Dead Lake is a standard creature feature book – tainted by pollution and Native American magics, a giant fish terrorizes a lake, killing everyone from tourists to moonshiners. Faced with this threat, a conservation officer and a poacher team up to destroy the monster.
The book seems to be inspired or in some way connected to the Dead Bait anthologies, which are filled with stories that combine (in various ways) fish and the undead. The anthologies themselves are very changeable – some fantastically creepy stories (Ron Leming’s “Fox goes Fission” is a particularly good example – not much happens, but the description is chilling) are mixed in amongst rather uninspired efforts: ones that focus on grittiness and gore instead of creating a compelling narrative. Dead Lake, regrettably, follows the second type.
It isn’t that the book is bad, per se, just uninspired. Reviews and publicity tend to refer to it as a “b-movie”, but a b-movie has energy and excitement – it isn’t great art, but it should be fun. The watcher cheers on both the monster and the hapless heroes, thrilling at every bloody kill.
Dead Lake has none of that joy; mirroring the murky waters of the lake, the overall tone is grim and sordid. Instead of a cast of intriguing (if generally 2D) characters, we get ugly people leading ugly little lives. There’s no unalloyed bravery, no characters you love, or even love to hate. Everyone on Vivid Valley Lake seems unpleasant and slightly grimy; they all has significant flaws, and we are rarely presented with any redeeming features.
There’s no excitement – people paddle on a grey lake, get eaten, and then more paddlers arrive to take their place, to be killed in their turn. Gory scene follows gory scene with little sense of building tension, until the action is a chore to get through. Characters are introduced, and then removed before we can build a connection; the only constant characters have little to recommend them. Even the characters themselves don’t seem particularly bothered by anything going on; they are still renting boats as the remains of the last group are collected.
The book has all of the ingredients of the creature feature formula, but the sum of parts is lacking – Edwards is too reliant on gory description to build a strong narrative with an entertaining cast. This seems to be a monster book written by following a checklist – monster, quiet town, tired cop, foolish tourists, bloodshed – the elements are present, but not hung together in a cohesive hole. The end result is mild unease, not fear or excitement.
Monster books tend to be absolutely awful. This isn’t one of those – it avoids most of the errors that the host of self-published shark-themed dross on Amazon blunders into. Believe me, there are countless books about which I could be much more scathing. However, by avoiding doing anything wrong, it also avoids doing anything particularly right.
There is one area, it should be mentioned, in Dead Lake that genuinely does fall flat – an error which I have previously only seen in low-budget films, never in books. The monster’s size is inconsistent. I don’t just mean that it grows – the fish does, at several points, expand in size. The issue is that the size seems to jump up and down almost at random – the fish’s mouth is “as wide as a well” in some scenes, thirty feet long, but then takes several minutes to nibble away at swimmers, allowing them time to panic and hold conversations while they are slowly devoured. It’s ridiculous that the shark in Megashark vs. Crocosaurus ranges from several times the size of a submarine to slightly larger than a car, and it is ridiculous here too – the false note rips you out of the story, ruining the immersion. However, that is a quibble that could be
Dead Lake, in the end, is not awful. You can read it, you can go from beginning through the middle to the end, and you will have read a story in which a giant fish terrorizes a town. If that is what you want, it is perfectly serviceable, better than many others with the same description. However, that doesn’t make it actually good. If you want to be excited, thrilled, to be carried along by a narrative, then choose something else – I’d suggest, if you haven’t already read them, Steve Alten’s Meg series. They’re probably the current pinnacle of b-movie monster books.