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.


  1. Ew. I'm glad my ebook version didn't have a bio, and I won't go looking for his bio online. That's squickerific.

    I really enjoyed the book, though I imagine I'd have had a harder time getting into it if I'd recognized the research issues. You're in a peculiar position to be able to pick apart the research details here, since you not only live there but are part of Homeland Security. So now I'm curious. How would you have handled this type of story? Would you have set this in a small Iowa town? Would you have allowed these attacks to occur across several Midwest towns, or would you have isolated the threat more? What would you have changed with the apparent mission of the aliens?

    The kids also creeped me out, but as I've munched over the details of the book the last several days, I realized they bring a question for me. If the point of the snow creatures is to inhabit a human so it can eat (meat, natch) but a child loses its face, how does it eat? What's the point of sticking around inside a kid? How does it keep the kid mobile if it can't get any food? Is it possible that they're actually stuck in a body until the body is destroyed? And could this be a human-monsterific decision other humans can make - to offer up humans who are not mobile enough to be a threat, or even kids?

    Anyway. I liked the story, but I wasn't stopped by the off-kilter details. I thought this was the best story we had to read this term.


  2. KL,

    The story was pretty solid, that was why I was so torn in my analysis and my blog on it. The writing didn't suck, the motivation and characters didn't suck, it was the little things I listed and then the bio was just the coup-de-grace. It was too much, it overpowered the narrative to the point that I couldn't un-see these things.

    How would I have done it differently? Single town, middle of nowhere Iowa is fine. Show the actions of the humans stopping something bigger (bigger invasion, sucking up of resources, something). I would have fleshed out the aliens as JUST the scythe armed types, wispy and able to zip through the snow.

    Also, I would have done some explaining about deer slugs and bird shot, pump action versus single shot or semi-auto shotguns. At close range shotguns are devastating weapons, a human target would be toast.

    The end with more aliens here was nice, but again, this whole story had the feel of the first of many (at least 2 more).

    Dave J

  3. I don't know Dave; the bio doesn't bother me so much. Perhaps, I read it differently. "Most recognized for his haunting, literary style and memorable characters, Malfi's horror novels and thrillers have transcended genres to gain wider acceptance among readers of quality literature."

    I felt that "Literary style" is just that--his style. We all have literary styles but don't necessarily write literary fiction. The next point about transcending genres seems to be saying that his work transcends genres (thriller and horror) I think this book, while a horror novel, has many tropes of the thriller. So, when looked at through my lens, this statement is saying that his work is not limited to one genre, and that he has a style that is haunting with memorable characters.
    As an aside, I don't think I agree with the statements but don't view them as anti genre either.


  4. Dave, first, lol about this being the first book you've seen set in Iowa that you didn't write yourself. As I've never been to Iowa, the details didn't bother me one bit, but I can see why they irked you. I was glad to read, though, that the inconsistencies didn't turn you off the book entirely, though, as I thought it was a great read--by far the best we've read this term. I didn't even look at the bio. I'm more likely to look at the bio when I *don't* like a book, trying to figure out why the author is such a bum. :)

  5. I didn't even take the setting of a small Iowa town into consideration as I read. I also live in the Midwest (Wisconsin), and I really think that this novel could have taken place in any small Midwest town. So I guess I agree with you, in that he didn't do his research as well as he should have. Now that you brought it up, it feels like Iowa was just a convenient place of choice.

    I scanned the bio at some point, but nothing really bothered me. After all, I doubt he wrote it himself, and editors/marketing will sometimes write anything to try to sell a book--when people consider buying a book, they read the blurb and the bio, and for those not interested in "genre" fiction, a bio like that may encourage them to buy the book. I tend to take bios with a grain of salt. ;)


  6. I can remember talking to one guest speaker we had at Seton Hill who had (poorly) set a book in Maine. I said I grew up there and he said "Yeah, I'm not really sure why I set it there." I wanted to say "And it shows!" but I bit my tongue.

    On the other hand, how much research should we be doing? What percentage of our readers will catch these mistakes? Do writers need to kill themselves to get everything right? None of what you mentioned caught my attention, just like a non-Maine reader would probably breeze through the book I was just bitching about. The bit about the gun and the gun laws is something I would never have thought to research...how do we know where to start looking to research?

  7. As I've never been to Iowa, I had no idea how off the description of the landscape/guns/etc. was. Now that I've read your blog, it kind of disturbs me. I liked this book, but we're always told to do the research as authors, so when I see a published author who hasn't quite done the research...well...why does he get to break the rules and I don't? Oh yeah, because he has a publisher. It doesn't seem right.

  8. I have to admit Dave that when I was reading I forgot the book was in Iowa and was thinking it was further north - because of the setting.
    I'm glad to see you noticed the details, the ravine made wonder back to where they were and why it was so hilly. While these things don't force you to stop reading it can help to make the reading more realistic and it really doesn't take much.
    When I'm writing about a town I go online and look at photos. If people are traveling, I look at the maps. It really doesn't take much time but it does make things realistic. The author needs to think - What will the people from this town see and think about the book.
    With the internet a couple of hours research for the entire book can make a world of difference.
    David Morrell talked about settings and research and while he goes much further in depth than most people need to it is a worthwhile point.
    Thanks for reminding me about research.

  9. Dave, you gave me a whole new insight into research. If you're going to write about unfamilar territory, make sure your research is through and correct. It was a powerful work, but had it been set in West Virginia with all those inaccuracies, I would have had a difficult time believing any of it either.

  10. I agree with you in regards to the snow creatures happening all over towns in the Midwest! When I read that, I stopped and wondered how little red flags weren't going up everywhere in Law Enforcement, and why they weren't involved with this town the minute that they lost contact. I wasn't a big fan of that plot hole. I wish it would have been segregated to just that area.

  11. Interestingly enough, I forgot that this book was set in Iowa. I was picturing a Colorado type place where there is a bowl of mountains where this little town is nestled. I can't recall ever being in Iowa, but this wasn't how I pictured it.
    Yes, the creatures are probably the thing that got this book published. Very original.
    I was really irritated with the "quality literature" statement and wondered if that was his doing or his publishers. I couldn't imagine having my novel published as a work of genre fiction only to be slapped with the label of it being quality fiction because it has nothing to do with genre fiction. I would have axed that blurb too. You are right, this is not literature, the characters are soft and don't stick in memory.
    Well done critique.
    T. Marcus

  12. Look, I'm one of the few at SHU that will actually admit that I, umm, prefer literary fiction and will probably end up writing literary fiction when all is said and done, but this wasn't literary fiction. It was a good story, yes, with well developed and believable characters and SOME aspects of it were scary, but those are just the elements of good horror genre fiction. At no point did this work transcend that label.

    In other news, thanks to your post, I now know more about Iowa than I learned during my two visits to your fine, corn-filled state when my mother lived there for a few years. She has since relocated to DC, however, which is frankly more fun to visit. (Sorry, Dave, but them's the breaks.)

  13. I know you probably didn't mean the "no rifle hunting in Iowa" thing to be funny, but it totally cracked me up...I'm from Colorado. It's interesting how everyone has a unique take on this book. Looking forward to reading it.