Ian J. Middleton's Novel 'White Death' Offers Suspenseful Slow Burn Horror

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The rush of adrenaline is a heady sensation. That evolutionary fight-or-flight response strikes a primal chord deep within our primitive reptilian brain, and the heart-pounding, blood-pumping energy that protected our ancestors from hungry predators has, in modern humans, become a kind of addiction. The exhilaration of extreme sports can often satisfy such a need, attested to by the popularity of ever-more perilous ‘adventure vacations’—skydiving, wingsuit flying, base-jumping, alpine skiing—it seems the more dangerous the activity, the more we yearn for a chance to partake. Even the simpler, far safer indulgence of watching a scary movie can induce a burst of adrenaline-fueled excitement, a fact that explains the unshakably enduring success of horror films. Our hackles raise up when we see a stalking on-screen madman, our breath quickens as the werewolf approaches a victim; we imagine ourselves in that same scenario, and our brains work feverishly to figure out how we would—or wouldn’t—survive such an encounter.

Welsh-born New Zealander Ian J. Middleton adroitly exploits the effects of adrenaline in his latest short novel, White Death, a taut thrill ride that fuses the intensity of extreme sports with the brutal life-or-death stakes found in the best creature features. The story follows four lifelong English friends—sensitive Ewan, practical David, and boisterous twins Rob and Sean—on the last leg of their latest snowboarding escapade in the mountains of New Zealand. Intent on capturing as much bodacious boarding footage as can be for their burgeoning YouTube channel, the quartet have exhausted their bodies, minds and wallets when they hear of an abandoned ski resort in a nigh-inaccessible area called Vantage Point. The reasons for the resort’s desertion are unclear, but against the advice of locals and Ewan’s own hesitancy, they arrive to find a place as thoroughly creepy as the Overlook Hotel; evidence exists of some hasty past departure, dire warnings are scrawled on the walls to ward away trespassers and, worst of all, a fearsome carnivorous beast may be lurking amid the snowdrifts, waiting to feed...

Though nominally linked to the author’s interconnected ‘Vantage Point’ cycle (which includes the short stories ‘Ill Gotten Gains’ and ‘Still Life’ as well as the four-book ‘No Escape’ series), Middleton wisely eschews making White Death dependent on those earlier literary forays. Instead he lays out a clear, stand-alone path, bolstered by vigorous prose, a rising tide of dread and easily relatable characters. The camaraderie that exists between the four leads is drawn so thoroughly that any reader can feel as if they’re an unofficial fifth member of their group, privy to each man’s distinct personalities, their quirks, foibles, weaknesses and strengths. Ewan, for instance, as the focal point-of-view figure, is by turns loyal, reserved and polite, but also accident-prone and oftentimes cowardly. In stark contrast, Rob and Sean are unabashed pranksters, intent to live every minute to the fullest, and their brash, sometimes reckless behavior serves as a vivid counterpoint to Ewan’s oft-gloomy countenance.

Such solidly carved depictions are the narrative buttress of White Death. Engendering reader sympathies is something many modern horror yarns lack, but Middleton takes great pain to ensure his characters are not only believable but beloved, so that when the novel’s beast makes its eventual appearance the audience has a vested interest in the outcome. The time spent building that rapport, however, may alienate some; White Death is the exacting definition of ‘slow burn’, and for impatient horror fans seeking a hardy splash of blood-and-guts mayhem the carefully-crafted wait will prove frustrating. It does take considerable page-space for the monster to appear, but such postponement pays dividends similar to those had in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s classic 1987 sci-fi/horror action flick Predator. In fact, that movie, more than any novel, is the closest antecedent to Middleton’s tale, with its assembly of rough-and-ready protagonists alone in an inhospitable, isolated locale, hunted by a powerful and deadly creature. While the origin of the ravenous tusked behemoth in White Death remains a mystery (an author’s postscript reveals that information can be had in the other ‘Vantage Point’ stories), the unknowing here is a boon. Works of the fantastic can and often do falter when they succumb to a perceived need to over-explain but, as in real life, the confusion of any given traumatic event is often the scariest aspect of all.

Filled with lively characters, humor, suspense and (wait for it) scenes of grueling action and vibrant technicolor carnage, White Death is a sure reward for the diligent horror reader, and it’s for that reason that I give it a solid 4 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale.

4.0 / 5.0