Read enough horror, and you start feeling like you can predict where a book or story is going to go within a few pages or chapters. I’m not saying that all horror is predictable or formulaic; just that enough of it is that some reviewers (like me) might find themselves getting a little cocky after a few successful predictions. Then someone like Chad Lutzke comes along with a novella like Stirring the Sheets, and gleefully knocks you off your high horse.
Dedicated to “the old and alone,” Stirring the Sheets is the story of Emmett, a man in the depths of grief, struggling to find his way through his new life as a widower. Emmett is literally surrounded by death—at home, among the countless reminders of his late wife, Kate; and at the funeral home where he works. He’s doing a remarkable job carrying on after losing his companion of 49 years, but Emmett knows he’s in a rut; he’s just not sure how—or why—he should break out of it.
One day a new “client” arrives at the funeral home. She is in her 30s, a suicide, and a dead ringer (sorry) for Kate. She’s scheduled for cremation, and while she waits for her turn on the schedule, she’s in cold storage. And Emmett, well, he can’t stop thinking about her.
So, yeah. At this point, I’m thinking, “I know where this is going.” Likely, you have ideas of your own. There’s an obvious path here, especially in a horror novella. Thankfully, Lutzke has other—better—ideas.
What Lutzke does is to steer this story away from the gutter. He’s not going for the gross-out. I would have been okay with it if he had; but I wouldn’t have been as impacted by Stirring the Sheets if that’s where Lutzke had taken me. There are several times Lutzke sets us up to expect the obvious choice (with the asshole neighbor, for example, or the hapless assistant at the funeral home) and doesn’t take it. Yes, there’s a sense of horror at what Emmett ultimately does, but it’s overwhelmed by a sense of sadness. As unthinkable as his actions are, we can all imagine scenarios where loneliness and grief drown out all reason. That’s the dark place Lutzke takes us, and it resonates far more than the obvious choices ever could.
Stirring the Sheets does what horror does best, yet all-too-rarely gets the chance to do: it breaks your heart, and makes you think. I’ve had the pleasure of reading Chad Lutzke’s reviews when he contributes to us here at Cemetery Dance, but this was my first look at his fiction. It won’t be my last. Highly recommended.