A century ago and more, the growing metropolis of New York City turned outward for its water supply. A system of dams, reservoirs and tunnels — a massive engineering marvel — was constructed in upstate New York to slake the city’s thirst.
Entire towns were lost when the reservoirs filled, their buildings dismantled, their populations relocated. Or so it seemed.
The Chill, a new horror novel by Scott Carson, plunges into the fate of one such town and its reverberations in the present. The book’s fictional Chilewaukee Reservoir (whose local nickname gives the book its tone-setting title) is part of that real water system, which still feeds New York City.
Most of the book plays out around the town of Torrance, where many of the residents of a drowned town called Galesburg moved before the dam went up. After days of torrential rains, Steve Ellsworth, the sheriff of Torrance County, is worried about the reservoir. It’s brimming, and the dam is one of those countless examples of infrastructure suffering from delayed maintenance.
When Mick Fleming, an engineer with the state division of dam safety, arrives for an inspection, he notices a stream of tiny bubbles, called cavitation, and knows they’re trouble. “Those tiny bubbles had nearly toppled the 710-foot-tall Glen Canyon Dam in 1983. ... a crater 32 feet deep and 180 feet long had opened up, threatening to tear a hole in the side of the dam.”
Ellsworth has personal worries as well. His 23-year-old son, Aaron, recently washed out of Coast Guard training and is home in Torrance, expressing his anger and disappointment by drinking, drugging and ending up in his father’s jail.
When Aaron and Fleming have a strange encounter near the dam, Aaron is arrested again. His father calls in an officer from the state Department of Environmental Protection, Gillian Mathers.
Her agency has jurisdiction, but Gillian has much deeper links to the Chill. As a child, she was raised in Torrance by her grandmother, who was a former resident of Galesburg and a follower of the charismatic Anders Wallace, who led the town’s fight to prevent the dam to a bloody conclusion. Indeed, many of the characters are from old Galesburg families, including the Ellsworths and Mick Fleming. As the reservoir rises, so do Anders Wallace and his cadre of ghosts, and they are not happy.
Gillian’s father, Deshawn Ryan, is deep inside the other end of the water system, working as a sandhog digging a new tunnel under New York City and seeing ghosts as well. The construction of such tunnels, it’s said, cost “a man a mile” — that’s how the fatalities of such dangerous work average out.
The flesh-and-blood characters in The Chill find themselves imperiled by both the natural and the supernatural, as the waters roil and the phantoms of Galesburg and those of the New York tunnels pursue grudges that live beyond the grave.
The Chill’s sharply developed characters, taut suspense and meticulous research might remind some readers of bestselling thrillers by Michael Koryta, a former St. Petersburg resident and alum of the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College. His 2014 thriller, Those Who Wish Me Dead, has been made into a movie starring Angelina Jolie, set to be released in October.
This is Koryta’s 15th novel but his first book under the Scott Carson nom de plume, which he’s using for books in the horror genre. Some of his thrillers, such as So Cold the River and Florida-set The Cypress House, have had supernatural elements, but The Chill has as many ghosts among its characters as living people. Koryta has been winning awards for his crime fiction since he was 21; with The Chill he’s making his assured mark in another genre.
By Scott Carson
Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 448 pages, $27