Dead of Winter
January 3, 2012, $11.32(paperback)
Review by Darkeva
Legion, the biblical demon, certainly gets around. He’s been in at least three novels I read this year, and it seems that readers continue to feel the impact of this entity even today. In Brian Moreland’s Dead of Winter, Legion serves as the primary antagonist who has seen fit to target the Ontario wilderness in the late 1800s and to work through one of his agents, a killer known as the Cannery Cannibal.
But historical horror fiction is hard to pull off. There’s always the danger that readers will get bored if the narrative style is too antiquated or if there are too many diary entries that reveal key plot elements or move the story forward too slowly, and that most horror fans prefer dealing with the present. Fortunately, I’m a patient reader with an appetite for historical fiction as well as horror, and the combination absolutely works in this masterfully crafted tale of terror.
The story kicks off with a prologue set in a Manitou outpost in Ontario in December 1870. Father Jacques Baptiste is one of four survivors in a desolate French-speaking colony without food, a problem that is exacerbated by the fact that demons have possessed the remaining people here, forcing them to become cannibals. Jacques sends a Metis girl, Zoe, to the outside world and what he hopes is safety, and she has to take his journal to Brother Andre to warn him that this unstoppable outbreak is spreading.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Ontario wilderness in Fort Pendleton – named for its head honcho, a tycoon named Avery Pendleton – mysterious murders have started up. Inspector Tom Hatcher, an ex-pat British detective, has been called to investigate. He works with a Native American tracker, Anika, to look for the missing Cree Indian wife of Percy Kennicot. After they find the body, the MO reminds Tom of a Montreal killer, the Cannery Cannibal, who killed prostitutes and dolled up their faces before cutting them up. But it also looks like something an overgrown grizzly would do, although as he rightly points out, they hibernate during the winter.
The only trouble with Tom’s hunch is that he helped put the Cannery Cannibal in jail, so he couldn’t have committed the murder – or so it would seem. Father Xavier and Brother Francois are Jesuits called to the area after the Warden has run out of ways to make the prisoner the Cannibal, aka Gustave’s tricks stop. Xavier is convinced that Gustave is possessed, and by a demon he knows – the one who took over his sister Mirabelle’s body when they were younger, and killed her. The experience proves too much to handle for the young novice, Francois, which leaves Xavier without a much-needed second-in-command for his exorcisms, which brings him to Brother Andre.
Canadian readers will recognize the famous moniker of Saint Andre Bessette (he was canonised in October 2010), who we meet as a twenty-five year-old novice, but I will point out that although named for Brother Andre, I don’t think the author’s character is supposed to be an accurate historical representation but rather a fictional departure to serve the purposes of this story.
We meet Brother Andre as he’s hearing the confession of the Angelina Jolie of Fort Pendleton, Willow Pendelton, Avery’s young wife. She stirs up unholy desires in him that make it difficult to stay on track with becoming a priest, which is Andre’s greatest desire. Of course, it doesn’t help that she describes vivid sexual dreams to him that he’s sometimes in.
The Ojibwa mythology adds rich layers to the narrative and fuses organically with the Judeo-Christian demonic aspect, as the reader itches to know whether it’s just demonic possession that’s turning victims into vicious cannibals or whether the powers of evil are amplifying because of the wiitigo or windigo spirits that come to the woods every winter to hunt for humans. Livestock, particularly rats and crows, can also be possessed, something that the author uses to its full potential and while avoiding clichés. Anika’s story also becomes more vital as the book goes on, and the Native American myths get just as much of a tie-in to the plot as Legion and his flock.
Tom quickly takes center stage once more and allows Moreland’s skill with characterization to shine through. The inspector has a strained relationship with his son, exacerbated by his drinking problem brought on by the death of his wife. They go on a hunt together, against Tom’s better wishes, and it ends up costing him more than he can afford to lose.
Pendleton and Willow also reveal themselves as complex characters, the former a complete prick who only cares about himself but who gets more shades of gray added to him near the end of the novel when more information comes out, and the latter far more than a wilting damsel in distress with pent up sexual feelings. Willow’s past is mired in tragedy, and although she’s a rich girl from a big city, she’s not used to feeling stranded in a cold environment that she’s not used to, and the dolls that she surrounds herself with intensify her delusions. She also has a penchant for sniffing cocaine.
Andre’s weakness is his struggle to keep his vow of chastity, something that gets tested not only through Willow but also a pair of twins that are agents of the Cannery Cannibal. With Father Xavier, Legion targets the priest’s obsession with his sister, Mirabelle, and the guilt of her death that hangs over him. The demon is a master when it comes to hiding behind many faces and he makes things personal for all of his intended victims, a powerful tactic.
Eventually, a physician with an interest in the occult, Dr. Coombs, is brought in, and he doesn’t see any infections in the bloodstreams of those affected, which prolongs the mystery of what causes the cannibalism and transformations in the victims. He suspects lycanthropy, only werewolves would produce a physical change, which hasn’t been seen in the infected.
Although I did feel cheated by the circumstances of the demise of one of the important main players, the plot’s “big reveals” at the end more than made up for a temporary disappointment. Otherwise, I didn’t have any criticisms for this book, because it’s done so well. This is the kind of novel that, despite its length, won’t take long to read, because it has such a filmic quality that readers won’t be able to resist turning the pages. This book is a testament to Samhain’s legacy and shows that they continue to publish some of the best quality horror fiction out there. It’s a must-read, perfect for winter reading as the snow begins to fall, and has one of the most compelling plots of all the novels I read this year.