(2020) Gregory Bastianelli, Flame Tree Press, £9.95 / US$14.95, pbk, 256pp, 978-1-787-58347-4
Snowball is a fast moving, dark-fantasy, horror novel told in two parts made up of 30 chapters with an interlude in between, so given its short length of 248 pages, it is my sort of book with some of the chapters only being one or two pages long in places. For me, shortness of chapters is a bonus, but they can perhaps be too short and given that Bastianelli has brought together an ensemble cast, flitting between them all does make the plot a bit “bity”, with no real time, or words devoted to them, except to set them up on the road to “shreddiedom” and chronicle their inevitable gory demise.
It is the night before Christmas and no one is stirring because they are stuck on an impassable highway as a storm comes in and even the snowplough can’t get through the snow. There is only the blocked road ahead, some trees and the darkness in between, but something is lurking within the darkness for these weary travellers, because like it or not, they are all connected, even if they don’t know it yet, and are going to pay for that connection.
One of the casualties of this short-length novel is the lack of real character development, even if the cast of characters are all very different. There's a ruthless businessman, lawyer, trucker, single mother, student, etc, etc. Many of them have some sort of gripe about why they are on the road on Christmas Eve when they should have been at their destination earlier, even days earlier, but somehow they have all been delayed and forced to make this last minute journey through the terrible weather to share Christmas with their loved ones. Big mistake.
Bastianelli serves at a real pot-pourri of festive gore, mixing in the legend of Krampus, along with riffing off A Christmas Carol, even the recent Saw movies get a nod as some of the survivors (yes, they are survivors at that stage) strike out for a house they can see in the woods. But the house isn’t what it seems due to the occupants, one of which is a twisted toy maker with a magical snow globe, and given his toy-making background, the house has several traps inside, and let’s not forget the serial killer who likes to use ice tongs to dispatch his victims rather than a big knife, and it would be remiss of me not to mention some very nasty snowmen. Yes, the stranded motorists are in for a tough time.
On one level you can imagine a group of motorists stranded on an impassable highway might get picked off by something out there in the dark, a sort of slasher/serial killer novel with no supernatural elements in it. With a rising body count and rising tension it could almost have echoes of the supermarket sections of Stephen King’s The Mist, but instead Bastianelli goes down a dark fantasy route which strays more into the fantastic than the plausible, and there’s also the slight problem of a rushed, unconvincing romance between a couple of the strandees.
Snowball with its fantastical elements comes across as a mixture of Stephen King (think The Shining), and Joe Hill (think NOS4A2) with some gruesome urban legends, or folkloric legends about Christmas added in, oh, there’s a little dose of John Carpenter right at the end. It’s entertaining, but nothing special, but it might well be something that would be even better on the screen than on the page, coming to you soon on a streaming service, perhaps.
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