When Lori mysteriously drowns in Chapel Lake, her distraught older brother Owen makes a trek to the lake that killed her, hoping that he can figure out just what his little sister was doing there, but what he uncovers are ghosts from his past, ghosts that may or may not all be in his head.
At one point in my unlife, yours truly was a ghost hunter, something I might have mentioned a time or two, usually when complaining about the ease in which people are scared of abandoned places or the frustration in trying to remain skeptical when you’ve got people freaking out at the slightest sound instead of realizing that old houses tend to make odd creaks and groans. Yes, I said skeptical, being a zombie doesn’t mean you automatically believe every place with a legend and some weird noises is haunted. It just means that in the odd chance a place was haunted, I tended to be a bit more respectful of the dead. This means not screaming at any potential ghosts like a drunken frat boy when they don’t immediately show themselves (I’m not saying most ghost hunters are assholes for doing this, I’m just saying that if you were a ghost, would you want some dick in a black t-shirt that was two sizes too small yelling at you for not being on his or her time table, so yes actually, I am saying most ghost hunters are assholes for doing this). I’ve been on supposedly haunted ships, stayed overnight in supposedly haunted houses, wandered old cemeteries, braved abandoned psychiatric centers, and even spent time alone in a murder’s prison cell at the shutdown Moundsville Penitentiary, but one place I could never bring myself to brave was a possibly haunted lake. I already don’t like dwelling on what living creatures could be swimming beneath me, let alone anything not quite dead. Hell, I don’t think I’d care to try out a haunted pool, chlorine being nasty enough without adding ghosts to the mix. Now, thanks to Duncan Ralston, not only is my watery fear a little worse, but I’m going to have to add haunted bathtubs to my list of spectral waters to avoid.
When Owen was a teen, his mother and stepfather took him and his younger sister Lori to the beaches of China Cove where the thirteen year old boy had an experience that would shake him to his core and leave him a bit wary of swimming from then on out. Fast forward a few decades and the now forty year old man is attending the funeral of Lori after she drowned in a lake named for the church steeple that sticks up out of the waters, Chapel Lake, a body of water created when the town originally inhabiting the land was flooded over to make way for progress. Owen is shocked over the loss, even more than one might normally be due to the fact that Lori was both an experienced swimmer and trained diver, but her death is only the first of several shocks coming to the distraught and grieving brother, including haunting visions that make him question his sanity. Deciding that his sister’s death warrants further investigation, Owen makes the trip to Chapel Lake, where he discovers bits and pieces of a past he doesn’t seem to recall. As the mystery deepens, Owen finds himself lost in a journey that stirs up ghosts from the past, spirits that appear to be both taunting and trying to help him. Is Owen going crazy, are ghosts really attempting to drag him into the same fate as his sister, or is his subconscious trying to tell him something he’s long forgotten? Only one thing is certain, Owen will have to uncover the ultimate mystery of Chapel Lake, or join Lori at the bottom of its murky depths.
I’m not usually a big fan of ghost stories, my prior experience with ghost hunting, or paranormal investigations if you want to sound spiffy, has left a bitter taste in my mouth towards the subject as well as killing any apprehension or dread I might have once had for floating dead people and their spectral shenanigans. Thankfully, for bitter old curmudgeons like myself at least, Salvage is much, much more than a simple ghost story. It’s a tale of a man attempting to overcome the loss of a sister he considered to be a better person than himself while trying to uncover a past he doesn’t completely understand, a commentary on humanity’s dual natures, and a suspenseful thriller that keeps you guessing. It’s this last part that is most important for those who, like myself, might not be too into ghost stories, because there’s no way to tell if this is really a ghost story. The spirits that torment Owen could very well be in his head, a representation of his subconscious attempting to remind him of long lost memories, or they could simply be figments of his imagination as the man slowly loses his mind due to grief over Lori’s death and a childhood that was less than stellar. It could also be actual souls of the dead that haven’t moved on, or demons, demons are a possibility as well, but the fact that you don’t know for sure keeps the reader on their toes and keeps the suspense a constant throughout so that you don’t ever get a chance to be too comfortable. It makes for an enjoyable read as you find yourself frequently trying to guess whether things are all in Owen’s head or if he really is dealing with something supernatural. Don’t look to me for any hints either, meat is the only thing getting spoiled from my end.
