I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, and many times more I’m sure, Alex Scarrow has a fine imagination. He is also a remarkable storyteller with the power to pull the reader into the tale alongside characters who are not only lifelike, they are extremely intriguing as well.
In October Skies, one of Scarrow’s books for adults, the author turns his attention to parallel tales, one taking place in the 1850s in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, and the other set during the presidential elections of 2008. When journalist Julian Cooke comes across the wheel of a wagon, lost in the woods, he realises that he may have found another ‘Donner Incident’, the remains of another wagon trail that vanished to history and became lost in myth and folklore, which here focuses upon a figure known locally as the Rag Man. Julian’s suspicions and interest are increased when he also finds buried a journal.
This novel, then, moves between the technoworld of the present day journalists and the past world of the journal, written by Ben Lambert, a man searching for adventure and inspiration among the pioneers of the wagon trains. He travels with a group that mainly comprises Mormons who have left others of their religion and instead have chosen to follow their charismatic leader Preston into the unknown. When winter draws in earlier than expected, the mountains prove impossible to cross, and so the travellers must become settlers, surviving in the most inhospitable of environments while trying to maintain civility. This all falls to pieces when a woman is found brutally murdered in the woods. Something is let loose.
This gripping story, which is so vivid you can almost share the intense cold, hunger and fear of the travellers, is told alongside that of Julian Cooke and his friends. As he tries to hold onto his exclusive, Julian slowly becomes aware that forces are as much at work against him as they were against Ben Franklin. As the mystery grows, and its significance increases, the danger becomes more intense, especially when it becomes clear that Cooke’s discovery may have an impact on the presidential election currently underway.
October Skies is horror, thriller and historical fiction combined. We can be in no doubt that something terrifying has gripped the camp of suffering settlers as they try in vain to keep the other world of the wood from their camp and keep a grip on their religion. While these scenes from the 1850s are scene stealers, I did find myself continually wanting to remain in whichever of the stories I found myself at the time. With twists and turns, madness and ghosts around every corner and behind every tree, Ben and Joseph are in great danger. While I admit that I may be easier to frighten than many, October Skies is deliciously chilly.