After inheriting his uncle’s house in the Great Smokey Mountains, Alan moves in with his wife in the hopes of escaping the troubles they experienced in the city. The couple has experienced two miscarriages and Alan hopes the quiet country life will do his wife, Heather, some good. Upon discovering a lake that seems to have healing properties, Alan discovers that the quiet life may come at a very high price.
Ronald Malfi’s new novel is a very mixed bag to say the least. It is very reminiscent of Pet Sematary by Stephen King and draws heavily from that novel, with some nods to The Shining. The novel starts out incredibly slow and the toughest chapters are probably the first five to ten, after which the plot moves along at a fairly brisk pace. Malfi does an excellent job setting the scene and it’s quite easy to visualize the uncle’s house. One of my absolute favorite lines in this novel was when he described the house as “[looking] like a giant frown sinking into the ground”. That’s just such a good visual.
One of the things that irked me very early on, and continued to do so for the entirety of the novel, was the characterization of Heather. She just has absolutely no depth at all. Their dog, Jerry Lee, is a more fleshed out character than she is. It is interesting that she is older than her husband, something that you almost never see in popular culture, but that’s about the only thing interesting about the character. She doesn’t seem to even speak until more than two-hundred pages into the novel. I also find the idea of a woman completely falling apart to the point of becoming catatonic after a miscarriage to be ridiculous and a little insulting. It’s an emotional experience and undoubtedly a traumatic one, but to become catatonic? It seems very unlikely. Perhaps in the days of The Yellow Wallpaper, but certainly not in the modern day and age.
Another problem with Cradle Lake is that Malfi sometimes doesn’t trust his reader enough. He will explain symbolism rather than let the visuals speak for themselves. There’s a part in the novel where the women of the town are cleaning up the street and I immediately thought of The Stepford Wives. The very next sentence, Malfi writes something along the lines of “it was like something out of that Ira Levin novel”, which was unnecessary, especially for a horror novel.
There is also an overabundance of incomplete sentences. This is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to contemporary writing. So many authors overuse incomplete sentences to the point of sacrificing coherency. Incomplete sentences should be used sparingly, if at all. When used correctly, they’re usually meant to provide variance in sentence length to give readers a break. In Cradle Lake, incomplete sentences litter practically every page and become a distraction.
As mentioned before, Cradle Lake seems to draw heavily from King’s Pet Sematary. One of the things that I always felt made that novel work quite well is the characters, who were easy to sympathize with. In Malfi’s novel, it’s quite difficult to sympathize with Alan, the main character. He’s just not all that likeable and he does some pretty boneheaded things. Refusing to allow his wife to be hospitalized for example, even when it’s apparent that’s what she needs. The first couple chapters he often catches himself wishing she would disappear. I couldn’t help but think that whole tension wouldn’t be there if he had just done the responsible thing and allowed her to be admitted to a hospital for treatment. Alan’s a professor, not a doctor, so I can’t understand why he thinks he’s qualified to decide what is best for his wife’s emotional state.
For all its flaws, Cradle Lake does have its moments. The pacing is good (despite the first five chapters), which makes the novel a fast read. The hunt to find out what the symbols on the path to the lake mean is interesting. The way the lake works is also quite well-done and I enjoyed that Malfi made it so that it’s a give-take kind of relationship. Even though they are somewhat cliché, the buzzards surrounding the lake provide a certain amount of eeriness (moreso than the obligatory creepy child that seems to turn up in every novel like Cradle Lake).
Obviously written for horror fans, Cradle Lake is a creepy novel about the consequences of our actions and the importance of grief. Had it avoided more clichés, the story would have been a bit stronger.