In Ronald Malfi’s Snow, a group of travelers seek refuge from a blizzard only to find themselves attacked by malevolent beings made of snow. The snow-monsters are also capable of possessing human hosts and turning them into zombies. Then there’s another sort of monster in the novel, but that’s a spoiler.
While I found the book well written, the over-played, entrails-eating zombie theme bothered me slightly. It seems like zombies are everywhere these days and it’s wearing a bit thin. But the zombies from this novel at least have the benefit of being novel on several levels. There’s also the beautiful metaphor of cocaine — often called “snow” — turning people into mindless cannibals.
Elements of cosmic horror infuse the novel. In the end, the invasion of possessing snow-beings disappears into an “eyelet” in the sky. They’re vulnerable to electricity (as is evidenced when a snake-like snow-entity encounters a downed power line) and they’re obviously out-of-phase with normal matter. Extra-dimensional, extraterrestrial, inner-spatial, demonic, elemental, ghostly: It’s hard to say what they are except to say they’re unique as far as monsters go.
Reading the book I was reminded a lot of Breeding Grounds in that this was a survivor novel. Yet Malfi’s story actually worked for me where Pinborough’s didn’t. The reason Malfi succeeds is pretty simple: character development.
Malfi presents a group of believable characters who are forced into a terrifying and surreal experience, the prospect of annihilation at the unnaturally long hands of the unknown. Enclave and outsider, those who would hole-up and those who would struggle to get to the car, the paranoid and the altruistic, reason in the face of the irrational, like so many other stories of the survival sub-genre, it’s all here and it’s well written. Personalities collide and interpersonal drama ratchets up the tension. People change under duress and their transformation generally feels natural, like the revelation of the true person underneath the societal facade. In contrast, the characters in Breeding Grounds simply seemed to act, devoid of any emotional connection to their situation or each other.
In making his characters dynamic, Malfi makes his monster believable. Terrifying, inscrutable, the snow-monsters’ singular alien-ness emerges as the survivors of the attack contend with the supernatural threat and each other. It’s easy to see the same level of character development in TV’s The Walking Dead. Maybe zombies are the easiest monsters to use when we wish to force the reader into existential introspection. The examined life may be worth living, but it’s also worth killing if you wish to jerk a tear.
In giving his creature a weakness in the form of electricity, Malfi establishes some rules for the fauna of his world. The creatures, while elusive, can be understood rationally on some level and there’s the suggestion that a weapon can be developed against them. And not only can electricity harm the monsters, it seems to kill them. This defeat-able quality further makes the monster seem more real, and so more frightening. This paradox, the counter-intuitive notion that a weakness can be frightening, should always be present in monsters (otherwise the creature isn’t scary, it’s just annoying.)
One last thing I liked about this novel is how Malfi left it open for sequels. There’s no real explanation given for the monstrous invasion and there’s no guarantee that the monsters can’t come back. The attack happened in many towns throughout America, so there’s a chance that this is just the first salvo in a war.