Alone Again, Naturally

Saturday! Tonight LSU takes on Ole Miss in yet another crucial game for the Tigers. Heavy sigh. I have a lot to do today–cleaning, errands–around football games, and I am going to start reading another book while editing some short stories and–hopefully–working on the revision of Bourbon Street Blues.

But yesterday, I finally had the time to devote to Bracken MacLeod’s amazing Stranded.

stranded
The void churned and swelled, reaching up to pull them down into frigid darkness, clamoring to embrace them, every one. A cold womb inviting them to return to the lightless source of all life, and die, each man alone in its black silence.

The sea battered the ship, waves crashing against the hull as the ship’s master tried to quarter–turning the vessel into the waves to lessen their impact. While he struggled at the helm, the crew scrambled to get into their gear. The men grabbed sledgehammers and baseball bats, rushing to the aid of their fellow deckhands like a medieval army mustering to stand against the cavalry that would break them, line and bone. Noah wrestled with his waterproof gear, trying to pull on his pants and jacket, jamming hands into clumsy gloves that would combat frostbite for only so long. The ship pitched and Noah lurched in the passageway, trying not to lose his footing, trying not to be thrown to the deck before he was even out in the storm. He shoved his foot into a boot, staggering away from his locker as gravity and momentum conspired to bash his skull against the bulkhead. He careened into the wall, feeling a pop and a blossom of pain in his shoulder. He gritted his teeth and shoved himself away; he had to get on the cargo deck with the others. He couldn’t be defeated before he even got outside.

The key to writing excellent horror, to quote Stephen King yet again, is to write about what scares you. Conversely, I think the most effective horror fiction is written about what scares and unsettles the reader. The opening to this exceptionally fine novel is a perfect example of why I will never board a ship and have absolutely no desire to ever go on a cruise. Is there anything more unsettling than not having solid ground beneath you? Every earthquake I experienced in California was horrific for that reason–when you can’t trust the floor beneath your feet not to move….shudder.

I’m not necessarily as afraid of cold as I dislike it intensely. I grew up in Chicago, spent my teens in Kansas, and as an adult, one horrible winter in Minneapolis (I love Minneapolis; just can’t handle the winters; it didn’t help that the particular winter I spent there was one of the worst in years). The rest of my life has been spent for the most part in warm-weather climates; I’ve only visited the cold on trips. I don’t like being cold, really. So, of course, books set where it’s cold always affect me (Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is one example–I still shiver not only from the scares in that book but from the images of the snowbound town; there was one by I think a British writer set in a ski lodge that was also horrifying but I can’t remember the name of the writer–he was recommended by a friend; Christopher Golden’s Snowblind, which I haven’t gotten to yet; and so many others….)

So, Stranded takes place on a freighter, in the winter, in the Arctic Sea, bringing supplies to an oil rig. The main character, Noah Cabot, is kind of the scapegoat on the ship, the Arctic Promise; no one seems to like him very much and the ship’s heirarchy really hate him, yet at the same time he is enormously likable to the reader. There’s some deep pain inside of him, this son of a family of long-time Maine fisherman, who went away to college in Seattle, but MacLeod plays his cards about Noah’s backstory perfectly, like a card shark reeling his victim in, card by card. And before you know it, the ship is beset; frozen in by the ice, trapped, with all of its communications not working. There is a weird fog, and everyone on the ship seems to be coming down with some kind of ailment. Out in the distance they can see the shape of something…maybe it’s the oil rig… and Noah, as one of the only men on board not affected by the strange sickness, is selected to help lead a team of men across the ice to whatever that shape is out in the distance.

And then the real fun begins.

The premise of the story is really enough to keep the reader intrigued enough to keep turning the pages–these are some serious stakes here–but MacLeod is a master at pacing, and knowing when to drop in those precious moments of backstory so that the reader becomes even more vested in the characters he is reading about. I kept trying to guess what was going on–I did figure one thing out–but I was almost always wrong, which is gratifying as a reader. The atmosphere is gothic and spooky, and the way MacLeod uses the freezing weather to amp up the tension is spectacular; not to mention his way of making the individual characters unique enough to be distinctive–not an easy task when you have as many minor characters populating a short novel like this.

I had read and deeply enjoyed MacLeod’s Mountain Home after I had met him at World Horror Con here in New Orleans whenever that was; I am really looking forward to reading his other novel, White Knight. His transition from noir to horror was seamless and exceptional; a mark of a truly gifted writer.

BUY THIS BOOK.

And more, please.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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