The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories - Ethan Rutherford

The stories in The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, a collection from Ethan Rutherford, map the surprising ways in which the world we think we know can unexpectedly reveal its darker contours. In stories that are alternately funny, persuasive, and compelling, unforgettable characters are confronted with, and battle against, the limitations of their lives.




I came across this short story collection a few months back. After reading the inside flap synopsis, seeing that there seemed to be a solid nautical theme -- life at sea, that sort of thing -- I was a little leery to get into this book because me + anything referencing deep water = anxiety central. BUT... reading bits of some of the stories, I was intrigued by the writing style. A run down of the stories themselves:


* The title story, "The Peripatetic Coffin" (FYI for those who don't know, peripatetic = wandering or nomadic, tendency to move around a lot): tells the jinxed history of the Civil War Era Confederate submarine, the H. L. Hunley. The story is told in a first person perspective from one of the men on-board right up to the ship's final dive. 


* "Summer Boys": The summer of 1987, two friends hanging out the summer before 6th grade. Some self-discovery going on, as well as an unexpected shift in the friendship. 


* "John, For Christmas": Parents waiting for their son John's (away at college) return home to the family farm for the holidays. While the reader waits for the reunion, they're served up glimpses of John's struggle with chronic depression, panic attacks, and scary, dark turns in mood. 


* "Camp Winnesaka": A camp director is trying to figure out what happened to the stuffed moose head mascot that's gone missing. Suspecting a nearby rival camp has taken it, he enlists the help of campers and staff, going to ridiculous and ultimately dangerous lengths to get the head back. Doesn't end how you might think. 


*The Saint Anna": 25 Russian sailors (during the reign of Czar Nicholas II) aboard the schooner St. Anna, trying to survive after the ship gets trapped in Arctic waters. 


* "The Broken Group": A father and son are on a sailing trip when they cross paths with a man stranded on a small island. Initially, they are all for helping him out but quickly start to feel there's something off about this guy. 


* "A Mugging": The title pretty much tells it. A married couple is strolling through town on a date night when they suddenly find themselves being mugged. The story then focuses on the aftermath and the emotional anguish that plagues this couple in the weeks following the attack. The trauma causes a major shift in the husband's psyche. 


* "Dirwhals!": This story told from the point of view of character Lewis Dagnew, a crewman aboard the ship Halycon, writing in its ship log.The difference here is this one seems to be a sort of post- apocalyptic, sci-fi tale because Dagnew writes of the Halycon traveling over seas of SAND, the crew on a mission to hunt down dirwhals, which (per the description in the story) sound something like those creepy worm-like creatures from the movie Tremors (though the name Dirwhal kept putting the image of sand-dwelling norwhals in my mind!)



As it turns out, not all the stories have to do with the sea, the Navy, etc. Some appear to be completely void of water themes. I really liked the title story but after that, the rest of the story was a bit of a hit-or-miss affair for me. I'm not quite sure what was going on with "Summer Boys"... was Rutherford trying to suggest homoerotic themes? I found that one a little confusing. Some of the humor in "Camp Winnesaka" went past dark / risque and right into slightly offensive to me. In "The Broken Group", I was a little surprised that the story went into thriller territory, as none of the other stories in this collection seemed to have that feel. Yeah, some of these short stories left me with more mental question marks and WTH moments, more than anything.


Besides the title story, I think the others I liked best were "John, For Christmas", "The Saint Anna" (though it got a little weird in parts, I did kinda enjoy the banter that went around the ship), and "The Mugging" -- which did have a hint of suspense but not in the same way you find in "The Broken Group". "The Mugging" was more about internal turmoil, which held my attention well, though the husband did get increasingly scary to read, in a way. I had similar feelings about "John, For Christmas" -- his mental unwellness made him uncomfortable to read at times because you didn't know how far he was going to go, but there were also moments where I felt a lot of empathy not only for the son character but also the parents. 


Though there were elements that I did like, thinking about it ... I think the cons outweighs the pros for me on this one. This was one of those times where I found myself pulled into the author's writing style, but maybe not so much all his topics. I'll have to try some of Rutherford's other stuff in the future and see how I feel.