I received “Ghost River” by Chad Ryan, published by Lost Boys Press, as an e-ARC, an advance review copy, in exchange for an honest review. It took me a little time to read and this book is now available as a new release, but it’s definitely the kind of book that you want to take your time with, sink your teeth into, absorb into your marrow. This novel is an experience, a journey into a land of ancient predators and the power of the names that keep them in their boxes.
It’s a long read, an epic saga. It’s a story to which you make a commitment. On its surface, it is a monster book, but at its heart, it is a story about a family, the blood-soaked ties that bind, and the boxes of worlds that we trade for better boxes. This is a story of fear and love, loathing and revenge, power and control, mythos and modernity. This is the story of Ghost River, and more importantly, Orphan Rock, and the eclectic, dangerous melee that calls this particular box home.
Ghost River is a town in Arizona, a desert place between worlds, between the riverfolk and the desertfolk. In one world there is the tribe, which has always protected Orphan Rock and its fatal secrets from the outside world. But times are changing. Development is coming to Ghost River. First a freeway; then a casino. The old pacts wear down, are no longer valid for the times. Promises wear thin. The old world of Orphan Rock and its shapers of worlds have become mythos, fragments of memories. The monsters become greedy. Their egos enlarge. The Grim Seed always wants more; darkness is never satisfied.
Orphan Rock, you see, is a monster town. It serves the wills of Father Pig, and fighting for dominance, the Sisters of Sorrow. These ancient creatures, predators who subsist on human flesh, come from a crack in the worlds, a portal to another dimension. In Orphan Rock, everyone serves someone, and no one can ever leave. Or so they think. Years of servitude and grooming will do that. Dreams are dangerous. Or are they?
The Northamm family makes up the protagonists in the story; Esther, Minister, and their children, Little Snake and Dark Bird. Esther and Minister can leave the land, but the curse of the dirt keeps the monsters to the box. So Esther and Minister are the ones who feed their insatiable appetites. Love in the cages. Hoping for a better life. Or any life, at all, since choice isn’t something that people like them get to experience, those who are servants to the dark.
But like all monster books, who is really the monster here? The monsters become the sympathetic characters, and traditional narrative arcs twist and turn until you’re not sure in the end who the antagonist really is. Is it Father Pig and the Age of Filth? Is it the endless march of modernity, the people who forgot ancient promises? This is a monster book, but this is exquisite filth, reverent in its hideousness.
There is much to offend in these pages, but I found it a comfort read; because in the end, all good writing hopes to connect us to very human moments. Like Little Snake, escaping the confines of Orphan Rock for the promises of another Sister of Sorrow, Desyre, who made a little boy believe in a better box. It turned out to be just another box, and the boy wanted nothing more than to return home, with the wind on his face as he ran by the desert river, the home that he once wanted so badly to leave. Nothing more human than that, even for a snake.
The prose and writing style was choppy at times, a tug of active voice rapping on your spine; but this was for effect. This was a novel meant to be read aloud, to be experienced. Part of the experience of this storytelling was in the sounds of the writing, the sharp shock to the heart, the vivid descriptions of Arizona desert and ancient dreams and immortal death.
This book, in a word, was a “Wow.” This is the best of indie. Give it a chance, even if you don’t like horror or magic realism. It will make you cringe, and then it will make you revel in its gruesome glory. This may be a monster book, but it’s really, in the end, a human book. It’s a book about what breaks us, and what keeps us together, what keeps us moving, what gives us reasons to get up anyway despite all the burdens of all the worlds. We need more books like this. More stories that help us remember those things, ancient promises stirring, whispering to us from across the desert scrub in the midnight black. Welcome to Ghost River, indeed. You might never want to leave.