Book: “Road of Bones” by Christopher Golden
Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, January 2022
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: A stunning supernatural thriller set in Siberia, where a film crew is covering an elusive ghost story about the Kolyma Highway, a road built on top of the bones of prisoners of Stalin’s gulag.
Kolyma Highway, otherwise known as the Road of Bones, is a 1200 mile stretch of Siberian road where winter temperatures can drop as low as sixty degrees below zero. Under Stalin, at least eighty Soviet gulags were built along the route to supply the USSR with a readily available workforce, and over time hundreds of thousands of prisoners died in the midst of their labors. Their bodies were buried where they fell, plowed under the permafrost, underneath the road.
Felix Teigland, or “Teig,” is a documentary producer, and when he learns about the Road of Bones, he realizes he’s stumbled upon untapped potential. Accompanied by his camera operator, Teig hires a local Yakut guide to take them to Oymyakon, the coldest settlement on Earth. Teig is fascinated by the culture along the Road of Bones, and encounters strange characters on the way to the Oymyakon, but when the team arrives, they find the village mysteriously abandoned apart from a mysterious 9-year-old girl. Then, chaos ensues.
A malignant, animistic shaman and the forest spirits he commands pursues them as they flee the abandoned town and barrel across miles of deserted permafrost. As the chase continues along this road paved with the suffering of angry ghosts, what form will the echoes of their anguish take? Teig and the others will have to find the answers if they want to survive the Road of Bones.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
So many horror subgenres, so little time. I have always had a hit or miss relationship with folk horror, but I’m always up to try out books that catch my eye or get a lot of hype. So I was drawn to “Road of Bones” by Christopher Golden for a couple of reasons. The first was that I’ve been meaning to check out Golden for awhile, but haven’t done it yet. The second was that “Road of Bones” kept popping up on my various timelines with a lot of praise. So folk horror or not, I was down to jump all the way in. And the fact that it takes place in the cold wilderness of Siberia was just an added bonus, since I was reading it over some frigid winter days and nights here in Minnesota.
“Road of Bones” does the ingenious thing of taking a real life horror and using it as the context and setting for a horror story steeped in folklore, history, and supernatural creepiness. The action of our tale takes place along the Kolyma Highway, a federal road that was built by and upon the bones of gulag prisoners during Stalin’s rule. It is estimated that perhaps at least half a million people died during construction, their bodies just paved over by permafrost and infrastructure. So, good lord that’s horrifying on its own, but Golden manages to take the location and make it all the more creepy and upsetting vis a vis Russian folklore. Our main characters are Teig and Prentiss, two filmmakers who have been friends forever and who are chasing one last dream (mostly Teig’s) of trying to create a ghost hunting show. Teig has his own reasons for wanting to chase ghosts that he doesn’t necessarily believe in outside of monetary ones, and Prentiss is there because he loves his friend, even if he’s exasperated by him. Their dynamic is a familiar one, but Golden makes you care about them as people and as friends. As they drive through the ice cold and desolate wilds of Siberia on a lonely highway, they find themselves suddenly in supernatural danger, and by the time we get to that point we care enough about them that anything that comes next is going to be high tension and high stakes. The other characters we meet have similar roles to play, from their brash local guide Kaskil to a stranded driver named Nari, and once they reach the small village they hope to rest in, it’s clear that things have gone very wrong. I liked all of our characters, so they were more than just fodder for angry spirits by the time shit started to get real.
But it’s the horror elements that really sold me on this book. I initially assumed that the supernatural element would be a traditional ‘angry ghosts’ kind of story, given that the Kolyma Highway has such a dark and violent history, but instead we go full folk horror with it, and hoo boy is it effective. From an abandoned village to shadows in the distant treelines to shamanism and forest spirits, “Road of Bones” runs a gamut of creepy elements that make for some really, REALLY scary moments. The isolation of a deadly tundra is scary enough on its own, and Golden makes that threat just one of many others that is always there to compound the other issues at hand. Golden taps into folklore and involves forest spirits, potential demonic possession, transformative body horror, and the fear of the missing and unknown. The descriptions of the abandoned village, of many sets of footprints wandering through the snow and into the woods, actively gave me shivers as I was reading (definitely had another ‘oh Jesus CHRIST’ muttering moment during one moment in particular), and let me tell you, the things that Teig, Prentiss, and the others encounter freaked me out, and a lot of that is based in folk horror tropes and imagery. Golden made it work for me, and how. The horrors of nature and the things that dwell within it combine super well with the location and terrible history that resides there.
“Road of Bones” is scary and highly enjoyable. I’m so glad that this was the Christopher Golden book that served as my first experience with his writing, as I really, really liked it.
Rating 9: A scary folk horror tale perfect for a cold winter’s night.