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Frozen Blood / Joel A. Sutherland

Lachesis Publishing / December 2008
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

An apocalyptic hailstorm, murderous sibling rivalry, schizophrenia, and ghostly manifestations are the unlikely ingredients in Joel Sutherland’s debut novel, Frozen Blood – a potboiler of gothic suspense likely to leave readers chilled to their cores.

When Tara Stewart receives word that her cruel, disapproving father has died, she reluctantly sets out for the affluent Canadian mansion he once shared with her twin sister, Evelyn, and her physician husband, Peter. Compelled by familial obligation, yet dreading the likely confrontation with the family she hasn’t spoken to in years following the tragic death of her six-year-old niece, Tara’s unease is compounded by a violent hailstorm that seems to be gaining in intensity with every passing mile marker.

Injured upon her arrival, Tara is immediately thrust into an increasingly hallucinogenic nightmare in which her sanity (and sobriety) is sorely tested, questioned, and manipulated. It isn’t long before readers will begin to question what’s real and what’s not. Is Tara the victim of a vindictive gaslighting, part of a nefarious plot that involves forced surrogacy? Or is she the hapless casualty of her own mind, her guilt manifested into ghostly apparitions of the past? Along the way there’s a body or two to bloody up the proceedings and a clever subplot involving a radio disc jockey that keeps the action from becoming too claustrophobic.

Sutherland’s characterizations of his principles are strong across the board, with Tara being a clear standout. Battered and bruised by life, she’s a woman struggling to keep her proverbial shit together. And battling her every step of the way is a battalion of demons of every shape and size – alcoholism, guilt, inadequacy, misplaced blame. Sutherland crafts a deft portrait of a tortured soul:

She would live with those memories forever and she knew, no matter how many times she apologized to her friends, to her family, and to herself, they would never go away, never leave her in peace. They’d haunt her just as tirelessly as the wraith – now officially a ghost, I guess – of her father. That was the price she’d pay and she could live with that – she had to – although it was harder than hell to do. Whenever her bad memories surfaced, the ones that made her cry, made her itch, made her bite her tongue until it bled, she forced her mind to shut down. Ctrl+Alt+Delete, just like a machine. She’d think about anything else, she’d sing to herself, she’d smoke. But this time she was distracted and she didn’t shut down in time. Three years. Haven’t spoken to my sister in three years. The memories were in her head now and they were flowing and there wasn’t time to stop them.

There are mystery elements aplenty at work here as Sutherland points the finger of guilt in one direction before turning the compass of culpability in another. With shades of the 1987 film Dead of Winter, hints of Agatha Christie, and just a drop of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Sutherland’s Frozen Blood successfully melds elements of the supernatural with the psychological to create an impressive hybrid with a distinctive old school literary vibe. That the author can take these diverse elements and make them work so well against the strangely incongruent end-of-days backdrop is the mark of a genuine craftsman, making Sutherland a talent to watch.

Purchase Frozen Blood by Joel A. Sutherland.

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