Stranded by Bracken MacLeod (published by Tor Books) drew me in immediately. The book is complex, dark and unapologetically cryptic. The book is atmospheric, tense and mysterious in the tradition of some of the greats in horror fiction. This book will sneak up on you, twist you with dread and suspicion, and then fade away leaving you wondering if it’s truly gone or still out there in the darkness.
The blurb reads:
In the spirit of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Jacob’s Ladder comes a terrifying, icebound thriller where nothing is quite what it seems.
Badly battered by an apocalyptic storm, the crew of the Arctic Promise find themselves in increasingly dire circumstances as they sail blindly into unfamiliar waters and an ominously thickening fog. Without functioning navigation or communication equipment, they are lost and completely alone. One by one, the men fall prey to a mysterious illness. Deckhand Noah Cabot is the only person unaffected by the strange force plaguing the ship and her crew, which does little to ease their growing distrust of him.
Dismissing Noah’s warnings of worsening conditions, the captain of the ship presses on until the sea freezes into ice and they can go no farther. When the men are ordered overboard in an attempt to break the ship free by hand, the fog clears, revealing a faint shape in the distance that may or may not be their destination. Noah leads the last of the able-bodied crew on a journey across the ice and into an uncertain future where they must fight for their lives against the elements, the ghosts of the past and, ultimately, themselves.
I try to dismiss parallels with well-loved films and books on jacket blurbs. It can end up being a bit of an albatross around the neck of the book. Stranded is one of the rare books that actually deliver on that promise. As I read through it I found myself enjoying aspects of the story for the same reason that I love The Thing. Bracken MacLeod does an admirable job of capturing the heavy atmosphere of tension, mistrust and suspicion between the crew; the same group dynamic that so excels in The Thing is present in Stranded. Saying that, though, I wish to stress that Stranded is very much its own entity. Rather than an alien infection, the crew find themselves inexplicably lost after a colossal storm at sea. The story becomes more about where they are, how they came to be there, and also why certain members or the crew are falling ill and others aren’t. The mystery and cryptic nature of the situation and the subsequent reveals are excellent. I really enjoyed the pacing and read the book at a pretty good clip. The well constructed tension and mystery makes this one compulsively readable, but it’s not a happy book. Make no mistake – Stranded is dark. But I loved it all the more for that.
The characters are the driving force of the novel; their personalities and actions underpin everything. Noah Cabot is a good, smart, sympathetic lead. His relationship with the rest of the crew and their ensuing interactions engender at times almost unbearable moments of tension. The way the crew treats Noah at first is baffling and upsetting. The exploration of this treatment and their opinions of him allow for significant character growth and a rising rapport between Noah and his few allies. The story is primarily about the crew and their various dynamics; but it is compounded and rendered monstrous by the unfathomable situation they find themselves in. MacLeod creates an absorbing symbiosis between the characters and their twisted world. The most notable foils to Noah and his band of allies in this respect are the Captain, who MacLeod writes with a venomous and spiraling hatred and his Bosun who exudes belligerence and sly cunning. These two and their followers are the driving force behind a great deal of the tension and conflict. They are suffused with antagonism and twisted machismo.
The feeling that MacLeod builds in this novel is strongly reminiscent of literary greats such as Stephen King and Dan Simmons. Both are at the forefront of this kind of fiction and I think MacLeod is one to watch. Stranded evokes the same kind of emotional responses fostered by these writers for me. Some noteworthy mentions in addition to The Thing are Stephen King’s The Mist, or Dan Simmon’s The Terror or Abominable. With Stranded MacLeod crystallises the sense of a nightmare. He captures the rising dread of something not being quite right and the unsettling realizations that confirm it. He proceeds into the cresting horrific climax and then sends it drifting off into the mist as enigmatically and cryptically as it all arrived. I love that kind of writing. I love it about Stephen King and Dan Simmons and I’m pleased to say that Bracken Macleod achieved the same feeling with Stranded; you surface from it sweaty and slightly shell-shocked.
I’ve had a bit of a reading fugue recently but this book was the catalyst to get me out of it. It reminded me of all the reasons why I love reading this style of book. This book compelled me for the same reasons that I stayed up all night as a younger reader devouring Stephen King books into the deep dark of night. MacLeod writes with a style that carries the torch of writers who pioneered the horror genre. He is most certainly a welcome new voice. The more people we have pulling things out of the dark and slapping them onto a page, weaving volumes of vivid nightmares, the better.
Tor books were kind enough to provide me a review copy of this book via netgalley.