(Warning: spoilers ahead)
It is rare and delightful to find a book I hate to see end. It is rarer to find a creepy book I hate to see end, and this is the first time ever I have hated to see a story end when the most compelling character is the villain.
Campbell Bradford, the villain of Michael Koryta’s, So Cold the River, is no ordinary bad guy; he not just a bad man, he is evil. This important distinction is made by eighty-something, Edgar Hastings. “He [Bradford] put a chill in your heart. My parents saw it; hell, everybody saw it. The man was evil.” The only fictional villain I can think of in his class – as evil and fascinating – is Hannibal Leckter in Silence of the Lambs
The evil Campbell Bradford is not the ninety-five year old Campbell Bradford who freaks out when hero, Eric Shaw, shows him a bottle of haunted “Pluto Water.” This faux Bradford whispers, “So Cold the River,” and dies a short time later, sending Eric, a failed Hollywood filmmaker, to West Baden, Indiana, to learn the story of Bradford, Pluto water, and the newly restored West Baden hotel, (which actually exists), a once famous spa that was the domain of presidents, prize fighters, royalty, and gangsters.
The evil Campbell Bradford is a ghost, a very malevolent ghost, who possesses his great-great-grandson, Josiah, and later tries to possess Eric. Bradford’s era is the roaring twenties, but his voice and tone suggest an earlier time. Perhaps it is his fictional distance, the sepia toned feel of the old west that surrounds this villain, that works like the glass that allows us to watch a cobra in a zoo with an equal degree of fascination. Imagine the Clint Eastwood of the sphagetti westerns as an angry psychopath, ready to sacrifice anything and anyone for his ambitions. The ambitions of Campbell Bradford’s ghost drive the story.
“Look for the artifacts of their ambitions.” That is Eric Shaw’s philosophy of documentary filmmaking, announced at the opening of the book. The artifacts of Bradford’s ambitions are dead people. In the end, the mysterious Pluto Water, which carried Bradford’s spirit back to West Baden, allows Eric to survive his onslaught to tell the tale.
But Eric stops short of trying to unravel the whole story. He will not seek the honey-flavored spring where Bradford lost his life. Is the spirit really gone? Apparently. And yet, as Anne McKinney, who has devoted her life to watching the weather and waiting for the big storm cautions, “You can’t be sure what hides behind the wind.”
Sequeul anyone? I will definately read it if it comes.