On a remote ridge in eastern Kentucky, hundreds of miles from the sea, a lighthouse shines over the dark forest. Below it, a century-old trestle crosses a rocky river where a strange blue light flickers in the water. On the bank, a panther screams.
Hair standing up on the back of your neck yet? If so, and if that's a feeling you enjoy, add The Ridge to your summer reading list.
This is the second novel this year by Michael Koryta, following The Cypress House, a ghostly tale set on Florida's Gulf Coast during the 1935 hurricane, published in January. Koryta, who lives in St. Petersburg part of the time, began his career with five realistic mystery novels. But beginning with So Cold the River in 2010, he has added elements of horror and the supernatural to his crime fiction, with chilling effect.
The Ridge opens with Kevin Kimble, a sheriff's deputy, driving before dawn to visit a prisoner. He has been visiting tall, lovely Jacqueline Mathis for several years, unable to ignore his attraction to her — even though one reason she's serving time is that she shot him in the back.
Kimble's drive is interrupted by a cell call from Wyatt French, the town drunk and local eccentric who built that inexplicable lighthouse on Blade Ridge. It's a somewhat disturbing call, but Kimble figures Wyatt is just bombed again.
Wyatt makes another call, this one to Roy Darmus. He reaches Roy at his desk at the Sawyer County Sentinel — the day after the newspaper, where Roy has worked as a reporter all his life, has been shut down.
Wyatt invites Roy out to his lighthouse, and suddenly Roy has a hell of a story and nowhere to print it. Wyatt is dead, apparently by his own hand, and the inside of the lighthouse is even stranger than the outside: Every wall is covered with old maps and photographs of local residents, some dating back 100 years, some current, all scribbled with cryptic notes.
One photo is of Roy's parents, who died in a car crash on the road nearby. Another is of Jacqueline Mathis. On the door is posted a letter asking whoever finds it to contact Kimble, "for purposes of investigation."
Just about the time Wyatt signs off, Audrey Clark is moving in across the road from the lighthouse with more than 60 lions, tigers, leopards and other rescued big cats. The animal sanctuary on a remote site was the dream of her husband, David, who died just months before it was realized. But Audrey is soldiering on with the help of Wes Harrington, a tough and experienced cat handler, and a boyish graduate student named Dustin Hall.
The sanctuary's pride and joy is an animal that not only has an odd history but, according to scientists, isn't supposed to exist: a black panther. Not a black jaguar or black leopard, but a North American cougar black as ink, named Ira — Hebrew for "the watcher." The new sanctuary's large enclosures and quiet setting ought to be ideal for the animals, but as soon as the sun goes down, something makes them wildly agitated. It can't be the lighthouse, though — after Wyatt's death, the light is out.
With those elements in place, Koryta launches into a dark and compulsively readable story. He deftly plays one peril against another: dangerous human beings, predatory cats and, perhaps, supernatural forces more deadly than either. There will come a point when a character's decision to crawl into a snug tunnel with a leopard actually seems like a reasonable choice.
Koryta doesn't just craft an absorbingly creepy plot; he also makes effective use of setting and local history (as he did in So Cold the River and The Cypress House). His prose is observant and streamlined, and his characters are believable and complex — which helps make them unpredictable, in some cases shockingly so. Reading The Ridge is a fine way to chill down a hot summer night. But you'll want to leave the lights on.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.