“We talk about climate change like it’s a future threat… But look at California. It’s unlivable.”
In Edendale, Jacquelyn Stolos crafts a story that starts off as a slow burn and builds to a fast read. Set during wildfire season in Northeastern Los Angeles, the events of Edendale unfold while the blaze looms the background and never lets the tension dissipate. Dysfunctional dynamics between her well-rounded cast of characters create a satisfying sense of unease and foreboding. With her prose, Stolos creates a painfully relatable mixture of terror and apathy (dare I say, millennial in its nature), which skillfully permeates the book. While interpersonal relationships take the forefront, Stolos’ subtle eco-horror never lets us forget that there are inescapable forces coming for her characters, and for us all.
At the start of the book, dry September air ignites the beginnings of wildfire season in California. Wildlife spills over into the suburban streets and the air quality worsens by the day. With natural disaster on the horizon, four roommates in Los Angeles do their best to live their everyday lives. Egypt, an aspiring actress, starts to question the true nature of her relationship with her boyfriend, Lyle. Everyone, including her childhood best friend, Megan, tells her that Lyle’s love is a gift. However, as his love grows more and more demanding, she struggles to return his feelings and to find her agency in the relationship. The love Lyle is offering seems to be just as consuming as the wildfires around them. Meanwhile, Megan clings to anything that gives her a sense of regularity. As a schoolteacher, she invests in her students both inside and outside the classroom. At the apartment, she serves as a self-appointed house mom, cooking, cleaning and counseling her roommates. She’s spread too thin, and we dread what will happen when she reaches her inevitable burnout. The fourth roommate, Ropey, starts the book by going to the bank, closing out his account, and transferring his net worth into his sock drawer. A lifelong Californian, Ropey remains the most attuned to the changes the wildfires bring. Finally, there is Captain America, the cat of the house. Delightfully charming, not just in name, he holds the heart of the book. So, when he begins to lose his orange coat, and exhibit strange bleeding sores, we know that something dreadful is on the horizon.
Jacquelyn Stolos creates characters that are full of delicious contradictions. Egypt is an actress unable to access her emotions. Megan is a caretaker who looks after everyone but herself. Lyle is a boyfriend whose idea of love is overwhelmingly one-sided. Ropey, a man recently untethered from his bank account, feels like the most stable and self-aware of the four. When placed together it’s clear that their living situation, just like the climate disaster surrounding them, is unsustainable. Between the worsening air outside, the disagreements about rent and the history between the four, the apartment is a house of cards ready to fall. As the book moves towards its conclusion, Stolos leads us to an ending that feels both surprising and inevitable.
“Edendale was quiet. The short stucco houses were sealed up against the heat and the big yard dogs lay on their sides, panting in the barely-shade. In the street, a white sedan crunched over a palm frond, leaving it limp and twitching in the middle of the road.”
Edendale shines in its pacing, themes, and prose. The bite-sized chapters, shifting perspectives, and taut dramatic action quickly move the reader through the book. I often found myself picking it up to get “just a few” chapters in, only to set it down a hundred pages later. Each chapter slowly unfoldss in a way that makes you want to seek out what’s at its core. Also, Stolos’ theme of agency manifests in many different ways; whether it’s Egypt trying to gain control in her relationship, Megan trying to keep the ash out of her classroom, or Ropey clinging to his funds, each character’s response perfectly captures that sinking sense of unease. When the rug is about to be pulled from under them, it comes out from under us too. Further, Stolos never lets you forget the genre she’s writing in. Every chapter delicately builds anxiety and suspense. Her prose deftly switches from beauty to savagery, usually in the same sentence, and it’s a wonderful way to give the book an edge. Whether she’s describing a yellow dress as something that doesn’t belong on a body or pitching every beat of an awkward dinner party, Stolos never lets us off the hook until the very end.
Finally, Stolos’ use of eco-horror gives Edendale an extra level of tension and dread, especially in light of recent events. Loosely defined as a narrative based around environmental and correspondingly social themes, eco-horror is the perfect vehicle for the story Stolos is telling. The world burns around her characters as they fight to maintain their normal lives. But everyday the coyotes get closer and the smoke fills the sky. This story about seeking control in an uncontrollable world makes Edendale terrifyingly prescient. Climate change is an overwhelming fact. Currently, there are massive wildfires ravaging California. While there aren’t viral lockdowns in the book, as the wildfires close in, our main cast becomes trapped in a house that no longer feels like a home. I can’t lie, the book gives me chills because of how accurately it resonates with this moment in history.
Believe me, I understand how a book with wildfires, that explores deteriorating relationships, and lack of agency, can feel a little too close to home for some. But, for me, Edendale does something that only the horror genre can do. It allows me to navigate my fears on my own terms. Yes, I was one of those people who rented Contagion and read Station Eleven as soon as COVID-19 hit. For me, horror gives me a safe way to engage with something that feels uncontrollable. I control the pages. I control the remote. The story is my key. It allows me to unlock myself and look my fears in the face. Doing this gives me a sense of agency. Ednedale reminded me how important and powerful that agency is.
Perfectly capturing a stark Los Angeles, Jacquelyn Stolos creates a story that is looming and liminal, while still being grounded. As each element expertly weaves into the next, we are invited to consider the other kinds of encompassing fires in their lives. With a sharp and subtle skill, Edendale reminds us of horrors that are with us today.