So Cold the River, by Michael Koryta

Posted on December 7, 2010 by

I read So Cold the River on Sunday, in a multi-part loafing session of epic proportions. The novel is a supernatural thriller by Michael Koryta, something Kelly had heard about and knew I’d probably enjoy.

So Cold the River is very much cut from the Peter Straub / Stephen King mold of a certain era. There’s a small town with a hint of magic to it, and some underlying but long-dormant evil. Then an outsider wakes it up, pissing it off in the process. (In some of these books, like It, there’s a variation, whereby the evil explodes every X number of years, like seventeen year cicadas But I digress).

Soon enough the outsider and the big supernatural bad are engaged in a freaky struggle for the whole ball of wax, by which I mean the lives of everyone in town who fails to reach minimum safe distance.

The heroic outsider in this case is a cinematographer, Eric Shaw, who fried a promising Hollywood career a couple years ago by breaking a famous director’s nose. Since then he’s been self-destructing as fast as he can: alienating his wife, refusing to work on anything meaningful and drinking more than he ought. Ooh, he’s a real bundle of joy, our Eric. He’s found one paying gig that suits his self-loathing: making souped-up funeral slide shows for well-off families who can’t operate Powerpoint. It is one of those vids–and the fact that he’s just a teeny bit psychic–that lands him a job doing a private biopic on a dying man, a patriarchal old tycoon who has never told his family the first thing about his past.

So Cold the River is good and spooky, and Koryta writes nice supple prose: It’s evocative but never overly busy, like this bit:

Past Bloomington to Bedford, and then the highway hooked and lost a lane in a town called Mitchell and began to dip and rise as it carved through the hills.

Carved. Good verb! And the cadence is just like a road trip.

The novel builds well almost to the end, and the answer to its central mystery–who is the old man whose family knew so little about him, and what is with his freaky bottle of eighty-year-old spring water?–is both creepy and satisfying. In terms of flaws… well, both Eric and his chief antagonist, the town redneck, have sidekicky friends who are far more interesting and (in Eric’s case) likeable than they are. And as things wind up to the piano-wire tautness of the necessary dangerous confrontation, the twists and turns get predictable. But these are minor complaints. So Cold the River is a well-crafted and engaging story, and it is an especially terrific example of a tale told with a foot in two eras–the digital now and the early, desperate, bootlegging days of the Great Depression.

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