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Book Review

Spotlight on: Cold River (Cemetery Dance Novella Series #13) by Rick Hautala

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Buy Rick Hautala's Cold River Rick Hautala, Cold River
(Cemetery Dance Novella Series #13)

W eeks after losing his wife, Ben Skillings still hasn't slept, spending the majority of his nights alongside the river that runs through the local park in Northbrook, Maine. His health is failing from the lack of sleep and he has begun seeing dark figures crawling out of the river at night, coming after him. There is also a pile of leaves in front of his house that forms a strangely human shape and creeps almost imperceptibly toward his door. Ben knows he is cracking up but there's nothing he can do about it; no one believes him, not even his doctor, who simply wishes that Ben would take his medication so he could sleep. He has nowhere to turn until a young woman shows up at the park one night; she sees the dark figures, too.

Cold River is the thirteenth (you knew there had to be one) in the continuing series of bound novellas published by Cemetery Dance Publications. It's good to see novellas getting some more of the respect that they deserve. Too long to be a "short story" and too short to be a novel, authors have often had difficulties getting this bastard format published and promoted, but some stories are simply told better in this mid-length format.

Cold River is a good example. Author Rick Hautala doesn't waste any words, yet the tale of Ben's descent into a form of madness only works if the reader invests a good portion of time in the character. At the same time, the story is not intricate enough to warrant expansion to novel length. This Novella Series is the perfect medium for Hautala's ideas to take flight, especially since this is a story that deserves the spotlight--not to be hidden, and possibly lost, among a group of its inferiors in a short story collection.

Hautala's prose is crisp and light on its feet, tripping quickly across the page when appropriate and other times sneaking quietly up behind us, ready to pounce. It is Hautala's ability to make the reader feel Ben's fear at what he doesn't understand, placing this in context with what used to be, combined with moments of pure terror as Ben's situation spirals out of control, that is key to the story's appreciation.

I found it very intriguing that Hautala did not feel compelled to explain the events that Ben experiences. Only one of these was actually shown to have been unreal. The reader doesn't know how much truly happened to Ben and how much was an overactive subconscious caused by his sleep deprivation. At the same time, though, this lack of explanation makes the ending somewhat unsatisfactory.

I also had a problem with the presumed trigger of the events--Ben's loss of his wife. Hautala's description of Skillings' feelings towards his wife did not feel so intense as to rate the ensuing experiences. When the motivations are in question, it does unfortunately hinder the belief of the subsequent events. Despite these shortcomings, however, the bulk of Cold River is thoroughly thrilling and will make me avoid rivers at night for some time to come. It is a fine addition to the Cemetery Dance canon.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

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