Writing a novel in the epistolary format has built in structural restrictions. The narrative is stylistically limited by its literary rules: The tale is told through journals, letters, documents, and the like. Epistolary novels can be sublime. Les Liaisons Dangereuses by 18th-century author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos voyeuristically took the reader into a universe of decadent debauchery which spawned operas, ballets, plays, and multiple films including the guilty pleasure from 1999, Cruel Intentions.

In horror fiction, two standouts are Stephen King’s Carrie and, most famously, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Amanda Desiree throws her hat into the ring with her ambitious debut novel Smithy. To illustrate the rigors of embracing this literary style, I wrote my review of Smithy in epistolary format:

Email from: [email protected]

To: P.W. Sinclair

Subject: On the fence

Hey P.W.,

I was contacted by an Inkshares publicist about reviewing a novel. The titular character Smithy is a chimpanzee. A group of academic researchers are experimenting with him to bridge the gap between ape and human communication…then it appears that Smithy could be a conduit to the realm of ghosts. And to top it off, the book is written in epistolary format. What do you think? Should I agree to review it?

Email from: [email protected]

To: S. Merritt

Subject: Re: On the fence

Eh, I don’t know. It could be good, what do you have to lose? Who’s the author?

Email from: [email protected]

To: P.W. Sinclair

Subject: Re: On the fence

The author’s name wasn’t mentioned in the publicist’s email, which is likely an oversight, but not helpful. I looked up the book on Amazon to obtain that info. The novel is written by Amanda Desiree; it’s her first.

Email from: [email protected]

To: S. Merritt

Subject: Re: On the fence

That really sucks that they didn’t mention the author, but I guess it’s not surprising in this day and age. To most publishing people today, authors probably rank about halfway down the list of importance, somewhere between Instagram influencers and the delivery kid who brings them their gluten-free muffins every morning.

Email from: [email protected]

To: P.W. Sinclair

Subject: Re: On the fence

Ha. Thanks for the laugh. And I’ve decided to do the review.

Fragment of Sheila Merritt’s Review of Smithy for Diabolique:

I like how the author has purposely misspelled words in Gail’s writings to convey the undergrad’s youthful naiveté. It readily identifies her from the other three female project researchers, which is important given the epistolary format. At times though, Gail’s literary voice has the same timbre of co-worker Ruby. They both tend to be gushy in their enthusiasm about the experiment and enthralled by the dilapidated Rhode Island manse which serves as their base of operation. And are not restrained in using exclamation points.

Text Message from P.W. Sinclair to S. Merritt:

P: How’s the review going?

S: I’m challenging myself by writing in epistolary format. Incorporating some of our email convos in it.

P: It doesn’t seem like there’s much in them you could use. Maybe I’m missing something?

Fragment of Sheila Merritt’s Review of Smithy for Diabolique:

Ambiguity abounds in the narrative. Were objects moved and hidden by Smithy or a ghost?  Is Smithy being psychically manipulated by an apparition, or is he simply behaving like his species? He is certainly clever and capable of conning his human handlers who are also prone to being mercurial in mood and temperament. The only character consistent in their personality traits is head honcho Preis-Herald, who remains lecherous and notoriety-driven throughout. He is also conveniently away from the premises when horrific events occur, which frees him from dramatic displays of whiplash-inducing changes in his established behavior.

Email from: [email protected]

To: P.W. Sinclair

Subject: Did I tell you…

…that the book’s action takes place predominantly in 1974-1975? There’s some “in retrospect” stuff that occurs decades later, but the focal plot (about teaching Smithy to communicate more fully with humans) is set during the 1970s.

Email from:  [email protected]

To: S. Merritt

Subject: Re: Did I tell you…

No, you hadn’t previously mentioned the timeframe. Does the author seem to have captured the period?

Email from: [email protected]

To: P.W. Sinclair

Subject: Re: Did I tell you…

She certainly tried hard with references to music, movies, catch phrases, and descriptions of clothing. One thing that seemed quite forced was a party sequence commemorating Smithy’s third birthday. Real life media folk from the era, such as Barbara Walters, Geraldo Rivera, and Regis Philbin attend the festivities. Philbin has a bit of interaction with Smithy that is simultaneously cute and distractingly off-kilter.

Email from: [email protected]

To: S. Merritt

Subject: Re: Did I tell you…

Yikes! That group of celebrity partygoers gives me the willies! Is the book itself genuinely scary?

Email from: [email protected]

To: P.W. Sinclair

Subject: Re: Did I tell you…

There are parts of the novel that brought a frisson of fear down my back. Most of those sequences centered on Smithy. Fans of visceral violence will be appeased as well as those who prefer subtle creepiness. Regarding the latter, you might not be surprised to know that there’s an homage to The Haunting of Hill House. You’ll have to read the complete review for more details. Wink, wink.

Fragment of Sheila Merritt’s Review of Smithy for Diabolique:

In summation, the 519-page novel exhibits the pitfalls of trying to do too much but also displays Amanda Desiree’s burgeoning capabilities as a writer.

Diabolique Magazine on Twitter:

Diabolique @DiaboliqueMag • May 27, 2021

Sheila Merritt breaks the fourth wall in her epistolary-style review of an epistolary novel.