By Benjamin Cross, The Book Guild, 383 pages (ebook version), 2021 $3.99 electronic, $22.44 print.
Ever since the creature created by Victor Frankenstein slipped away into the ice covering the North Pole in Mary Shelley’s immortal 1818 novel, the Arctic has been an enticing setting for horror writers. Far removed from most human habitation, given to deadly climatic extremes, its vast emptiness of expansive frozen seas broken by a scattering of islands that even today retain a sense of terra incognita, and possessed by a surreal beauty into which scores of humans have vanished, it’s a good place to hide the monsters that lurk in the darker corridors of our imaginations. It’s hardly surprising that the 2018 miniseries “The Terror,” based on Dan Simmons’ 2007 horror novel of the same title, would prove so successful precisely two centuries after Shelley first looked north to petrify her readers. The Arctic remains formidable. It still holds mysteries waiting to be revealed.
Benjamin Cross is the most recent author to choose the north as a place to terrorize his characters, and in “Colony,” he adds science and political/economic espionage to the mix, producing a modern-day thriller worthy of inclusion in the longstanding subgenre of Arctic horror. The story is set on an island in Franz Josef Land, an archipelago wholly encompassed deep within the Arctic Circle. It’s the northernmost landmass in Russia. Uninhabited except for military personnel, it’s a place few have visited, and hence perfect for envisioning unknown creatures with little tolerance for the humans who wander in.
We learn this in the brief prologue, some 8,000 years past, when a lone hunter traveling the region for reasons not initially revealed is taken and killed by ... something. And because this is fantasy/horror, we all know this scene will prove important.
From there we jump to the modern day, when the book’s central character, Callum Ross, comes to the archipelago to take part in an environmental assessment in advance of potential oil and gas development. Ross travels to Harmsworth Island, a nice touch by Cross. While there is no such island, it was once mistakenly thought to have existed and now is a phantom island — it can be found on old maps. It was officially there before it wasn’t.
Ross, like Cross, is an archaeology professor from the United Kingdom, and this too is important. Cross has imported his scientific knowledge and experience into his book, lending an almost believable origin to the creatures that will decimate the team of scientists and the Russian support crew. He also creates a multinational team of scientists who, like such parties in real life, competitively share their knowledge while occasionally falling into cultural and ego clashes. It makes for a bit of realistic fun in the early going.
Other primary characters include Russian ecologist Darva Lebedev, who quickly emerges as Ross’ romantic interest; Ava Lee, a Canadian paleontologist; and the annoyingly Texan researcher Dan Peterson. Lungkaiu is a Nganasan helicopter pilot whose cultural knowledge will help unlock some mysteries. His loyal dog Fenris also emerges as a major player. Alexander Koikov is a Russian military officer commanding the troops on board the research vessel parked off of the island. And the entire operation is overseen by the reticent Mr. Volkov, representing the oil and gas interests. Meanwhile, an ecoterrorist named Ptarmigan has embedded himself on board, reporting to a mysterious man named Finback, preparing to blow up the ship. All these characters are well developed by Cross.
Many others wander in and out of the storyline as well, there to scrutinize the island from every angle and determine its history and present status. Or so they think.
Unknown creatures inhabit this cold paradise. Large, feathered, and bloodthirsty. The carnage commences slowly at first, unseen by anyone but the victims. But it doesn’t take long before others begin to fall and the creatures reveal themselves. After setting his stage, Cross begins subjecting his characters to predation and betrayal, as the monsters and the monstrous humans blending into the crew both launch games of attrition against the intruders, who just want to collect data and, with any luck, make career-defining discoveries.
To reveal any more would be to give away too much. But for a first time novelist, Cross does an admirable job of juggling the different elements and carrying his story to its conclusion. Like any worthwhile thriller, there are countless escapes from sure death, and savage slayings where escape is no longer an option. Plot twists abound, and as the action rolls along, the true nature of various characters is revealed, in at least one case quite unexpectedly. A couple of details needed to keep the primary characters alive seem a bit implausible, but this isn’t literary fiction, this is escapist fun, and the heroes have to hopefully reach the finish line.
Cross has done his homework on the Arctic, and one of the ways this shows is his decision to set the story in high summer rather than deep winter. The extreme cold and perpetual darkness of December are a natural fit for horror, but not so many authors whose imaginations have gone north recognize the ominous potential of constant daylight and recurring mist. Ghostly beings can emerge from such conditions, simultaneously seen and unseen, and this is how the creatures, as well as the people, keep stumbling upon each other. The eeriness of it, and the exhaustion that the absence of nighttime can wreak on human minds and bodies, isn’t noted as often as the effects of winter’s blackness. But by keeping the tale entirely in summer weeks, Cross adds to the originality of this book.
“Colony” was my choice for this year’s summer vacation read, and Benjamin Cross delivered. In the end, there are enough loose ends regarding the island itself to demand a return visit, and a sequel is planned. Perhaps in winter this time. Two hundred years after providing a setting for the first modern horror novel, Cross proves that the imagined Arctic can still scare us.