Captain Franklin of the Terra Nova, a US Coast Guard ice breaker, sits down to tell us the beginning of our tale, how his crew out on the Arctic ice spotted a bear coming towards them. A few shots fired above its head failed to stop it. One last frantic shot saw it fall but when they approached it, it turned out to be not a bear at all but a man in a red jacket bearing the insignia of Zodiac Station, a scientific research base. Safely aboard the vessel, Tom Anderson awakes and slowly recounts, to the captain and to us, the story of the disaster that devastated Zodiac Station, leaving himself as its sole survivor.
As the story continues, the reader enters the frozen world of Zodiac Station, the narrative shifting from the perspective of one to another of its scientists, focusing on Anderson, the medical doctor Kennedy and scientist Eastman, with the enigmatic figure of Greta shadowing them all. While Franklin’s contribution remains in the third person, the others are immediate and in the first person, including journal extracts. All recall the disintegration of Zodiac Station deep within the Arctic, an environment that is watched over from the distance by polar bears and the faded industrial remains of people who lived and worked here long ago. Something sinister is at work and it threatens the life of everyone in the Station.
There is something wonderful about horror stories set in the deep chill of the Arctic or Antarctic. I can’t get enough of them and I was so pleased, not to mention intrigued, to hear that Tom Harper had written this ghostly frozen tale. Each of Harper’s extremely intelligent thrillers is different and Zodiac Station could hardly be any more different than its predecessor The Orpheus Descent which is set in parallel ancient and modern worlds in the sun-soaked Mediterranean. But, although it’s very different, Zodiac Station is every bit as excellent, imbued as it is with the cold and ice of this world which is as alien to us as Plato’s underworld is in The Orpheus Descent. The science station itself is as vividly portrayed as the tortured relationships being played out within it.
As one would expect from a Tom Harper thriller, the plot is deliciously clever and is as twisty as you could wish for. When all we have to go on are the words of the last inhabitants of Zodiac Station, we’re advised to keep our wits alive. There are some great moments, too, not least in the Station’s dedicated Thing night – original version, obviously – which, disaster or no disaster, has to go on, no matter what. This sense of absurdity, madness even, is perfectly in tune with this extraordinary environment which is threatened from without and from within. You can never forget the bears. There’s not much separating man from beast in this world, nor reality from horror.
I thoroughly enjoyed Zodiac Station, every bit as much as I loved The Orpheus Descent. That was one of my top reads of 2013 and I have no reason to think Zodiac Station will fare any differently in 2014. There are moments of darkest mystery and of the most astonishing revelation. There are scenes which I could hardly read without covering my eyes and there were others that caught me completely by surprise. With midsummer just days away, Zodiac Station will make the temperature drop.
The Orpheus Descent