Road of Bones by Christopher Golden

book cover

It wasn’t the desolation or the darkness or even the climate that had persuaded him to invest in this trip. It was that name…Official maps referred to it as R504. It wasn’t much of a road. The pavement started at both ends but not long thereafter the pavement gave way to packed gravel…In many places, the road was barely wide enough for two cars to scrape the paint off each other as they passed. The landscape consisted of snow, skeletal trees, mountains, and the occasional guardrail, as well as settlements that were considered urban but many of which were made up of a few dozen buildings and the hardy souls who went along with them.

It seemed like these people lived in a haunted, frozen hell.
To them . . . it was just home.

The Russians have a thing for giving characters in novels, and, it appears, real-world things, multiple names. R504, for example, is also known as P504. (no idea, don’t ask). It is also known as Federal Highway R504 and The Kolyma Highway. Locals call it The Kolyma Route. Plenty? Da. Complete? Nyet. It is also known as The Road of Bones. Construction began in 1932, during the Stalin era, using labor camp inmates. It continued using gulag prisoners until 1953. Workers die during construction? Permafrost in Siberia makes digging holes problematic, so the bodies were laid to rest under and near the road. Just a few, only somewhere between 250,000 to one million. Any chance a mother lode like that might attract a ghost hunter?

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Christopher Golden – image from The Tufts Daily – photo by Shivohn Kacy Fleming

Not all the dead along the road were planted there due to construction. There are probably a million ways to die on the Road of Bones in winter. Run out of gas? You die. Flat tire? You die. Accident? You die. Vehicle breaks down for any reason? You die. Don’t go outside wearing glasses. They will get frozen to your face. Have a medical emergency that cannot wait three hours until you can get to the nearest ER? You die. And guys, don’t even think about stopping by the side of the road to pee. Bring a diaper or a container of some sort. Sounds fun. When are we leaving? (I love writing stories set in places where people shouldn’t live. Like WHY DO YOU LIVE THERE? – from the Dead Headspace interview)

Felix Teigland is a maker of documentaries. He has had some ups and downs in his career. He managed to build his own production company but he is still waiting for the breakout show that will keep him and his company above water for more than just now. He is a charmer and professional bullshitter, who means well, and has a rich imagination, producing a lot of interesting ideas, but far too often he is unable to make good on his promises. Felix needs a hit. But he needs a backer to fund it. Thus, his presence in this godforsaken land. He wants to take enough video, get enough of a story that he can persuade those with deep enough pockets to reach into them and toss enough rubles his way so that he can actually produce the project.

Teig was a fast talker, always with a scheme he would trumpet with unfettered enthusiasm—a feature documentary from a fourteen-year-old director out of Argentina, salvage rights to a Spanish galleon, a TV series about World War II comic book artists who were secretly spies, a mock-umentary in which the history of Scooby-Doo and his gang would be investigated as if they’d existed in real life.

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Here the broken landscape of Stalin’s Kolyma Highway is pictured. Without a rail link to the city, the highway remains the only major land route into & out of Yakutsk… – image and text from Weather.com – photo by Amos Chapple

And what a project it is. Life and Death on the Road of Bones. Surely there are ghost stories aplenty, not to mention compelling survival tales. Teig has a background in supernatural work, having labored for several years on a TV show called Ghost Sellers.

He had reason to want to find ghosts, but he’d never seen evidence of one, despite the show confirming twenty-seven “official” hauntings while he’d worked with them.

He is skeptical of such things, has doubts, but even more importantly, hopes. Maybe the ghosts he finds in Siberia will help him find the spirit he truly seeks.

The grieving kid who’d lived inside him for more than twenty years had always longed for proof of the supernatural.
Careful what you wish for, idiot.

Teig is joined in this insane adventure by Jack Prentiss, a bear of an American, complete with a beard that would be at home in Brooklyn or the Yukon, a beer belly, and an imposing frame. Teig owes Prentiss a considerable sum of money, which gives Jack a bit of incentive to help make sure this project succeeds. Prentiss may be Teig’s only friend.

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A view of Stalin’s “Road of Bones”, the route to Oymyakon (Oy-vey-myakon?, is pictured on a -50c evening – image from Weather.com. photo by Amos Chapple

You can probably leave your swimsuit at home. There are only five hours of daylight this time of year, and even when it is above the horizon, it remains hidden behind clouds. Get used to the darkness. The average daily temperature in Winter is -47F.

They begin in the port town of Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk, heading to the community of Akhust, the coldest inhabited place on Earth. I did not find an actual Akhust in my Googling, so presume it is a made-up name, standing in for Oymyakon, a twenty hour drive according to Google directions. Teig’s journey is supposedly sixteen hours, so maybe it is somewhere between the two locations. Guess it depends on extant conditions.

