Iron and Sacrament and Dead Man’s Blood: Deborah Coates’ Deep Down

Deborah Coates brings to her contemporary fantasy a breath of horror, a frisson of the quiet dread that comes from a really good ghost story. Wide Open (2012) was good, an excellent debut.

Deep Down is better. It marries Wide Open’s chilling atmosphere, deeply-felt, evocative North Dakota landscapes, and vivid characters to a much smoother and more integrated narrative, one whose climax and conclusion comes together much more naturally, much more organically, than its predecessor.

Hallie Michaels may have solved her sister’s murder, but now that she’s left the army, she’s not entirely sure what to do with her life. She needs a job. She’s not sure she wants to stay in North Dakota. But at least she hasn’t seen a ghost for a while, and her headaches have all but stopped.

When she’s asked to drop in on an elderly neighbour, things change. Pabby Pabahar’s son’s worried about her: she’s been seeing black dogs no one else can see. No one else but Hallie. It’s not just ghosts she sees.

The black dogs are harbingers of death. Where they appear, a reaper follows, and reapers claim the dead: a reaper’s touch is death. Pabby’s ranch is protected by iron and sacrament and dead man’s blood, but she can’t leave. And, she says, it’s not her time.

Hallie isn’t sure how she can help, but she agrees to try. At the same time, her friend Sheriff’s Deputy Boyd Davies is being haunted—literally—by his past. Seven years ago, his wife died in an accident caused by a stalker, a man named Travis Hollowell. Hollowell died as well. But now he’s back, and he wants Boyd’s sister-in-law. And for some reason he seems to be stalking Hallie as well….

The walls between life and death, this world and the underworld, have thinned as a result of the events of Wide Open. When Boyd goes missing, it’s up to Hallie to find him. And bring him back—even from the underworld itself.

Not to mention getting rid of the annoying, dangerous supernatural stalker.

The temptation is always, when speaking of a book you enjoy and think to be quality writing, to neglect the thoughtful response and go straight to the fannish squee. I have very very mild criticisms of Deep Down, in general: once we ramp up to the exciting climax I feel things come a little fast and thick. Also, the climax loses something of the nebulous dread of the ghost story, sliding more firmly into dark fantasy thriller-esque tension—but that’s the only criticism I can throw.

With Hallie Michaels, Coates has given us an interesting character with a compelling voice. The friendship between her and Boyd Davies—the developing relationship—feels real, honest, textured. Nuanced, the way real relationships are. Her interaction with the supernatural is a combination of eerie and well, shit matter-of-fact. I particularly enjoyed the fact that one of the black dogs just decides to follow Hallie around. Because it thinks she’s interesting.

The dog laughed, like a breathy whisper. “Want to watch,” it said. Then it circled three times and lay down on the seat, curled up with its nose touching its tail.

Hallie lowered her arms. The dog looked like it was already asleep, like it spent its life riding in trucks with girls. After a minute she shrugged and put the truck in gear and headed down the drive. This was obviously the way things were now. And what else was she going to do?

It’s a very doglike manifestation of the supernatural, is what I’m saying.

The other thing I particularly enjoyed in Deep Down, and where it improved on Wide Open, was the blink-and-you-miss-it implied lesbian relationship in the background, with Hallie’s friend Brett and her date in the city.

In sum, this is an excellent second novel that improves upon a very good first novel. I recommend it, and highly anticipate Coates’ next novel.

Deep Down is published by Tor Books. It is available March 5.

Find Liz Bourke on Twitter @hawkwing_lb and her blog.


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