Tourist Lit

snow

Snow
Written by Ronald Malfi
Published by Leisure Books

While it seems both obvious and uncharitable to label this “Steven King-lite,” given King’s rather extensive influence in mainstream horror fiction, it more than fits the milieu presented here. An estranged dad, braving a winter storm in Iowa to see his son for Christmas; excessively precious side characters who are meant to be tragic cannon fodder (there’s an elderly couple, who may or may not have a grandkid on the way); insinuations of some larger calamity at work; and a crazed fundamentalist Christian serving as an easy potshot. Malfi even digresses similarly–not-so-subtly setting up the dad’s reason for being divorced, to expand later in an infodump which otherwise has nothing to do with the plot.

To his credit, Malfi gets what King waved bye-bye to some time ago: that these sorts of easily digestible potboilers are best kept under 500 pages. Snow isn’t packaged as a weighty tome, which keeps the book from being a slog like many of King’s recent efforts, or those of his imitators. At times, it even has brief flourishes of truly inspired prose (“It was one of those standard green roadside signs with the luminous white letters, and it came out of the snow-covered pines like an apparition”) or creepy imagery (possessed people bounding like deer or what looks like a flurry of snow moving of its own volition). It’s just good enough, like King’s Carrie and The Shining or Peter Benchley’s Jaws, to be used as the raw material for an ambitious filmmaker’s adaptation.

Still, clocking in at just over 300 pages, Malfi has a fair bit of padding. The whole fundie segment–where some kid thinks the snow-like creatures who have killed and/or possessed an entire Iowan town are a form of divine punishment akin to the biblical flood–is like adding a spoiler and racing stripes to a four-door sedan. “Look at me,” it shouts, “I got lefty bona fides!” Mostly, it comes across as East Coast sneering.

Much better is his small town teenage badass Shawna: someone who made the decision to work a retail job in her hometown and get into a relationship of convenience, yet making the best of Thoreau’s quiet desperation, transmogrified into gritty determination when the only life she knows is upended. As Snow‘s resident Ellen Ripley, she becomes its most interesting character, even if her presence is sadly (shockingly) limited. By comparison, the characters Malfi has readers following, the dad and the dad’s romantic interest, come across as stock characters despite efforts at pathos–revolving around their other failed or uncommitted relationships. They’re tourists trapped here on the way to somewhere else. It’s an easy, overexposed POV in mainstream fiction, one which makes good pulp, but rarely used to explore the relationship between people and places, what King does with his Maine settings or Mark Z. Danielewski captures in House of Leaves (where the constant transformations of the house upset the characters’ sense of belonging). In the early chapters, Malfi almost approaches this, combining the terror of driving at night, during a whiteout, with the vast, nigh-desolate stretches of Iowa, but quickly diverges into small town zombie apocalypse. Yet, the central characters make little note of their surroundings beyond the obvious; they are detached from the town and fixated squarely on each other. Compared with Shawna, who makes associations and observations on everything, these Tourists are dull. The lite in “Steven King-lite.”

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