There's something in the water.
It's a typical vacationer's lament. But in Michael Koryta's So Cold the River, the water will do much worse than make someone's tummy grumble.
Koryta has been a private investigator and a journalist, but his career as a novelist was fast out of the gate: He published his first thriller, Tonight I Said Goodbye, in 2004, at age 21; his fourth, Envy the Night, won the 2008 Los Angeles Times book prize for mystery.
Koryta, who lives in St. Petersburg and Bloomington, Ind., takes on a different genre in his sixth novel. So Cold the River has mystery, for sure, but it's mainly a paranormal horror story in the Stephen King mold — and a chilling one.
The book is set at a real vacation spot, the West Baden Springs Hotel in French Lick, Ind. Built in 1902, it's a National Historic Landmark and a remarkable piece of architecture with a 200-foot-wide domed atrium. (And if it reminds you of the Overlook Hotel in King's The Shining, that's probably not an accident.)
But Eric Shaw, the novel's protagonist, isn't at West Baden to lounge around the spa; he's working. Eric is a failed filmmaker whose once-promising Hollywood career went off track; his marriage crashed and burned along with it. Now he's (barely) making a living in Chicago shooting wedding and funeral videos.
It's one of those videos, made for the funeral of a middle-age woman killed in a car crash, that kicks off So Cold the River. Shuffling through hundreds of photos the family provides, Eric keeps coming back to a single image, a red cottage. It appears in only one shot, with no people or identifying marks, but he has an intuition it's important.
Turns out that cottage has a vital but secret significance, as Eric learns when he's questioned by the dead woman's sister. Alyssa Bradford wants to know what he knows about the cottage, but Eric convinces her his choice was intuitive — and she comes back to him with another job offer.
Her father-in-law, Campbell Bradford, is dying, and she wants Shaw to make a video about his life. Bradford ran away from his home, West Baden, as a boy and made himself a multimillionaire. He's an upstanding citizen, but his childhood and background are a mystery. Alyssa wants Eric to find out what he can.
She brings him a sizable check and the only souvenir the old man seems to have held on to since he left West Baden decades ago: a bottle of water.
Pluto Water, to be exact, bottled from the town's mineral springs and widely sold as a "curer of ills." Etched into its pale green glass is a jaunty devil, but the remarkable thing Eric notices is the bottle's inexplicably cold temperature.
He takes the job and the bottle, whose murky, frosty contents somehow tempt him to drink from it. One sulfurous sip and he's hugging the toilet miserably — but he can't stop thinking about it.
Before he heads south, Eric visits Campbell Bradford in his hospital bed. Although he's told the old man no longer speaks, he finds himself playing an odd game: Bradford will answer his questions, but only when Eric is looking at him through his video camera rather than directly. Even then he speaks only enigmatically. But it's a start, or so Eric thinks.
In West Baden, Eric encounters a young man named Kellen Cage, who's also in town doing research, in his case for a doctoral dissertation in history. They join forces and Kellen leads him to one of the town's longtime residents, an elegant woman named Anne McKinney. Her father worked for the company that bottled Pluto Water and she's a font of information about it. At 86, she's widowed and spends much of her time as a weather watcher, nursing a hunch that a king-hell storm is on its way.
Kellen's search includes Campbell Bradford, too, but they soon discover they may be talking about two different men. Eric's Bradford is 95, while the man Kellen seeks would be about 116 if he were alive and was a notorious bootlegger and gambler — although they both seem to have disappeared from town about the same time.
Eric and Kellen soon encounter the last descendant of the bootlegger Bradford. Josiah Bradford is a long way from his powerful great-grandfather, though. A dropout and bar brawler who has trouble keeping either a job or his temper, Josiah longs to do something to reclaim his ancestor's criminal dominance.
On their first meeting, he gets into a fight with Eric and Kellen. But Josiah is just one of their worries. Eric has started sipping from that old bottle of Pluto Water again, and it's tasting sweeter. The problem is that if he goes too long without it, his head pounds and his knees go weak and he starts seeing and hearing things that may not be real — a train with a boxcar full of water, a heartbreakingly beautiful tune played on a violin, a man in a rumpled suit and a derby hat with a charming smile and empty eyes.
Koryta has a deft touch with his characters, sketching them economically but convincingly; the chapters from the point of view of Anne are especially insightful about the joys and pains of aging. His lean style powers the plot of So Cold the River, which rises as powerfully as the strange green water of an underground river that may hide the secrets Eric seeks.
If you need something to chill you on a steamy summer weekend, pick up So Cold the River. But don't drink the water.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.