Monday 25 October 2010

Book Review: So Cold the River by Michael Kortya

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A haunted bottle of mineral water.

Seriously. That's the premise behind So Cold the River, the latest from American crime fiction sensation Michael Koryta and the first of his works to make it across the Atlantic. Not coincidentally, one can only assume, it's also the first of Koryta's books to feature a shot of the supernatural - in the form of the aforementioned haunted water. Scraping the bottom of the barrel much?

But don't let the supremely dodgy pitch put you off. So Cold the River is a cracking good story: if it's at all indicative of Koryta's talents, consider this reader sold on whatever the gent puts out next.

Now the talking heads - at least the ones who've been talking about Koryta's genre-straddling UK debut - they've gone on and on about The Shining... drawing comparisons, making parallels. For at the heart of So Cold the River, as in Stephen King's magnum opus and indeed Stanley Kubrick's arguably superior film of the same name, is a hotel. In fact, Koryta has two - three if you count The Waddy, an all-black establishment long since gone to ground - but the most remarkable of them, the West Baden Springs Hotel, is the only of them to warrant the comparison, and I'm afraid even that stands as a far cry from the ominous corridors, locked rooms and blood-soaked elevators of The Overlook.

But no matter. Talking heads will say what talking heads will say, and the allusions they make of So Cold the River, the cumulative expectations they create, can be no fault of the author's. Let me be very clear, then, when I assert: this is not The Shining. Koryta's novel is supremely creepy, foreboding and effective. It has a hotel in it, a magnificent hotel which plays an important part in the narrative which unfurls as So Cold the River progresses, and it's peopled with affable, relatable characters the equal of those you tend to find in King's fiction. But this book is chilling in an altogether different way than The Shining. The mooted comparisons would be more apt if they were with Duma Key or The Dark Half.

Anyway. I really should introduce you properly. Eric Shaw is a shamed director of photography who had a chance to take Hollywood by storm but lost it. He's been reduced to making video eulogies of dead people for bereaved families, and at the funeral of one such subject, he meets a woman who sees something special in his work. She hires Eric to travel to the country, where he is to investigate the early life of Campbell Bradford that he might memorialise the man, a billionaire become notorious not for his ownership of the West Baden Springs Hotel nor his hugely successful brand of bottled water, but the criminal enterprise he is reputed to have founded his achievements on. When Eric arrives in the twin towns of West Baden and French Lick, however, he realises there's more to the story than his employer let on. He begins to have visions, horrifying visions... and then the body count starts to rise.

More so than Stephen King, there's a bit of the Joe Hill about So Cold the River. Hill and Koryta have a sense of forward motion King is often too distracted, too prone to digression to achieve. Of course there's digression in Koryta's latest: the third quarter, in truth, is an exercise in treading water, rather stifling the novel's otherwise full-steam-ahead narrative flow. But in every other respect So Cold the River thunders on, such that it's easy to forgive the unscheduled delay. Koryta ratchets up a perfect storm of mystery and tension as Eric learns more and more about the town and the man he's been charged to understand. The cast of characters are straightforward yet never cartoonish; the setting, which is to say West Baden Springs and the grand hotel erected in its honour, is superbly atmospheric, rife with intrigue and unease; and short that third quarter and a couple of credibility-stretching conveniences towards the eminently satisfying climax, the plot is perfectly paced, punctuated by impactful action and regular revelations.

So Cold the River mightn't be The Shining, nor, ultimately, its equal, but all told it's a hell of a book regardless. Brilliant light reading for an October evening. I would, however, advise you take it with a nice cup of tea of coffee; as Dan Simmons says, "For God's sake, don't drink the water!"


So Cold the River
by Michael Koryta

UK Publication: September 2010, Hodder & Stoughton
US Publication: June 2010, Little, Brown and Company

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