Road of Bones by veteran horror author Christopher Golden is a horror novel the way Resident Evil IV is a horror game. It’s scary, and it’s eerie, but in the end it’s all about the action. The isolation, the psychological elements, and the gore all feed the sense of dramatic forward motion, and not the other way around. If you’re sick of twists for the sake of twists and the inchingly slow buildup, The Road of Bones will get you on the right track.
Teig and Prentiss are down-on-their-luck documentarians looking for the next big thing. Knowing that shows about extreme places and people tend to do well, they’ve gambled it all on the Siberian “Road of Bones,” a stretch of highway leading to the coldest place on earth. It’s a sparsely populated expanse, punctuated with very small settlements only every few hundred miles. But the ghosts are thick on the Road of Bones, and Teig, left with an overactive imagination after a childhood tragedy, can almost feel the spirits of convicts and political prisoners who died to make the highway. He knows ghosts do well with audiences, and he knows he can do them justice, haunted as his own past has been.
This isn’t just the “next” hit for them, though—it’s their last chance at one. Teig’s production company is about to fold, and Prentiss is about to be out way too much money for their relationship to survive the debts Teig owes him. Their friendship, already strained by money problems, is on very thin ice once the danger starts.
Still, the two have a gruff but warm bond, and they’re able by long experience to accommodate each other’s flaws rather than fight about them (too much). They also know everything about each other’s pasts and personalities, so there’s little chance a secret is going to come up that will serve as a dramatic wedge. I can’t say I’m sad about this, since characters who pause their fight-or-flight to bicker is a pet peeve of mine, but it is surprising how much Golden leans away from the trope.
Golden tells rather than shows to such an astonishing extent that I cannot think it’s anything other than intentional. He doesn’t drop tidbits about Teig’s childhood trauma or Prentiss’s divorce or force you to piece together stray comments. He just straight-out tells you. There’s something refreshing about that kind of storytelling, a no-nonsense, almost fairy-tale-like forthrightness that refuses to play coy. Add to that his tendency to jump between narrators and the book feels almost Victorian in style, if not in tone. Stephen King does this too—the POV shifts and the forthrightness—but King is about suspense. Golden’s take on horror is all about the darkness and the gore. He doesn’t mince words–or pages–building up the atmosphere, he just sics the wolves on you at the earliest opportunity. Literally: a character I thought was going to be a major one dies very early on, eaten alive by wolves.
Or what passes for wolves. The supernatural element is strong from the start, drawing on traditional Siberian beliefs as well as the more recent history of Stalinist purges. The cold itself is also practically a character, its presence and deadly patience haunting the documentarians’ every step. As non-Siberians they’re unprepared for the menace of the temperature, but their guides and new acquaintances are more than capable of thriving in it. They’ve also largely made their peace with the history of the place, and the dead are a source of pity more than fear. What spooks Teig and Prentiss doesn’t bother Kaskil and Nari, two Yakuts who live along the Road and get involved with the filmmakers. But they’re soon afraid as well, not of the dead but the living.
The interplay of old beliefs and new, of indigenous and tourist, of youth and age itself are all concepts that Golden explores, but only briefly. His chief concern is the action, always the car hurtling down the Road of Bones. There are some answers along the way, and a few more at the final destination, but there aren’t really explanations. There’s no time for those. The point of the book is the journey in all its mad rush, imperfect reactions and desperation multiplying until the final spin-out. I tend to prefer suspense to action-gore, but that’s a personal preference I won’t hold against Road of Bones. On its own terms, which are clear and, I should add, indifferent to critique anyway, this book succeeds. Road of Bones knows what it’s about. It’s a confident book. It has reason to be.
Road of Bones comes out January 25, 2022.