Reading So Cold the River may give many readers a weird sense of déjà vu — a feeling that they have been here before. When the protagonist, Eric Shaw, travels to a remote part of southern Indiana to film a documentary about not one, but two spectacular hotels that are being restored to their legendary grandeur, the name of another legendary hotel may come to mind: the Overlook in Stephen King’s The Shining.
For a time, the resemblance continues. Eric, like Jack Torrance in King’s spooky opus, is an aspiring writer (plus he is an unemployed filmmaker) and failed husband. Although Claire Shaw does not accompany her husband to the twin towns of French Lick and West Baden Springs, she is a tangible presence since Eric sees his film project as a way to salvage his marriage. Meanwhile, he talks/argues with her daily as he wanders through the spectacular hotel that once played host to millionaires, movie stars, mobsters and world travelers. He listens to stories of intrigue and mystery — especially those regarding the product that created this resort and all of this fabulous wealth: mineral springs and a patented medicine of dubious merit called Pluto Water.
Eric has been “commissioned” to make a film about the history of West Baden Springs by a wealthy woman named Alyssa Bradford who claims to be married to one of the descendants of the man who founded Baden Springs, the notorious Campbell Bradford. However, Eric soon discovers that nothing is what it seems. Suddenly, his employer (who had given him a bottle of the original Pluto Water) cannot be reached. Eric becomes increasingly frustrated, smashes his expensive camera and inexplicably opens his ancient bottle of Pluto Water and takes a healthy swig. At this point, Koryta’s novel veers off the track into a nightmare country that no longer holds a shred of resemblance to The Shining — unless you agree that both authors frequently present events that can best be defined as “inexplicable.”
Shaw begins to have hallucinations and/or visions. To complicate matters further, Shaw is blessed or cursed with a kind of “second sight” that enables him to perceive both past and future disasters. In addition, the water in the old bottle brings Eric face to face with Campbell Bradford, who turns out to be “evil incarnate.” Since a local plant is still producing Pluto Water (now considered to be a mild purgative), Shaw soon discovers that the “boiled and purified” version allows him to observe past occurrences without participating in them. Confused? Yeah, me too.
Koryta certainly believes in giving the reader a generous supply of terrifying images, sinister characters and undeveloped themes. Mysterious trains come chugging out of the night loaded with boxcars awash in Pluto Water; an embittered descendant of Campbell Bradford, named Josiah Bradford, becomes a hapless slave to the “spirit” of his fore-bearer and devises a scheme to destroy the Baden Springs Hotel (apparently Campbell resents the fact that he has been forgotten.) A nice, elderly lady named Anne McKinney who has a hobby involving tornado watching becomes a stalwart friend to Eric. She also collects old bottles of Pluto Water. Kellen Cage, an Afro-American history major is doing research on West Baden Springs and becomes Eric’s friend. He also provides an excessive amount of historic background regarding an old feud that developed between Campbell Bradford and his Afro-American counterpart, a man named Shadrack. Somebody killed Shadrack, but no one knows who did it. In fact, someone killed Campbell Bradford. Naturally, it looks like Eric will have to solve all of these mysteries by using a combination of “second sight” and Pluto Water. Oh, and I forgot. A private investigator from Chicago shows up only to be murdered by Josiah Bradford.
Eventually, it becomes apparent that Eric Shaw is addicted to Pluto Water.
If he doesn’t get his daily dosage, he is plagued with headaches, dizziness and nausea. The most potent powers reside in the old bottle that Alyssa
Bradford gave him -–the one that has a red tint. In time, Eric belatedly discovers that the “red tint” is the blood of Campbell Bradford. By drinking the water, Eric has unwittingly provided Campbell with a means of returning to West Baden to wreck his revenge. In Eric’s first “vision” of Campbell Bradford, the ghostly specter tips his black bowler and thanks Eric for “bringing him home.” As So Cold the River progresses, Campbell becomes stronger and more tangible.
Koryta piles visions and images on top of each other until So Cold the River threatens to split at the seams. As this novel approaches its thunderous, bell-ringing and explosive climax, the story becomes increasingly unwieldy. Suffice it to say that the conclusion involves a truckload of dynamite, the arrival of four tornados that descend on West Baden and a frenzied search for the original Pluto Water spring that had been used by a local moonshiner in producing a legendary whiskey. In conjunction with all of these events, Shaw’s wife, Claire comes to West Baden to bring her husband home. Before that can happen, she is kidnapped, thrown from a speeding vehicle and run over (or was she?)
Inexplicably (there is that word again!), she escapes with a broken arm and collarbone to be reunited with Eric who has just been dragged from the Pluto spring and delivered to the West Badin hospital with no discernible heartbeat. Nothing to worry about though; Eric is a hearty lad.
As this book neared its conclusion, I kept thinking about the final movement of Tchaykovsky’s “1812 Overture” – the one that ends with a thunderous crescendo of bells ringing, drums, French horns and whistles. Tchaykovsky’s conclusion sounds like a jubilant celebration. Koryta’s final “movement” sounds like a train wreck in a tornado. However, as bad as this novel is, it was a lot of fun to read.
So Cold the River by Michael Koryt. Little, Brown and Company, 2010. 503 pages.