he lost his wife Kate. Their love was so great and their lives so intertwined that without her, it takes all of Emmett’s strength to keep the grief at bay. Instead of kissing his wife every morning before starting his day, he can only kiss the photograph he keeps on the coffee table next to him. He hasn’t made his bed in over a year because they faint outline of her body on her side of the bed still remains. Emmett cannot bear to disturb it and risk losing one of the few remnants of his wife that remain in their home. While this may help Emmett from completely isolating himself and succumbing to his grief, it is still a pale imitation of the vibrant life he and Kate used to share together.
The only friend Emmett has in the neighborhood is Rosemary Dabicci, who is also a widower. She knows Emmett is stubborn and still buried under the grief left by the loss of his wife, but she does all she can to bring him out of her shell. Emmett is cordial with Rosemary, but he never fully allows himself to open up to her friendship. He focuses all his energy on getting through each day without Kate and it takes all of his strength to hold himself together. However, one day at Griffin Gardens, he is getting ready to prepare a body that has been brought in and when he pulls back the sheet, he’s startled by what he sees. This one moment threatens to unravel Emmett’s structured life and sets in motion a chain of events that will change everything.
Stirring the Sheets has a strong opening that pulls the reader in right away and I love the bold choice from Lutzke. I don’t want to spoil it for those who have yet to read it, but it’s an effective hook that opens a world of questions before we even get to the main story and hits readers like a jolt of electricity. As soon as I read that opening prologue, I knew there was no putting this book down and that I was about to read something truly special.
Stirring the Sheets is a self-contained story with only a handful of characters. There are a few supporting characters, but really the strength of the novella lies with Emmett and that speaks to Lutzke’s talent at creating realistic characters. If Emmett falls flat or readers don’t connect with him, the entire story unravels. Luckily, throughout the course of the novella, Lutzke builds a realistic portrayal of a grieving man who is instantly relatable. I also love the fact that this novel makes the elderly characters the primary focus of the story. I could be wrong, but this is one of the rare horror stories I have seen that has done that. It provides a very interesting frame of reference throughout the novella and makes the overall theme hit that much harder.
Rosemary is an interesting to contrast to Emmett, especially since she went through a similar situation. While Emmett seems to be more stubborn and sullen, Rosemary has a much livelier personality. She is always wearing a sundress and hat in the summer and loves pastel colors. She understands what Emmett is growing through and tries to help him come to his own sort of closure over the loss of his wife. Whether it is bringing him brownies or just trying to get him out of the house to talk. Emmett is conflicted on how to respond to Rosemary’s acts of kindness, because he feels like it would be cheating on his wife Kate. I love how Lutzke includes Emmett’s internal arguments in these situations. The voice in his head tells him that change will happen whether he likes it or not and that Kate is dead. This shows that Emmett realizes how far out of control his life has gotten, but that he still can’t bring himself to accept it. Rosemary and Emmett’s relationship has a very realistic arc throughout Stirring the Sheets and it was one of my favorite parts of the novel. I think readers will find a lot to enjoy in this particular subplot as well as it plays an integral part in the story and delivers a great scene.
I also loved Emmett’s character, because he seems like an average person that could very well be your next door neighbor. He’s approaching seventy and his body is starting to fail him. He’s aware of his aging, but despite that, he still has the mindset of a much younger man. A great example is the tense relationship Emmett has with his younger neighbor Julian. Emmett sees him as an asshole with no regard for anyone else and I think many readers will get the same impression. Julian often taunts Emmett by calling him “geezer” and making mean remarks about his wife. He knows he’s no match for Julian in a physical confrontation, but that doesn’t stop Emmett from fantasizing about hitting him just once to put him in his place. That isn’t to say Emmett is a push over, he still trades verbal jabs with Julian and gets his revenge in more creative ways. He also views his work in the funeral services field as his own small way to help the loved ones of those who have passed to cope with their grief. He has even consoled those left behind on rare occasions and often gives them the advice to do whatever they need to do “for as long as it takes” to cope with their lost. I thought that was interesting because grief is something that now weighs on him heavily and he pushes away those who extend him the same kindness, albeit gently.
I also loved how Lutzke introduces Kate throughout the story by using memories Emmett has of her. While there are big set pieces that show their love and why her passing has affected his life in such a strong way, it’s the small details that help paint a realistic picture of their relationship and give her character a strong presence. Small details like when he wakes up and looks at his old alarm clock and remembers how much she hated it and how she would call him a “grumpy old man who hated change”. I also thought it was a great storytelling technique to slowly reveal what happened to Kate and to also spread out Emmett’s memories throughout the story. This not only strengthens the importance of her character, but makes her a major part of the overall story, not just the beginning.
Stirring the Sheets tackles the themes of loneliness and grief in a unique way and it packs one hell of an emotional punch. This story could have easily gone off the rails and been seen as a strictly morbid work, but the way Lutzke handles it, you can’t help but feel connected to Emmett and feel the weight of his grief. I don’t want to venture to far into spoiler territory, but once you read this novella and see the progression of Emmett’s grief and the lengths he goes to in order to deal with those feelings, you will know exactly what I mean. I think that is part of what makes this such a great book. While the scenes that provide the morbid, horror element are extremely well done, they are used to accentuate Emmett’s journey rather than serve as the main focus. That is the mark of an extremely talented writer, the ability to get you to experience all of that weirdness and still root for Emmett and empathize with him for the entire story. While there is a lot of heavy moments in this book, Lutzke also introduces some glimmers of hope.
This was my first time reading one of Lutzke’s books and I was absolutely blown away by his talent. I can’t believe it has taken me this long to experience one of his works and I urge you not to make the same mistake. The way he is able to tap into your emotions and craft a virtually flawless story is incredible. Stirring the Sheets is a novella that left a lasting impression on me and is definitely in contention for the best novella I have read so far this year. Do yourself a favor – especially if you like books that deal with emotional horror – and pick up a copy of Stirring the Sheets. You won’t regret it.