Zoe and Jake go on a ski vacation for their anniversary and get trapped in an avalanche during an early morning mountain run. When they manage to dig each other out and get back down to the village, they discover it abandoned, operational but empty, ghost town style. Over the next several days, they attempt to leave the village by various means (walking, driving, skiing), always to be delivered right back into the town square from whence they’d set out. Meanwhile, internet is down, phones just ring and ring, and some weird stuff starts happening that would suggest that the couple aren’t just stuck in an empty vacation hamlet, but frozen in time, too.
That’s Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land. If it’s like anything, it’s like RL Stine’s Fear Street series. Remarkably similar, actually. The Silent Land employs all those tropes of teen horror novels: the way the characters keep announcing to themselves and each other the obvious details of the situation they’re in, the ominous and easy threat of nature, the endlessly repeated adverbs describing wind and shadows, the pure I-don’t-know-what-it-is-but-something-weird-is-going-on-here shivery fear of it all. Along with, of course, some spectacularly bad writing, on full display in The Silent Land.
The aha moments: “I think I know what’s happened,” Jake said. “I think I get it. On the morning of the avalanche, there must have been others!”
The sentimentalism in the face of death: “The only jewels she wanted were her husband’s eyes regarding her in admiration as he did right at that moment; the only necklace that of his breath on her skin as he kissed her throat, the only ring…”
The metaphors: “The mist hung in the air like a prancing unicorn.”
The awkward dialogue: “Or we can drive. Which means we just take one of these cars parked in the village. Drive slow, so it doesn’t trigger anything.”
“Right. We’ll do that.”
“Let’s go then.”
“So what are we waiting for Zoe?”
“I don’t know. I’m scared.”
“Scared? There’s nothing to be scared about, you little girl. Nothing at all. Actually I’m scared too. Never mind all that. Look, we’ve got to find a car with keys still in the ignition.”
And the inexplicable: “‘Where has it gone, that holiday?’ he said. ‘How come I can remember others but not that one? I mean, it’s not like my memory is a DVD that fell behind the cupboard.’”
In a somewhat bizarre move by Graham, there is an entire chapter in The Silent Land that reads as if lifted directly from Chicken Soup for the Soul. It happens two-thirds of the way through the book. Until this point we’ve had very little backstory, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, we travel back in time to the death of Zoe’s father. The chapter begins, “Her father had said, You should hold on to every single moment of life, Zoe, because it runs away, runs away so fast.”
I won’t spoil it for you, but I’ll say there’s a very special Christmas tree, a psychic-spiritual connection between father and daughter conveyed by a gloriously full moon, accompanied by orchestral music playing on the breeze, and it ends with a bang: “She went out and bought a silver-moon disk to commemorate Archie’s passing, and all those years afterward, whenever her eyes fell upon it as it hung from the tree, it never once made her sad.”
The ending of the novel, too, has this Touched By An Angel feel to it. Although the reader has known what the jig is, pretty much from the first chapter, the way Joyce plays it is a serious letdown. Just to compare, I downloaded Fear Street No. 32, College Weekend (chosen at random), and the ending is far more grim, far more realistic, than the infantilizing melodrama that carries The Silent Land out with a fizzle. I don’t object to sappy endings on principle, it’s just that with all that Goosebumpy buildup, all those dancing shadows and dark omens, I was expecting something…bad. But listen, if the notion that love can make miracles happen warms your heart, this one’s for you.
Morgan Macgregor is a reader and blogger living in Los Angeles. She likes contemporary American fiction and talking about it. Probably because she’s Canadian.