Reviewed by Erin Britton
Whether through skill or luck, the grave listener has a responsibility to the living to ensure that the recently deceased stay dead.
The Grave Listeners, William Frank’s debut novel, is an intriguing mashup of paranormal fantasy and historical fiction. Set in a world where belief in the supernatural takes precedent over understanding of science, it follows a true antihero throughout his disastrous attempts to reclaim his position on the lowest rung of his village’s social ladder—that is, his role as the village’s official grave listener.
Volushka is the last in a long line of grave listeners. In keeping with family tradition, he spends his working hours up at the cemetery on the hill and the remainder of his time either in the village brothel or hiding in some convenient shrubbery to avoid being beaten up by his fellow villagers. For, while the villagers generally agree that a grave listener is a necessary evil, in the case of Volushka in particular, he’s “everybody’s good-for-nothing until one of their precious loved ones dies.”
Still, despite their deep dislike of Volushka, the villagers are superstitious folk, which means they continue to employ him to keep watch over the recently deceased. His current charge is the mother of five-year-old Benzi, the only one in the village who actively seeks out Volushka’s company. The woman has apparently died of natural causes, but her family has paid Volushka to spend three days at her graveside, where he is to use a system of metal tubes attached to her coffin to listen for sounds of life.
Volushka maintains that being a grave listener is a noble and arduous calling: “You have to be able to discern, scientifically, between the natural, the supernatural and the subtleties of the imagination. You have to have a fine ear.” However, despite his apparent skill at combating the undead and all other manner of supernatural beings, he is inherently a lazy slob and is soon dozing “in his stupefying drunkenness against a headstone, in the cool sunlight in the cemetery on the hill.”
For this reason, Volushka fails to notice the arrival of enigmatic stranger Marcabrusa in the cemetery. The newcomer is charming and ambitious—everything that Volushka is not—and after he observes just how cozy a billet being a grave listener can be, he determines to take the role for himself. While the villagers are easily swayed by Marcabrusa’s honeyed words, Volushka is instantly suspicious of him and the influence he quickly exerts.
Noting that Marcabrusa’s arrival has coincided with a distinct uptick in the number of untimely demises in the village, Volushka becomes convinced that his rival has brought a plague with him. Keen to win back the mantle of grave listener, Volushka determines to do whatever it takes to expose Marcabrusa’s villainy and prove his own prowess with all things undead.
The Grave Listeners has an unusual and intriguing premise. It’s immediately clear why Volushka wants to be a grave listener—how else is he going to keep himself in food and drink while doing the least amount of work possible?—although the extent to which he actually believes in the business of a grave listener is far less clear.
While it is specified that “[w]hen night fell, the cemetery came alive,” not much seems to happen up on the hill at night other than drunken antics and poorly conceived schemes. Indeed, for all his boasting—“How many times have I been attacked by some crazed soul crawling out of the ground who thinks I’m a devil or a meal or otherwise tries to drag me for companionship into the grave?”—Volushka has very little contact with paranormal entities.
But he does venture to the lair of the Witch of Gore Mal Gore at one point, so the supernatural is real in this world. It’s a unique choice to withhold more of the non-normal and leave this aspect of Volushka’s life up to the reader’s imagination, as it is with the townspeople. At times, I longed for a bit more of the paranormal, but I can see why it refrains.
There is some good banter between Marcabrusa and Volushka, which is only topped in hilarity by some of 5-year-old Benzi’s outbursts. Marcabrusa is a clear antagonist, but he is absent for a chunk of the book, and I would have loved to see him develop more.
The worldbuilding is richly detailed. While the exact time and place in which The Grave Listeners is set are not specified, the atmosphere of the village and the prevailing practices and norms are clearly evoked. It’s a strange place populated by strange people, but for all the supernatural lore and unexplained deaths, it seems like such a real place.
Overall, The Grave Listeners is a fast-paced and imaginative story that neatly balances earthy humor with the more macabre elements of paranormal mythology. This makes for an entertaining read.
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