What is The Chill? Answer: the first great novel of 2020 that sets a high bar for the rest of the genre with a story that both mines familiar territory but digs deeper than most.
Scott Carson is the newest thriller author to jump into the darkest end of the pool and go for broke with a horror novel. It’s the pseudonym of a New York Times bestselling author whose novels have always held a horror element to them anyway; a couple of them dabbled in the supernatural before he found success in pure thriller stories.
This time, he goes all out but in a novel that vacillates between slow burn atmospheric dread and balls-out frights. A mix, perhaps, between Peter Straub and Michael Marshall Smith. The reader can do the homework regarding the author’s true identity. To many, it won’t matter one bit.
Far upstate in New York State, an old town exists…underwater. The residents who lived there lay drowned beneath the dam that was built to supply New York City with water through a series of tunnels. Those who built the reservoir at Galesburg over eighty years ago forced the people to leave, buying them out of their homes and resettling them in Torrance (a Stephen King nod?).
Or so people were told.
Those who didn’t leave still dwell beneath the surface and their time has come to reclaim their town, along with exacting a bit of revenge on the descendants of those who profited on their deaths.
Back in Torrance, Chief Steve Ellsworth keeps a lid on everything—except for his son, Aaron, who has returned from a failed stint in the Coast Guard as an ace swimmer and diver. Now plagued by drugs and alcohol, he meanders through the town evading rehab and responsibility.
All of that changes one fateful evening when he decides to swim in the Chillewaukee reservoir (the Chill) to battle the current and prove himself one more time. An odd photographer emerges from nowhere to discuss the history of the town, the dam, and nothing much at all. Afterwards, Aaron accidentally kills the damn inspector with a bottle toss, only to watch the man, Mick Fleming, a man with a long lineage in the area, walk out of the woods as if nothing had ever happened. The chief, Gillian Mathers, an environmental officer, and others witness the event, convinced Aaron’s lost to substance abuse. This act sets the story into motion as Fleming learns of his role in the revenge while Gillian’s father, working in the tunnels beneath the Big Apple, begins to see the ghosts of those who perished during the construction of the century old system.
All histories of the main players unfold with an artful touch as the dread and suspense builds towards a conclusion that might be inevitable. Like the best horror writers, Carson knows the key to a solid story are the characters. He builds each of them, every one flawed and fragile. Watching them both crumble and strengthen is a treat. This is what makes The Chill an ultimate success. A unique premise coupled with one of the most talented writers publishing today results in an entertaining book that will likely keep readers of both genres happy.