An Interesting, but not Spooky, Ghost Story

So Cold the River

Michael Koryta’s So Cold the River offers a unique premise for a ghost story that doesn’t quite deliver on eerie thrills or scares, but it is certainly not a bad book. Eric Shaw, the main character, is tasked with making a memorial film for one elderly Campbell Bradford. What he discovers in the man’s hometown is much more than he bargained for.

There are plenty of homages to The Shining in this text — a sullen, self-pitying main character, the chewing of Excedrin, and, of course, a strange hotel with a strange history. As a reader, I enjoyed these literary nods.

To repeat a point, this is by no means a bad book, but So Cold the River doesn’t quite seem to know what it is. Is it a ghost story? A thriller? The book is unable to decide, and so the electricity that tends to accompany both of those genres don’t quite deliver.

What does make this book enjoyable is Koryta’s writing style and his devotion to background work and side characters. His care put towards the lovely Anne McKinney, an elderly weather watcher and semi-town historian results in moments that are honestly beautiful. In one sequence, Anne, now 86 and alone, her husband and children all dead, recalls her life and the whirlwind of time. It is such a moving segment that it had me in tears.

This leads me to the main character. Eric is a failed director of photography. Essentially blacklisted in Hollywood, he and his wife move to Chicago. At the start of the book they are separated, and at first, it seems like it was his wife who walked out on her husband. It is revealed, though, that it is Eric who couldn’t stand his own failures and took it out on his wife and her family. He rejects help from those who seem to truly have his best interests at heart and acts like a petulant teenager.

So it may sound odd to say that my major qualm with Eric is that he’s not obnoxious enough. He keeps flopping between an OK guy and bratty artist. That may be the key to the issue: he’s too much of a brat to be a good anti-hero.

What’s even more irritating is that he’s not all that apologetic to his long-suffering wife when he finally realizes just how bratty he’s been. While reading the book, I caught myself wondering if Koryta was having difficulty deciding how unsavory he wanted Eric to be as a character.

It’s an interesting dilemma to create a character whose actions are distasteful but who is still enticing enough to read about. This may be why Eric ended up as a brat instead of a character with deep-seated rage — that would at least make him a little more intriguing. This is the unfortunate feature of the book. While Koryta has an interesting premise, engaging side characters, and a lovely writing style, the story lacks chills, thrills, and a main character that keeps readers interested in this ghost story.

If you want a great scary story set in a strange hotel that does deliver on chills and thrills, I absolutely recommend Rachel Harrison’s The Return. Of course, not every book is for every reader. Art is subjective, and if your curious to see if your views align with mine on So Cold the River, you can purchase a copy of it here:

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