Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Ridge Tells a Good Southern Ghost Story

Michael Koryta (pronounced ko-ree-ta, according to his website) has long been a writer of detective mysteries with his Lincoln Perry series, but I initially heard of him when his 2010 supernatural novel So Cold the River was published. The book was reviewed all over the blogosphere, with the majority of the reviews I read praising Koryta and the novel.

Then I first read Koryta with his last novel, published by Little, Brown, called The Cypress House. I loved it, with Koryta's rich setting descriptions and deep understanding of southern Florida. Koryta also told a darn good ghost story, full of interesting characters and unexpected plot turns.

In The Ridge, which releases today, Koryta does all of that and more. First, a plot description:

Audrey Clark owns a large cat sanctuary with land in eastern Kentucky. After human developments encroach on the former location, she and husband David decide to relocate to their newly purchased acreage. Complications arise from the start; the only neighbor for miles around takes issue with the animals moving to his area, and other things begin to happen. Then, while working at the property, David falls to his death. Shocked and grief-stricken, Audrey pushes forward with plans for the move. When the novel opens, she is preparing the great animals for departure to their new home with the help of several trusted employees.

Simultaneously, the novel begins with two disturbing phone calls from Audrey's new neighbor. One to sheriff's deputy Kevin Kimble and the other to a reporter at a closing local newspaper. Although both men largely dismiss the rambling calls they receive, the calls start an accordion-like series of events into motion. What lurks in "them there hills" of Kentucky is sinister and impossible to ignore.

Koryta does an excellent job with the southern setting in The Ridge. After The Cypress House, which describes both Florida and the 1930s with enormous skill, I suppose I should have expected no less. The Kentucky landscape is perfectly detailed, with mountains, ridges, and woods described with precision. As a Tennessean, I felt right at home in Koryta's hills. Koryta also rises to the occasion in his descriptions of small town life in the south. The population is nosy and tightly-knit, exactly as most small towns are.

Kevin Kimble, reporter Roy Darmus, Audrey Clark, and the many various and sundry secondary characters are drawn with a fine hand. Koryta's characters are achingly human, with both heroic moments and devastating faults in each. The result is a bevy of characters who could have walked off the streets and into the novel's pages. They are, in short, extraordinarily human -- a trait that causes them to engage the reader's sympathy. Additionally, Koryta makes the cats themselves into characters of a sort, with characteristics that differentiate one from another, lending an almost-human-ness to them.

And just who is Wyatt French, the neighbor who both campaigned against the cat sanctuary and also reaches out through two seemingly random phone calls? Although at first glance he is simply an eccentric -- the town drunk who laughingly built a lighthouse on the top of a tree-lined ridge, far from a body of water -- with closer examination, both Kimble and Roy find him to be an interesting individual indeed. For what or whom did he build his lighthouse? And why did he make the phone calls specifically to them?

Koryta unravels these mysteries in a plot that hinges on suspense. I literally read this novel through the night (well, when I could --  it gets creepy at times!). The supernatural element lends a ghostly quality to the novel, similar to The Cypress House. Koryta takes his readers to the edge of their seats and stretches their belief in otherwordly beings. The Ridge reads like an old oral ghost story is told -- by turns slow, then fast, speeding up to a crashing crescendo at the end.

Koryta speaks about The Ridge (with some amazing large cats thrown in for good measure):

Michael Koryta is the author of seven other novels, four in the Lincoln Perry series and three standalone titles. You can follow his blog or explore his website for more information.

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