Snow

Despite having been born in Maine, raised in western New York, and having lived the past 13 years in Pennsylvania, I hate snow. Perhaps it calls up childhood fears of a war ending in nuclear winter or, after reading Carl Sagan’s Comet at age 8, an impact winter thrust upon us by an extraterrestrial body. 2010-2011, the infamous East Coast “Snowpocalypse,” gave us a taste of what it might be like if one had to eke out their survival in a seemingly endless winter. We in Philly were lucky–we didn’t lose power and heat like so many others did, but we were housebound for a couple of days after each storm. I enjoyed the reprieve from work. Wondering if the next storm would rob us of electricity and therefore heat? Not so much.

Like death, snow is unstoppable. It is as cold and white as a corpse. Snow has been used to great effect in work like Peter Straub’s Ghost Story and Tim Lebbon’s White. It is also central to the premise of Ronald Malfi’s Snow, as you might guess from the title. Let’s face it, there aren’t many monsters exclusively associated with snow outside of yetis. In North America we do have the terrifying Algonquian legend of the wendigo, which was where I was hoping this book would go, having written a wendigo story of my own that is currently being subbed. Alas. Instead we have snow spirits with the inexplicable ability to turn their arms into scythes, by which they puppeteer humans who, at that point, pretty much become zombies. I’ll give Malfi credit for his unique mode of zombification. Malfi is a decent writer, but I did not find any of his characters particularly likeable. I have had this problem with more than one book over the course of my three Readings In Genre classes; as Joyce Carol Oates has noted, it tends to plague horror fiction due to the genre’s habit of  placing more importance on the situation or phenomena than on character development.

I enjoyed Malfi’s attitude toward his female characters even less. Honestly, sniping about “women’s lib” because a grown woman does not appreciate being referred to as a “girl?” Yes, how dare we be offended when a man infantilizes us. Unfortunately it is not the book’s only instance of the infantilization of women, and despite the gains women have made in the horror genre, this is an area in which its conservative streak rears its ugly head far too frequently. With the exception of Shawna, who dies anyway as if she’s being punished for presuming to take care of herself, the women spend their time crying and waiting for the men to take any decisive action. It is the stereotype Mort Castle refers to in On Writing Horror as “The Helpless Female,” and horror desperately needs to run away from it and into the 21st century. Kate is virtually pointless as a character, which brings me to another problem I had with the book, and that I have with many horror novels: the forced romantic subplot. Thankfully Kate and Todd do not end up together, though ironically that makes her even more useless. Don’t get me started on sending a man with an injured leg to go after the laptop while the uninjured woman sits around the station looking after the children…as if that’s all a woman is meant to do.

The plot itself is an unremarkable siege story that’s been done to death. When things started looking very Michael Bay toward the end of the book, what with the explosions and fires and so on, I pretty much checked out. Malfi’s writing style is really the only thing that saved this one, but I can’t say I’m sold on reading his other work. Except maybe the one Chris Shearer mentioned.

You Are a Ghost

I first read Peter Straub’s Ghost Story years ago, when pleasure reading was something I still had time to do. Back then it wasn’t the writing that disappointed me–Straub is a masterful writer (read his short story “The Juniper Tree”), and few are as capable of the same rich characterizations; I felt like I truly knew–and liked–the men of the Chowder Society. It wasn’t that the book didn’t scare me–it didn’t, but there are genuinely creepy sections, like the opening scenes with Don Wanderley and Angie, or Sears’s tale of Fenney Bate. These passages occur before the introduction of the “shapeshifter” concept; when, on my first reading, I believed we were still dealing with ghosts, they were extremely effective in setting a very creepy tone for the book.

Then Straub tells us that we’re not dealing with ghosts at all, but the creatures responsible for all of our stories concerning the supernatural, and I felt…cheated. This is still the weakest aspect of the book for me, as I do not find Straub’s shapeshifters to be particularly frightening. That they ultimately stem from the human imagination, but can manifest in reality and kill simply because they enjoy it, was unsatisfying to me. I’m not one of those people who needs everything explained to them in big red letters (in fact, I prefer if you don’t insult my intelligence, thank you), but I do appreciate when an author takes the time to develop his or her villains and their motivations as deeply as the protagonists. Why Milburn? Why these men? The elements are all in place, and Straub is certainly capable of weaving them together in an interesting way, but he spends so much time on character studies of Milburn’s citizens (as wonderful as those passages are–this book is never boring) that the plot never has a chance to develop as cohesively as it should have. In my mind, the more frightening story here would be that of a spirit, the physical manifestation of the psychological haunting that each of these men are experiencing, returning over and over again to torment them and all associated with them. You know, the ghost story we were led to believe we were reading before the plot drifted inexplicably toward shapeshifting. The shapeshifter aspect, because it’s underdeveloped, feels tacked on–the epilogue is the worst offender–and, at points, just plain silly. I applaud Straub for attempting to do something new with the ghost story; unfortunately it didn’t quite work.

Having said all that, let’s get down to what does work in this book. Setting plays a vital role in Ghost Story, and for me it gets personal. I grew up in a New York town, smaller and far less charming than Straub’s Milburn, but with the same social stratification and the same sense of claustrophobia. Being on the low end of the social totem pole (hmm…pun not intended–my town is on a Seneca reservation), I couldn’t wait to get out. To have winter arrive in October and last until April was not uncommon and added to the feeling of being trapped, much like the citizens of Milburn. Snow, with its attendant wind chills often dipping tens of degrees below zero, was our frequent antagonist. The nearest city of any note was close to 20 miles away; Buffalo was almost 60. Nestled into a valley just off the highway, the town felt as cut off from civilization as you could get. We couldn’t even sustain our own hospital. You wanted to see a movie? Forget about today’s multiplexes–our theater was lodged in an all but abandoned mall downtown; two theaters, running films six months after their initial release. Setting was what pulled me into Ghost Story the first time around–I’d essentially spent my childhood in Milburn–and it pulled me in this time. I felt that oppressiveness all over again, and on that level Straub connected with me as a reader.

I did not dislike this book by any means; however, I feel that it would have been much more effective as a traditional ghost story. Reading it a second time, I’m convinced the Ghost Story that could have been–and almost was–was a better book than the one actually written.