Stranded by Bracken MacLeod features an apocalyptic storm and a crew's fight to survive the elements (Available October 4, 2016).
Stranded by Bracken MacLeod is a gripping existential horror thriller that will appeal to crime fans. Though it is compared to classics like The Thing and The Mist—and it does have the creepy base elements that make those stories work, such as paranoia of your fellow man when trapped in a survival situation beyond your comprehension—to me, it read like a thriller with just a touch of the supernatural. But that touch is disturbing and puts the reader just as off-balance as it does the characters who must confront it. The author of Mountain Home focuses his sharp eye for depicting humans crumbling under pressure to a colder, unforgiving landscape.
Noah is the least-liked crew member of the Arctic Promise, a supply ship on a mission to refuel and replenish the stores of the Niflheim oil platform in the Chuckhi sea. His ornery father-in-law is captain, and most of the crew shun him for accidentally causing the death of a crewmate on another voyage. He’s a likeable sort who’s not afraid to stand up for himself but is used to a spot far down the pecking order, piping up when he knows he’s right and having to fight to be listened to.
MacLeod handles the tightly knit, all-male dynamic of a merchant ship crew masterfully—we immediately know who’s liked and who’s on the shit list, who keeps their head down and just does the work, and who can get away with murder. That keeps the story steaming along even before it all goes pear-shaped and the ship becomes lost in fog and trapped in ice.
The feeling of Abby’s father’s fingers remained like a ghost ready to throttle him. The words echoed in his consciousness calling to mind the promise William made at Noah’s bachelor party two nights earlier. He’d grabbed his future son-in-law in exactly the same way and said, “If I ever find out you hurt my little girl, I’ll break your neck,” as casually as he ordered another scotch and soda when he let go.
Noah has a daughter at home he needs to get back to. He knows his father-in-law, Captain William Brewster, has become unhinged over shared tragedy, and he is the target of his blame. But it never feels like the stereotypical in-law battle, where the young man must fight for the respect of the elder. There’s something else there, much darker, slowly revealed over the story’s course. The mysterious cause of their predicament is the slow burn playing in the background while Noah fights with Brewster and his lackeys for control of the rescue mission and, later, his very life.
The communications are out. The ship begins deteriorating as if the years are spinning by like moments. Everyone on board becomes afflicted with a strange wasting sickness that wears down resistance and sharpens tempers, as the fog clears and reveals nothing but pack ice in all directions.
But that wasn’t possible, was it? Hadn’t he seen water and the frost flowers only a few hours ago? Unless the ice had closed in like a living thing to grasp them, it was impossible. They’d have felt the ice hitting the hull, slowing the ship. Brewster would have seen it on the x-band radar. Yet, there he was standing on it. Ice as far as he could see—which admittedly wasn’t far—and no sign it would look any different if he walked any deeper into the fog.
They spot a lump in the snow several miles away and set up a mission for it. What they find there—I won’t reveal—challenges their already tenuous hold on reality, as they find themselves in the “Land of Mists” but far stranger than the Niflheim of Norse mythology. The only enemy is themselves and the incomprehensible predicament they find themselves in.
Because they are under pressure to survive in the brutal Arctic landscape, the philosophical elements of their conundrum don’t get fully explored. Once the realization of what has actually happened hits the men, I was waiting for Noah to feel the lure of the unthinkable, of trading the guilt of his past for a future he might not deserve. He barely wrestles with it, but he has a lot more on his mind as men of lesser mettle and more formidable strength make their own choices, and he must fight to save himself and the rest of the dwindling sane.
A dim shape behind him darted forward, disappearing in a blur that blackened his vision and stole his breath like plunging into nighttime water. Noah jumped, and the small of his back slammed against the rail. His feet skidded and slipped on the slick deck. Trying to find purchase, he felt himself pitching backward, about to go over. His center of gravity shifted, climbing up his body and the distant surface below pulled at him like hands on his shoulders. He wished he could just drop to the deck, bend his knees and collapse, but his legs were scuttling with instinctive movement away from the thing that had rushed at him. Equally uncontrollable, his arms struck out, trying to grasp something, anything solid and unmoving. All they found was air.
MacLeod writes action well and knows when to use it. He also brings extensive knowledge of seafaring life, because it always reads true. The mystery of the shadows and why they are mired in a no man’s land where humans were never meant to survive keeps you turning pages, without the use of cliffhanger chapters.
I read this one quickly because I cared about the characters’ fates and did not want to leave this twisted reality where Noah must face his worst moment and learn why it happened. As a huge fan of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Stephen King’s The Mist, I will say this is worth reading if you loved the isolation and paranoia of the former and the behavior of people under impossible circumstances and the fear of the unknown of the latter. It’s a fast read that will keep you wondering to the last page, just like when MacReady and Childs share that last drink.
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Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and the editor of the Protectors anthologies to benefit PROTECT. He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim (not as part of a clever heist). Hailing from Nutley, New Jersey, home of criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, Thomas has so far evaded arrest. He shares his hideout with his sassy Louisiana wife and their two felines. You can find him at www.thomaspluck.com and on Twitter as @thomaspluck.