Joel A. Sutherland
Joel A. Sutherland knows a thing or two about chills. Like many other Canadians, he was stranded during the ice storm that struck Eastern Ontario in January 1998. Houses were left without power for several days, trees collapsed under the weight of their ice-coated limbs, and more than 30 people died.
In typical horror writing fashion, Sutherland has taken something familiar and blown it up to terrifying proportions. His first novel, Frozen Blood, takes place during an ice storm similar to the one in 1998 — except this one doesn’t show any sign of stopping.
Never-ending hail might not sound very scary, especially if you’ve never even seen hail before, but try to imagine thousands of rock-hard projectiles, some of them as large as baseballs, falling out of the sky. Now imagine standing outside and unprotected during such a barrage. If you’re still not convinced, I suggest you read a few chapters in and wait to see what happens when someone tries to make it to his car. It will almost make you feel sympathetic toward lawyers.
Set against this apocalyptic backdrop, Frozen Blood is about the disintegrating relationship between two sisters. Tara Stewart is a recovering alcoholic on her way to Ottawa for her father’s funeral. This means finally dealing with her manipulative sister, Evelyn, who has an extra special reason for wanting Tara around. Trapped in a house together, Tara, Evelyn, and Evelyn’s husband Peter, begin to realize that the storm isn’t going to stop, and that it’s become a worldwide phenomenon.
Although Frozen Blood could be classified as Canadian Gothic, with its dark family secrets and sibling rivalry, Sutherland manages to avoid letting the story devolve into melodrama. Likewise the ice storm is never relegated to the background as is the case in so many other “disaster” books. Too often the writer fails to remind the reader that there is a cataclysmic event going on — to the point where this most important plot point is practically forgotten. Not so in this case. The hail is falling right from Chapter 1, and Sutherland reminds us that it isn’t stopping every time a character turns on the radio or looks out a window.
Since we’re living in a new “green” era, I feel the need to mention that this is not a preachy eco-disaster novel. If there’s an allegory or a message in the never-ending hail, I didn’t see it. If anything, the hail serves as a catalyst to force Tara and her sister into a final — and long overdue — confrontation. In a way it’s almost like the storm is happening just for them. Deal with your problems now, it seems to say, because you’re not leaving this house until you do. As an added mystery, Tara is plagued by ghosts that may or may not exist. My favourite horror novels are the ones where the supernatural elements are light and ambiguous, and Sutherland does an effective job of putting forth questions that tantalize rather than annoy the reader.
Sutherland writes with a confident voice, and unlike many first novels, he doesn’t lend himself to flowery, overwrought prose. He had me from the first chapter — which reads a bit like a Disney movie from hell. His writing is sharp and concise and coolly effective (pun intended). Frozen Blood provides genuine chills that you’ll be feeling long after you put down the book.