Book Review: The White Road by Sarah Lotz
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Mulholland Books (May 30, 2017)
Length: 272 pages
I’ve always held a bit of a fascination for mountaineering stories, which is really ironic considering my deathly fear of heights. Certainly I’ve never harbored any desires to scale anything more extreme than a steep hill, which is why when I first picked up Sarah Lotz’s latest novel about death and danger on Everest, I thought there would be little chance of her “ruining” mountain climbing for me the way she put me off from cruising for a whole year after I read her shipbound horror-thriller Day Four. And yet, books like The White Road still have this way of sending chills down my spine, even when I’m reading them from the warm, cozy comfort of my living room couch.
Our story begins in the winter of 2006, and protagonist Simon Newman and his roommate Thierry are a couple of slackers whose ambitions amount to nothing more than throwaway barista gigs at the local coffee shop and running their clickbait website on the side. At this point, YouTube stars and listicles are just starting to become a thing, and the two friends are hoping to grow their following enough to score a sweet advertising deal of their own. The idea for their big break comes when Simon first learns of the Cwm Pot caves in Wales, where several years ago a group of spelunkers had gotten trapped and died. Their site “Journey to the Dark Side” would become an internet sensation if Simon could go down there and come back with actual never-before-seen footage of the dead bodies, Thierry insists; it is the perfect material for their morbid audience.
Unfortunately for Simon, his venture into Cwn Pot ultimately ends in disaster. But while the incident leaves him traumatized, the salvaged footage from his harrowing experience along with the ensuing media attention does propel the website into the top ranks. Eager to take their newfound popularity to the next level, Thierry proposes the idea for another attention-grabbing stunt: Now that Simon has gone deep down underground in search of corpses to film, why not go the other way this time, and do the same thing on the highest point on earth? Mount Everest is said to be the final resting place of more than 200 people; the shocking reality is that there’s very little anyone can do for those who lose their lives at such altitudes, and their remains are often unrecoverable and left where they fell, sometimes for years and years. Surely it wouldn’t be too hard for Simon to go up there and capture more footage of a couple of dead bodies, which would undoubtedly bring even more traffic to their website.
But up above 8000 feet in the Death Zone, anything can happen. And the reality is, Simon did not emerge from Cwn Pot the same person. He is a haunted man now, after the things he’d seen in its terrifying depths, and he’s brought some of that darkness with him to the world’s highest open grave. The White Road is a story divided into three distinct sections, with the first focusing on Simon’s misadventures in the tight, twisty tunnels of the Welsh caverns. This, in my opinion, was the best part of the book. I read these first fifty pages or so feeling like my heart was stuck in my throat, the fear practically choking off my breath—and I’m not even a claustrophobe. If I had to go through even a fraction what Simon did, I would never turn a single light off in my house again, soaring electricity bills be damned. Sarah Lotz’s descriptions of the oppressive darkness and unbearably cramped spaces stirred up some of my deepest fears, and I couldn’t help but put myself in the protagonist’s place, losing hope as the underground water rose higher and higher.
Compared to that, the rest of the book almost seemed tame, even in Part II when Simon jets off to Nepal to climb Mount Everest. There are certainly plenty of frights in this section, though in a much different way than Cwn Pot. Here, we get to see the cold, merciless nature of the mountain, dispassionate about the fates of those who attempt the summit. A few years ago, I became obsessed with Everest-related history and literature after reading The Abominable by Dan Simmons, which was one particularly dark rabbit hole I fell into. I found plenty of amazing true accounts of great feats accomplished by great people, but just as plentiful were the traumatizing stories of death and disaster. Most of the fatal incidents on Everest occur in the mountain’s oxygen-starved Death Zone, which not only pushes a climber’s body to their physical limits, but also threatens to push their minds to the brink of madness. This is where some of the vagueness in The White Road comes into play. Are the strange things experienced by the characters merely the symptoms of altitude sickness, or are there supernatural shenanigans afoot? It could go either way, and the ambiguity contributes much to the suspense.
But while I really enjoyed The White Road, with perhaps the exception of the first section, I thought the book failed to pack the same punch as the author’s two previous novels, The Three and Day Four. This might have something to do with the structure, since the three disparate sections can make the story feel a little disjointed, especially in the beginning of Part II when we are introduced to an incidental character through a series of journal entries. There’s also an anticlimactic resolution, along with a few plot points that seemingly went nowhere and which I felt were implemented too awkwardly to be mere red herrings. Furthermore, Simon is not a very sympathetic character, and just when you think there’s hope for him yet, he pulls a reversal that makes you hate him all over again. Still, it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy, and Lotz makes getting invested in his story worth your time.
Is it any wonder why I’m such a big fan of the author and why every new book by her automatically gets added to my must-read list? A master of the horror genre, Sarah Lotz’s talents were especially in clear evidence in this novel with its atmosphere of tangible suspense and pure, icy terror. Thoroughly entertaining and astonishingly realistic, The White Road is a gripping, high-climbing thriller which will creep its way under your skin and stay with you for a very long time (…like fingers in your heart).