The Dead of Winter, by Lee Collins, is a tale of supernatural proportions. The story is set in the American West during the late 19th-Century. Collins himself is a lifelong Colorado native who now lives and writes in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, and this helps the author lend an authentic touch to his narrative. His familiarity with the terrain and climate are evident in the icy cold descriptions of monster hunting in deep winter. You can feel the frigid winds and smell the woodsmoke from fires that barely manage to warm the characters’ bones.
The story begins with Marshall Mart Duggan and his deputy, Jack Evans. Sent into the wilderness around the town of Leadville, the lawmen are investigating the grisly death of two hunters. Collins opens the narrative with this scene as a prologue to introducing the main character, Cora Oglesby, a hunter of abominations and other such things as go bump in the night outside an old west town. Cora has been cooling her heels in Leadville while she waits for another job to come her way so she can move on out of town.
If that sounds like a fairly bland description of the main character’s motivation, that’s because it is. Unfortunately, other than surviving what gets thrown her way (until a 3rd act reveal), Cora’s motivations are rather lacking. This doesn’t mean the story isn’t a good read. There is more than enough suspense and action, along with the above mentioned authenticity, to keep readers’ interest. I’m not given to westerns myself, and even I found the book hard to put down at times.
Collins is also well versed in the subject of his narrative. When introducing the first monster Cora must hunt, Collins interlaces Christian and Native American mythos in a believable way. The supporting cast react authentically if not a bit stereotypically to Cora’s swagger and brazenness. Indeed, there were times, such as when Collins sees fit to mention the tinkling of piano keys, that I felt I was reading scenes from old wild west films crafted into prose. Where Collins draws his inspiration, however, does not detract from the novel at all. In fact, the occasional bit of campy wild west humor made the story that much more enjoyable.
The Dead of Winter is, overall, a good story. Cora hunts down hideous monsters for a living, with the help of her Christian faith and a few well placed slugs from her Colt revolver or her husband’s old Civil War cavalry sabre. The blade having been blessed by a priest, this sword cuts through any fiend unlucky enough to encounter it. That is, any fiend but the first one Cora must battle with to save the people of Leadville. The monster she hunts is very well described and is thoroughly creepy. Don’t read this book on a cold winter’s night in Colorado folks. Cora dispatches the beast though, but then discovers that her real quarry lies elsewhere. My only complaint with the major threat being exposed during the second act is that it doesn’t bear any connection to the first horror to fall before Cora’s guns. This leaves the second act interrupted by an intermission due to the noticeable halt in momentum. Still, the book powers on to a fine finish with some excellent action, well written descriptions of monsters and the mayhem they cause, and through it all, Cora’s unwavering devotion to purging the world of hellspawn.
Readers expecting a thrill ride, however, are advised to realign their expectations. Collins put a lot of work into crafting the story, originally written as a NaNoWriMo effort, but there’s still a fair amount of room for improvement to the prose. Too often the action is stopped short by a curiously misplaced paragraph (or page, or two) of internal monologue. Character perspective switches in this manner, too, making it hard to feel immersed in the narrative. At one point, Cora’s conversation with Mart Duggan breaks for a recap that takes place in Cora’s head, only to be followed by a brief line of dialogue from Duggan and then his own thought parade. Far too much of the novel is taken up by internal speech like this, which gives the writing a rushed feel, as opposed to crafted.
To his credit, Collins never lets the reader sit idle for too long. There’s always some kind of wild action waiting around the corner, and page turning is assured. The author’s descriptive prose is definitely worth any toe-tapping a reader might need to do. The vividness of the wild west landscape, the chill winter air, the darkness that threatens to envelope Cora at every turn – these are all apparent and kept up enough through lulls. If you’re up for some wild west gunplay, hard drinking, and monster hunting, The Dead of Winter won’t leave you cold.