“Follow Seraphina through the mouth of the Goblin: To the left, a wolf-themed roller coaster rests on the blackened earth, curled up like a dead snake. To the right, an animatronic Humpty Dumpty falls off a concrete castle and shatters on the ground, only to reform itself moments later. Up ahead, cultists giggle as they meditate in a hall of mirrors. This is the last place in the world Seraphina wants to be, but the best way to investigate this bizarre cult, is to join them.”
Jeremy Shipp writes quirky and often disturbing tales, and The Merry Dredgers is no different. Shipp flexes their writing muscles by creating two unsettling settings, an eerie amusement park and a cult while sliding a mystery inside. And while this is marketed under the banner of science fiction, fantasy, or even young adult, this is a very adult story brimming with suspense about pain and sisterhood and the lengths to which someone will go to find answers or at least an iota of peace.
The blurb talks about Seraphina Ramon and how she will stop at nothing to find out the truth about why her sister Eff is in a coma after a very suspicious “accident.” What happened to her sister, and why is she in a coma? Even if it means infiltrating the last place Seraphina knew Eff was alive: a once-abandoned amusement park now populated by a community of cultists. And again, in the Shipp style, characters are neither bad nor good but layered. The people and lifestyle the cultists lead are comforting, and Seraphina finds friendship and camaraderie among the members, which greatly complicates things for her from a moralistic viewpoint.
There is also a profound story between the sisters; even with Eff being in a coma, it is still pronounced and nuanced. You can disagree with your sister and often hate her and her choices, but the bond of sisterhood can run deep. While reading this story, I understood and empathized with many of Seraphina’s actions.
One of the great strengths of the story, and one that almost becomes a character itself, is the setting. An abandoned amusement park full of rust and pealing paint where you might hear the echos of a child’s laughter or a roller coaster flying by is the perfect setting for something disturbing. Something in this setting is slightly off, much like a cult. And Shipp expounds on that. It feels like Seraphina is walking into hell, but it is ok, no, really, because she is with new friends, and friends would not lead you astray.
If you are looking at reading some of Shipps’s other works, I recommend Bedfellow, which is an absolute mind scramble of a book. Or, if you are looking for stories with a similar feel, hop over to Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, which also depicts a sisterly relationship but in a much different way.
It is dark, whimsical, melancholic, and poignant – The Merry Dredgers is some of Jeremy Shipps’s best and most complicated work and should not be missed.