Reviews in the Machine: Salvage, by Duncan Ralston
Salvage is a story built on a solid and creepy premise. It’s a book that somehow manages to feel claustrophobic within mostly open spaces and isolated it’s characters in ways that I don’t think I have seen done similarly in anything else I have read.
I love stories that deal with the sea and especially underwater. One of my favorite movies growing up was The Abyss, along with the fantastic novelization, written by Orson Scott Card. I loved the sense of terror that is exuded from being underwater, even at shallow depths. It’s the one place where, despite our often feeling like masters of our domain, once we are plunged into the depths we begin to realize how weak and unwanted we can be on an alien landscape. The sound and temperature is distorted. You have no sense of touch or smell. What you see can only be illuminated by what natural light filters down or by your dive lights. Diving underwater is something that begs to have a horror story written about it.
The concept for this book is of a lost town, flooded intentionally as a part of rerouting a river. It’s something I was surprised to see has happened before. Google it if you want to see some interesting material. Essentially the population must abandon the town and ever since, it has been lost at the bottom of a man-made lake, save for the top peak of the local chapel. The book is centered around the disappearance of the local Reverend as well as some of the parishioners.
All this makes for some outstanding atmosphere and tension. It’s spooky enough to explore an abandoned town but add to that the aspect of doing it underwater makes for a beautiful sense of claustrophobia and anxiety.
It’s a fine line to strike but technical detail is something I like, so long as it is being used to augment the story, not replace it. I call this the Dan Brown syndrome from his tendency to bring an entire narrative to a shrieking halt while some concept is explained. Maybe we even get a flashback of Robert Langdon beating some concept into the ground for one of his classes. This phenomenon happens when you have a writer who puts a ton of time at the library or online, researching some aspects of the story and when it comes time to write, you can tell they are somewhat shoehorning to make room for all the knowledge they discovered. Wouldn’t want that time to get wasted, would we?
And I get it. I’ve been in a similar position. And often we find ourselves really interested in a subject and want to write about it. The problem is that it bogs down the narrative. So I was happy to discover that in this, Ralston deftly incorporates the necessary technical aspects of diving while at the same time making it feel natural and logical. He also has enough respect for us to keep from overexplaining, making his descriptions clear, while expecting us to keep up with him as well. I felt like I actually learned a lot about diving and of the common dangers that I don’t think I was ever really aware of. It created a beautiful balance of danger for the characters, presented by the real world sources as well as possibly other-worldly as well.
And of course added to all of this is the well-layered tension and mystery around the protagonist’s history as well as that of the town. There is a certain amount of intrigue to the story as he works through the locals, trying to obtain more information. It’s a dynamic between characters that isn’t necessarily new but Ralston delivers the classic narrative in fine form.
The novel is paced well and the characters are carefully crafted. But for me the atmosphere was what really made this story take off. Supernatural horror has always been one of my favorites and the addition of the diving aspect really made it work well. If, by chance you aren’t as familiar with the works of Duncan Ralston, Salvage would be a great starting point.