They make a stop to pick up a twenty-something guide, Kaskil, an actual local. He will not be their last passenger. There is a lovely lady in distress, Nari, with “cherry black hair.” Vehicle broke down and she needs a lift. When they arrive in Akhust, the coldest place on Earth, the entire town of several hundred is abandoned. Only one inhabitant remains, Kaskil’s nine-year-old niece, Ariuna, in a catatonic state. Shock most likely.

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Oymyakon, Sakah Republic, Russia Avg. temperature of 3 coldest months: -47.0 F Coldest month: January (-53.3 F) – image from USA Today – photo by Zac Allan / Wikimedia Commons

And then there are the odd things they have been seeing in the woods as they drove along. Trees moving strangely, oversized beasts, of uncertain shape, a Siberian tiger, of very certain shape, among them. Teig has odd thoughts urging him to give in to the cold. Whatever had driven or lured the residents of Akhust from their homes was now coming for them. And the chase is on, an army of creatures, led by a very large, human-like shaman is in hot pursuit. But why? Check, please.

The story is told through alternating POVs, not including everyone, but more than a couple. This kept things fresh, while also giving us the characters’ backstories, and reasons to care about their fates, maybe some understanding of their motivations. The action is pretty much non-stop. It is not a long book, but you might be out of breath by the time you finish reading. Lots of peril, lots of fleeing, a fair bit of fighting back. And questions. Um…why? I understand that the victims of Stalin might be pissed, but at people with no role in their killing? Are the members of this spirit army Stalin’s reincarnated roadkill? There is a character Kaskil refers to as ghost he has actually seen, who prays over the frozen dead. Does she have a role in this? The animal-like nature of the pursuers suggests also a rebellion of the natural world against a feckless humanity. Wrong place, wrong time. Who are those guys? Or is it something else? So what is the deal? Why are these spirits-made-material so intent on catching our small company?

Gripes are minimal. While there were multiple POVs, they did not all succeed in generating much interest in the characters. One character’s deep religious feelings define a life in an interesting and unusual way. Teig’s tale is given the most ink, and creates the strongest bond. The others? Some.

This is a chilling, acti0n-filled horror story, and it succeeds very much at that level. There is a lot of creativity on display in portraying these dark forces. And enough nuance to make them less than one hundred percent evil. Sound, in particular, plays a role here, not just in the songs noted in the text, but in the way sound can get into your head.

I’m…always intrigued with the idea of turning the concept of monstrosity on its head, of looking at a conflict through the eyes of the character that we would normally presume to be evil or cruel. – from the Nightmare Magazine interview

You will want to dress warmly while reading this one. You may shudder along with the characters at the death-dealing cold they must face for the entirety of the tale, and add a quiver or three for the spirits on the warpath. Consider having at hand either a mug of something very warm to drink or a bottle of Stoli. A favorite pet on your lap might help as well, at least as long as they do not start to look at you funny.

Here in this little scattering of human structures they could still convince themselves they were in the world of people, but once they passed into the woods, it would have been impossible to pretend they had control or authority over anything. Hunters and herders went into those woods or up that mountain from Akhust, and when they did they were surrendering to the primal nature of the world. Akhust stood as a stark reminder of how small a thing it was to be a human being.

Review posted – January 21, 2022

Publication date – January 25, 2022

I received an ARE of Road of Bones from St. Martins in return for a fair review and some extra warm mittens. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Golden is a monster of an author who got started, and found success, very early. He has a gazillion publications to his credit, an encyclopedic host of teleplay credits from his years writing for Buffy with Joss Whedon, and plenty more. And then there are the comics. You may have heard of Hell Boy, among those. Here is a list of what he has published, from Fiction DB. I personally think he has elves, or more likely, goblins chained to computers in his basement helping him crank out such volume.

Interviews
—–Nightmare Magazine – Interview: Christopher Golden by Lisa Morton – January 2014 issue
—–Dead Headspace – Ep. 126 – Christopher Golden – video – 1:51:56 – this is a long, fun interview that covers a wide range of subjects. The part dealing specifically with The Road of Bones goes from about 1:20:00 to about 1:29:00

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on the Kolyma Highway. Yes, it is a real thing
—–Weather.com – Breathtaking Photos of the Coldest City in the World by Nicole Bonaccorso – March 25, 2021

Songs/Music
—–Prince – Purple Rain – chapter 8
—–Bruce Springstein – Drive All Night – chapter 12
—–Bruce – Western Heroes – chapter 12
—–Bruce – Rosalita – chapter 14
—–Bruce – Somewhere North of Nashville – chapter 15
—–Elmira Terkulova – Million Scarlet Roses – English version – chapter 8
—–Alla Pugacheva –Million Roses – Russian version – chapter 8

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Filed under Cli-Fi, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Suspense, Thriller

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