Author Brian Moreland’s new novel, Dead of Winter, does something that seems really almost rare: much like the films The Burrowers and the darkly brilliantly Ravenous, Moreland succeeds at mixing the horror and western genres. With echoes of The Thing, The Exorcist, and even The Shining, spiced with Native American folklore and legend, vivid period detail, and finely developed characters, Dead of Winter will be hard pressed to be beat as one of the best books of the year.
The Indians of the Great Lakes region believe that a shape-shifter roams the forest each winter. They claim it is a spirit that can rise from the ground as a sudden snowstorm. It can shape-shift into animals or walk bipedal like a man, often in the form of a skeletal creature that has long claws and fangs like icicles. In its most monstrous form, the windigo can walk as high as the trees. The beast has a ravenous appetite that can never be satiated. So it devours every animal and man it comes upon. Hunters have claimed that the sound of the windigo’s scream can cause a man to get confused, and if the hunter escaped he would become a windigo himself.
When a disease spreads through the Manitou Outpost in the wild Ontario wilderness, turning people into cannibalistic monstrosities, a lone little girl escapes. A hunting party from Fort Pendleton finds her while searching for a woman missing from their outpost. Frozen and sick, the girl, Zoe, is brought back to the fort by Inspector Tom Hatcher, a man running from his own personal demons. The girl is unable to tell them what happened, and the only clue to the mystery is a journal she carries that belongs to Father Jacques, the Jesuit priest stationed at Manitou Outpost. The journal has written instructions for it to be delivered to Father Xavier in Montreal, for he and the Jesuits are the only ones who will know how to stop the plague that is spreading.
But with blizzards making travel difficult and almost impossible, getting the journal to Montreal doesn’t seem to be the top priority. Until, that is, whatever sickness afflicted the Manitou Outpost begins to rear it’s horrific head at Fort Pendleton. The fort’s good doctor tries to contain the disease by containing Zoe to the sick bed, but what they are fighting against they do not know, and it’s doubtful they could ever understand it– be it a virus, a wilderness legend, or something far worse evil.
Dead of Winter starts at a run, and even during those moments of creeping, delicately balanced, suspense, Moreland never lets up. I was a major fan and supporter of Brian Moreland’s first novel, Shadows In the Mist, and I am pleased to say that he has only improved with his second offering, and there wasn’t really any need for improvement. With Shadows, when not in the thick of the action, the more dramatic moments felt a little hammy at times. Not so with this book. Moreland has matured with Dead of Winter, with a better grip of the emotional and more dramatic sides of the story.
Dead of Winter doesn’t skip out on the blood, gore, and chills, but it is also a fine example of a horror story being more than just something going bump in the night or characters being ripped apart. Brian Moreland, along with Joe McKinney, is at the forefront of horror writers who don’t forget the humanity. This is the way horror should be written.
5 out of 5