Shifting Identities and Horrors in the Arctic: A Review of Bracken MacLeod’s “Stranded”

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When discussing authors who possess the ability to seamlessly stitch together elements drawn from a plethora of genres to create something refreshing and new, Lauren Beukes, Brian Evenson, and Stephen Graham Jones quickly come to mind. Now, Bracken MacLeod has joined that list of very talented literary chameleons with his latest novel, Stranded, which pulls a variety of elements from adventure and survival narratives, horror, science fiction, and mystery to construct a bizarre and profound story about identity and the shifting nature of reality.

The crew of the Arctic Promise hopes for a normal trip as they head out on a mission to replenish the Niflheim oil platform in the cold waters of the Chukchi Sea, but instead they encounter a vicious storm that leaves them heading into unfamiliar waters covered in impenetrable fog. Their navigation and communications systems stop working, morale goes down, the cold weather turns into a nightmare, and the crew slowly succumbs to a strange debilitating illness. Despite these dire circumstances, the captain presses on. Soon, the Arctic Promise becomes trapped in ice without a chance of being rescued. Deckhand Noah Cabot, the only man to remain unaffected by the strange sickness weakening the crew, tried to keep the captain, his father-in-law, from moving forward to no avail. Now, between that and an incident in his past that lead to a friend’s death, he is the least-liked man on board.

The tension exacerbates once the men are ordered overboard in an attempt to break by hand the ice holding the ship hostage. Although the plan fails, the crew manage to spot a faint shape in the distance, and there is a chance the shape is the Niflheim. Under these new circumstances, the platform could be their only chance at being rescued. Noah leads the few remaining able-bodied crew members on a perilous journey across the cracking ice in an attempt to reach salvation. What they find, instead, is something that defies reality and that will force each of them to rethink their identity as they struggle with ghosts from the past made flesh in the present.

Stranded kicks off like a taut revisiting of the hero’s journey with a literary touch, and quickly morphs into a somewhat surreal nightmare in which duality plays a major role and identity is destroyed. MacLeod bridges the gap between the fast-paced, straightforward prose that makes genre fiction so readable and the more refined style of literary fiction. The result is a novel that dances between those two literary spaces and creates a foreboding atmosphere anchored in language via descriptions of places, sounds, shadows, and spaces:

The whine of the engines spinning up echoed through the stairwell. A dismal howl filled the metal passageways belowdecks. Pipes banged and rattled as the behemoth awakened.

Stranded is a unique narrative that demands attention for the subtle way in which in slips from adventure and action into the cerebral space of the surreal made flesh. That being said, it also a novel whose DNA is packed with echoes of horror classics such as John Carpenter’s The Thing and Dan Simmons’s The Terror. Despite bringing those two, among others, to mind, this story is entirely its own monster in the sense that it makes the unknown a constant eerie presence, effectively maintains a tense, creepy atmosphere until the last page, and places the emphasis on the impacts of horrific events on the psyche and reactions of the crew members more than on any monster or scary situation. Furthermore, MacLeod has a knack for making the commonplace seem horrific and outré, and the writing skills to continually pull it off and keep readers on their toes.

Standing beneath it without a ship to give it some kind of contrast, the edifice was oppressively large. In the dark, even more so. It loomed over him like a hallucinatory beast on building-sized stilts. At its four corners, enclosed lifeboats jutted out like heads. Monstrous things shaped like gargantuan komodo dragon faces waiting to lunge out and bite. Boom arms and platforms, odd cages and spiky protrusions all around robbed the structure of the appearance it had from far away as a miniature city and gave it an otherworldly animal look. It was the astrobiological dream of a madman made real in concrete and steel. And it promised nothing but hardship and pain.

The most effective horror is that which doesn’t give itself away, and Stranded is full of that. From the coughing illness that decimates the crew and the strange shadows that populate the vowels of the ship to the impossible ghosts made flesh that are waiting at the platform and the fear of absolute confusion and uncertainty exacerbated by nerves and being in survival mode, the readers, just like the crew of the Arctic Promise, are perennially stepping on shaky, dangerous ground. That tension makes Stranded a powerful reading experience, and the fact that MacLeod sustains it for almost 400 pages signals the arrival of a new voice ready to successfully walk the imagined line between genre and literary fiction in a way that will keep lovers of both satisfied.


by Bracken MacLeod
Tor Books; 368 p.

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