On top of the great use of suspense and uncertainty, there’s an interesting bit of philosophy thrown into the mix as well. Not in a heavy handed way that makes it feel like you’re being preached to, nor does it become so distracting that you can’t enjoy the story, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The philosophical nature of Salvage is woven into the story so well that it almost doesn’t even need to be mentioned by Duncan Ralston, you can just pick up on it as you read. What philosophical nature you might ask after asking why I’ve decided to mention philosophy so many times in the same paragraph (it’s fun to say, leave me be), the philosophy (okay, I promise that’s the last time) concerning humanity’s dual natures, how we are both our own angels and our own demons. An interesting way of discussing these ideas is through the use of the Christian Bible’s own dual nature, the angry, wrathful Old Testament God vs. the much more loving and kind New Testament God. One of the recurring ghosts that haunt Owen is one he refers to as The Sheppard due to the ghost’s pre death (and possibly post death) position as the preacher of a small church, a ghost who himself seems to have two sides depending on his moods. The Sheppard causes Owen to consider the nature of having two warring sides inside of us all, leading to some interesting thoughts about the Bible and why it’s two halves seem so different. Now before you go worrying too much, Salvage isn’t a religious tale. Yes, there are some religious aspects to the story, mostly of the Christian variety, but Ralston does an excellent job of using the material without going into specifics that could have bogged the book down with unnecessary details, nor does he go too deep into theology. It’s only used as a means to progress the story, or to examine the thing I mentioned earlier (I promised not to say philosophy again…damn it).
Of course, even a suspense filled story with a great tale to tell can still fall apart without good characterization, a problem Salvage doesn’t suffer from. Owen isn’t always the most likable character, at times he’s a bitter, cynical man that seems to need, as my grandfather used to tell me, a swift kick in the ass. That’s not a complaint, even though he can at times be an ass, it only added to his character while not hurting the reader’s ability to enjoy the story. Writing a flawed character is a difficult thing when those flaws aren’t the action movie stereotypes that keep people coming back for Keanu Reeves movies (the lonely loner doing lonely stuff, the sarcastic badass with a plethora of witty quips, the flaws that just make the protagonist seem edgier). Go too far one way or another and the character becomes much less interesting, but with a perfect balance, a character can be made into someone real, someone that the reader can root for as if they were rooting for a real person, and that was exactly how Owen came across to me. I really cared what happened to him and how his story was going to play out, even feeling strongly for the poor guy during some of Salvage’s more emotionally charged scenes, especially one scene in particular that might or might not have made me a little teary eyed…but like in a manly way…yeah, a manly way…anyhow. While most of the story focuses on Owen, he’s both helped and hindered by a variety of characters, my favorite of which was slow witted refuse collector Howie, each one fleshed out enough so they don’t come across as simple filler, but not so much that they slow down the momentum the novel gathers. As with most things in Salvage, it’s all about the balance.
Salvage is a suspenseful, exciting, and at times touching tale that will pull your heartstrings while leaving you with an uncomfortable feeling of dread and apprehension before finally coming to an interesting conclusion. The act of having our protagonist Owen spend a good chunk of his time underwater, a place where humans are at the complete mercy of their environment and therefore extremely vulnerable, only adds to the emotional impact of the overall story. If you’re a huge fan of ghost stories or just looking for a tale full of suspense, then Salvage is the book for you.
You Can Purchase It Here: Salvage on Amazon
The Undead Review
Written By: Duncan Ralston
Published By: Forsaken
Release Year: 2015