Tuesday, November 2, 2010

At least he knew snow was white and cold

I hate to start with a gripe, but it is rare that a book I haven’t written is set in Iowa as Ronald Malfi’s Snow is. Usually we are treated to a gritty urban landscape like New York or Chicago, sometimes we get to see through the red haze of Mars (and contrary to that Venus/Mars book a few years ago, I don’t have a time share on the red planet), but not Iowa.

So, I was excited to see what somebody else would do with Iowa, how the state would fare in a horror/sci-fi novel. No references to this being heaven (which is nice, that got old), no mention of covered bridges or twisters or corn. Even so, there were a couple of things that were just wrong enough that I had to mention them.

First, based on the descriptions of the evergreen trees a passer-by might think Iowa is some kind of Alpine retreat full of deep ravines and overrun by snow boarders. It’s not. It is vast agricultural plains broken up by clumps of mostly deciduous forest. That is forgivable though, not really germane to the story. Second, driving from Chicago to Des Moines, especially leaving O’Hare airport, one takes I-88 to I-80, and is treated to four lanes the whole way. If Malfi wanted them in northeastern Iowa (where the story eventually unfolds) he could have had Todd Curry’s kid be in Waterloo or Cedar Falls or Dubuque instead of Des Moines. Again, pretty minor issue as the small town the action takes place in could be anywhere, but it is a detail that would have been easily corrected.

Finally, the detail that really tossed me out of the book. When Todd and his band of snowbound travelers roll into town and take refuge in the convenience store with Shawna, she is laying waste to the possessed townspeople … with a rifle. At one point she refers to it as a hunting rifle. This is fine, and technically not a problem. However, rifle hunting is illegal in Iowa. The terrain is too flat and devoid of things that will stop a round/bullet. If you fire a bullet and miss it will travel a great distance before it falls to the earth and that has the potential for a bullet to strike something else (or worse somebody else). The vast majority of the hunting done in Iowa is with shotguns. Shotguns and rifles look kind of the same, but they are different tools used for different purposes.

It would have been very easy to follow up on this point, and since guns play such an integral part of this story, the characters holing up at the convenience store using a weapon that was mostly wrong was a frustrating bit to chew through.

If nothing else these inconsistencies, this lack of attention to detail, reminded me to always be vigilant and to know as much as I can about the story I am writing. I quickly checked Malfi’s bio at about this point in reading the book and saw that he “currently” lives on Chesapeake Bay which leaves him open to have lived somewhere around Iowa, but without mentioning it I won’t give him credit for it. His bio also had something to say about literary and genre, a sore spot in my philosophy, but we’ll end on that note.

Did all of this ruin the book? Nope, it didn’t ruin it. There is much to like in this book. The aliens are pretty original; at least in the way they use the snow and possess people. Once the people are possessed they are part zombie, part supernatural critter. This worked for the most part. I was a bit confused by the scythe arm appearance of some of the critters and the worm/snake appearance at other times, but this wasn’t a deal breaker. The creepiest aspect was the possessed children with their blanked out faces. When the two kids in the police station got possessed sitting in the back of the squad car I got a bit of the willies. That was good.

As monsters they are extremely effective. They truly are alien and their purpose is never quite fleshed out. That is okay, the reader doesn’t need to be told everything. I got the impression they were on a recon mission, feeling out the humans and their defenses and responses. The next time they come back through their portals it won’t be so nice. They won’t be going after Woodson, Iowa, they’ll be coming for Chicago, New York, and London (let’s hope the writer does his homework on those places).

I also really liked the actions taken by the remaining humans. They seemed sufficiently logical in their actions and in their desire to survive. The outside-the-jammed-area-laptop was a nice little plot point. I was a bit disappointed to learn as the novel ended that these sieges on small towns had been happening all over the United States. That left law enforcement across the country looking foolish. One town loses contact, no big deal. Maybe even two if the storm is bad. But twenty-nine towns, mostly in the Midwest? That would set off alarms and red flags. People would roll into these towns to get visual and verbal checks on what the heck was happening. Plus the book ends with a very “coming next summer: Snow 2 The Revenge of the Snow” feel that I was a bit puzzled by, especially after reading Malfi’s bio.

Now back to that bio. This is the bit that chaps my hide: “Most recognized for his haunting, literary style and memorable characters, Malfi’s horror novels and thrillers have transcended genre to gain wider acceptance among readers of quality literature.”

Now we’ve all heard “transcend genre” but the notion that one must transcend genre to get “wider acceptance among readers of quality literature” implies that we genre schmucks are slumming it hoping to get up off the pulp covered floor to hopefully one day write something of quality. I couldn’t disagree more. And Snow isn’t bad, but it is nowhere close to literary. The most memorable character is the guy eating pizza at O’Hare airport who bets Todd on the flight status situation. He’s the one I remember two months after reading the book.

So, a decent book is kind of ruined by a lack of research and a dismissive attitude for the people who might actually enjoy this novel.