It started with a documentary.
The beautiful Alyssa Bradford approaches Eric Shaw to unearth the life story of her father-in-law, Campbell Bradford, a 95-year-old billionaire whose childhood is wrapped in mystery. Eric grabs the job, even though the only clues to Bradford's past are his hometown and an antique water bottle he's kept his entire life.
In Bradford's hometown, Eric discovers an extraordinary past - a glorious domed hotel where movie stars, presidents, athletes, and mobsters once intermingled. Long derelict, the hotel has just been restored to its former grandeur.
But something else has been restored, too - a long-forgotten evil that will stop at nothing to settle a decades-old score. And with every move, Eric inches closer to the center of the building storm.
Brooding, grainy-voiced Shakespearean stage actor Robert Petkoff narrates So Cold the River, mystery novelist Michael Koryta's icy, supernatural ghost story set in a rural Indiana town built on Pluto Water, a bottled mineral laxative of the early 1900s rumored to cure headaches, indigestion, even alcoholism. Petkoff haunts as cynical, broken Eric Shaw, a failed Hollywood documentary filmmaker who slumps home to Chicago, gets dumped by wife Claire, and starts stringing together freelance photo chronicles for weddings and funerals: "Video life portraits, that's what he called them, an attempt to lend some credibility to what was essentially a glorified slide show." Oh, and Eric also connects with dead peoples' personal belongings.
Evil snarls from the grave when grieving Alyssa Bradford hires Eric to shoot an homage to her secretive, dying 95-year-old billionaire father-in-law, Campbell. First assignment - capturing Campbell's humble roots near sparsely populated French Lick, Indiana, where Eric lodges at the improbably located luxury West Baden Springs Hotel (a real registered national historic landmark). But not even its soaring atrium dome can shade him from the rotten-egg stench of sulfur. As Eric keeps digging, an 80-year-old bottle of Pluto Water from Campbell's collection frosts, turning murky, while weather patterns predict a violent storm. He takes a sip of Pluto, and the hallucinations spin - shadows in rumpled suits, railroad trains, and violin strains pouring from a piano. At least Claire believes him.
Petkoff softens Eric with undercurrents of grit and exhaustion, so even when he's hysterical with foreshadowing, he's still grounded. The character of Anne McKinney, octogenarian widow and de facto Pluto historian, studies barometric pressure. Fittingly, her voice guides the book's emotional climate. Practical yet nostalgic, Anne nurses a daily gin and tonic at the local bar. Petkoff recognizes she's a creature of habit and tracks her quirky moods with the same steady hum. Eventually the rituals of her chuckles and her leisurely breaks and pauses stop making a difference as the past fades the present into black. - Nita Rao
"A cataclysmic finale will put readers in mind of some of the best recent works of supernatural horror, among which this book ranks." (Publishers Weekly)
"This book builds like a summer storm. Beautiful to watch until it shakes the house and knocks out the lights, leaving you alone in the dark. Another masterful work from Michael Koryta, So Cold the River is guaranteed to put the cold finger down your spine." (Michael Connelly)
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- Scott Simons