Longtime mystery writer Michael Koryta has lots going for him in So Cold The River, his foray into supernatural-thriller territory. He has a weirdly elaborate resort that dominates the skyline of a small town. He has a lost river that bubbles along beneath the ground. He has a spooky landscape where race, class, and blood feuds all combine explosively. And he has a mysterious water that the locals claimed had mystical properties in the early days of the 20th century. For fans of supernatural stuff, this should be catnip.
Instead, So Cold The River ends up feeling weirdly leisurely, as though Koryta’s river were a lazy one rolling along on a warm summer’s day. There are constant attempts to instill a sense of urgency, attempts that almost succeed on one or two occasions, but for the most part, it feels like Koryta wants readers to think certain things are true simply because he says so.
The novel follows filmmaker Eric Shaw, once a promising young cinematographer working his way up the Hollywood power ladder. He’s had a long series of setbacks, and wound up making memorial tribute videos of dead people, to be shown at their funerals. After he produces one particularly perceptive video, the subject’s sister recruits Shaw to make a film about her father-in-law, who left his small Indiana town behind and rarely spoke of it to anyone. So Shaw heads to the strange (and real) town of West Baden Springs, where the ghosts of the past rise up to have their revenge, and he’s soon racing both his demons and the town’s.
It’s a promising setup for a novel, and Koryta is able to get by on suggested menace and spooky setting for roughly half the book’s page length. But when he needs to start bringing the threads of his story together, Koryta proves unable to move beyond setting the mood and moving the plot forward. That leaves the book’s final sections, which should be a pell-mell rush toward destruction, feeling oddly lackadaisical.
It also doesn’t help that the characters are poorly developed. Shaw is nicely wrought as a portrayal of promise gone to seed, but the other two point-of-view characters are a spunky old woman with many hidden talents, and a bad guy who gets worse when he dabbles in the supernatural, though his particular brand of evil feels too cartoonish to be menacing even before he starts messing with ghosts. Furthermore, Koryta’s idea of character development is often confined to Shaw’s opinions of people, with little chance for readers to observe them free from his perspective. It’s possible Koryta is going for an effect where what Shaw thinks and what’s actually happening are diametrically opposed, but there’s never enough evidence for the defense. Ultimately, it’s weird to have such a lugubrious book feature vengeful specters from the distant past and tornadoes that deal destruction, but So Cold never makes the leap from curiosity to gripping page-turner.