On the Olympus of horror novels that are instantly recognizable and much-retold, Dracula stands at the peak with only a handful of fellows. In part this is because it touches on so many interlocking, deep-rooted social fears – fears of sexuality, of contamination, of invasion, and of the past. Most works inspired by Dracula choose to focus on only one or two of these; usually that’s plenty.
José Luis Zárate’s The Route Of Ice And Salt is different. In the space of less than 200 pages (including a new prologue by the author and an afterword by the legendary Poppy Z. Brite) it manages to make all these fears real and present. Where Dracula sprawls across a continent and brims over with different narrators, The Route Of Ice And Salt focuses on a microcosm — the final voyage of the Demeter, bound from Varna to Whitby with a cargo so mundane it’s weird that anyone bothered to ship it, just boxes of soil. There is one narrator, the Demeter’s captain. His kingdom is his ship and his men, his world is circumscribed by the sky that alternately scorches and storms at them and the endless, deadly expanse of salt water all around.
But even a world that tiny can be shattered.The captain’s ability to concentrate on the well-being of his ship and crew is undermined by torment over his twin secrets: the fact that he is gay and the cruel fate of his first lover. Since the outcome is foreordained, it’s the captain’s interior journey that creates the suspense.
Sound dry? It’s anything but. There’s the constant fear of secrets being exposed, bribery of customs officials, sleight of hand with the logs, the tangle of hidden agendas that inevitably emerge when a group of people are in close quarters for a long time with no option to leave. And then there’re the weird mutant rats and the men who start to disappear…
Throughout, the captain’s half-suppressed desire and guilt pervade every moment as much as the salt water spray and the cut of the wind wear at every surface. Zárate plunges us into the mind of a man who’s watching his desperate dream become a grotesque nightmare. He struggles with his power and also with his powerlessness. The combination of sensuality and slipping reality contains shades of Strieber’s The Hunger and just a dash of Moby-Dick.
This book would be remarkable for its intensity in any context, but it grows more so when you read the new prologue, in which Zárate describes writing it amidst the pervasive homophobia of the 1990s, with a consciousness informed by his native Mexico’s past bouts with political and social oppression. The novella was first published in 1998 by a press that mainly focused on comic books; it never achieved widespread popular recognition, but became a cult classic for fans of Spanish-language SFF and horror. This new edition from Innsmouth Free Press, translated by David Bowles, is the first opportunity for English-language readers to experience it. It’s an opportunity that should not be missed.