Review of Joel A Sutherland - Frozen Blood

This is old-school horror, the kind of book that you might have seen back in the 1980s. It's straightforward, no-frills, no hidden meaning scary atmospheric stuff. Its set-up is old school too.

Two estranged sisters are coming back into each other's lives due to the recent death of their father, and the reading of his will, taking place in his mansion near Ottawa during a severe and seemingly never-ending hailstorm.

There is a great deal of mistrust between the two. Tara is a recovering alcoholic. Her relationship with sister Evelyn was destroyed following the death of Evelyn's daughter - killed by a drunk driver - an act her sister symbolically identifies with Tara herself. Before the evening described in the book the two had not communicated in three years.

There's even the kind of twist you would get in many 1980s horrors. After about sixty or so pages everything points to a battle between the two sisters - each descending into their own brand of madness - and heaven help anyone who gets in the way.

However things change. The storm, initially seeming to be the device used to keep the sisters locked together in the family home, claims its first (in these pages at least) victim when the lawyer attempts to leave. The ice pellets of the hailstorm tear at his skin, beat him unconscious to the ground, reducing him to a bloody pulp.

But this is not a book that relies on shock. Even with the lawyer's death you'll find no detailed descriptions of gore. The author is going for atmospheric fears, using the isolating power of a serious storm to unsettle. There are no demons, no mysterious strangers, witchcraft or magicks here.

The ghosts Tara sees and interacts with regularly could be a result of her mind. There is no conclusive proof they actually exist. Even the mysteries (the off-screen alterations to the contents of the house) are in essence mundane, much more likely the result of malevolence on one sister's part, or madness on the other.

This book works best in the way it gradually increases your knowledge of the sisters' relationship through a Tara's flashbacks and conversations with the dead. The initial sense of incompleteness may seem a little confusing. But this slow peeling back of the layers gives you each new piece of information at just the right moment - when its affect is greatest.

In many ways the familiar big-old-house setting, sibling rivalry and deeply flawed main characters work for him. He's not wasting time describing the background. We know it and he knows we know it. It allows him to get one with it - to tell us a story.

Sutherland is not the finished article by any means. His descriptions are occasionally prosaic when they could make the scene more real. Some of the jumps are too abrupt, the dialog a little stiff. But his pacing is good, and he presents an ending that doesn't wimp out. His ability to spin a good yarn, with just the right creepyness-factor makes this a very entertaining debut novel.

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