Brothers and sisters, the monster story is dead. Writers and audiences have exploited the fictional bestiary until every variation has been used in every possible plot, from the hairless werewolf cavorting with an expressionless trampire to the old world creatures facing Grimm justice in Portland, Oregon. But do not mourn. For even as the first signs of unstoppable mortality left its mark on the genre, seeds of a new archetypal character sprouted. Yes, the monster story is dead, but the hunter lives on.
From Joss Whedon’s cheerleader-wannabe Buffy to the emotionally adolescent Winchester Brothers, hunters have proven themselves a fascinating respite for audiences tired of the same old demon. This fall, Lee Collins’s debut novel, The Dead of Winter, brings the hunter to readers with an entertaining blend of western, monster, and wit.
With the late nineteenth century boomtown, Leadville, Colorado, as a backdrop, The Dead of Winter is a two-act story pitting aging hunter Cora Oglesby and Ben, her husband, against vampires and a nosferatu in the second act and a wendigo in the first.
A North American native, nothing about the wendigo is subtle. Few writers have the ability to take this monster that is more caricature than creature and turn it into something remotely creepy, but Collins succeeds. Using liquid terms, he transforms a cold, cannibalistic primal force into something that goes bump in the night as it’s described trying to break into Leadville’s police station:
The shadow remained where it was, the dark knob of the creature’s head twisting slightly. After a few minutes, a long, sinewy arm flowed into the dim light of the street. Cora could see the black tips on the fingers as they probed the front of the station, finding purchase on the outer sill of an upper window. The second arm followed, its fingers coming to rest on the porch roof. Gray skin glimmered in the pale light as the wendigo lowered itself toward the window, like a giant, misshapen spider.
Like the wendigo, Collin’s nosferatu and kin are taken right from lore, and they behave in semi-predictable ways. What makes the arc of the vampires’ story fascinating isn’t the monsters, but the nosferatu’s interactions with Cora. A big reveal happens in these scenes and saying much about it would be a terrible spoiler.
Suffice it to say, Collins lays out a series of well placed details and clues. The reveal is both a surprise and expected and speaks as much to the skill of the author as it advances the plot.
Fans of hunter stories looking for a good autumn read will devour The Dead of Winter as will fans of the cross-genre blend of western and fantasy. As a resident of Colorado, Collins captures the chill of his home state.
The only flaw in The Dead of Winter is that it ends. Like an episode of Supernatural, this book will leave readers wanting to know what happens next to the hunter. And fortunately for them and for Cora, She Returns From War is scheduled for early 2013.
Merriam Jones is a regular reviewer for Isotropic Fiction.