The phrase “Nature, red in tooth and claw” springs repeatedly to mind in the reading of The Mountain, Luca D’Andrea’s spine-tingling thriller set in the Dolomites of northeastern Italy. Within that mountain range, as D’Andrea has it, is nestled the village of Siebenhoch, whose 700-odd inhabitants speak German, and a canyon called the Bletterbach, “an open-air graveyard” in which, it is suggested, a network of underground caves nurtures creatures for hundreds of millions of years past their official extinction point.
Bletterbach, conjured by D’Andrea as a place of shrieking horror and throbbing dread, is the site of a 1985 triple murder of a brother and sister, Evi and Markus, and Evi’s boyfriend, Kurt. The crime took place in a record-breaking storm, its perpetrator has never been found, and the trauma became a contagion that claimed several more victims.
Jeremiah Salinger, an American documentary maker of German heritage, learns all this when he travels to his wife Annelise’s home village with their five-year-old daughter, Clara. Salinger, as he is known to all but his mother and Annelise’s father, Werner, is burned out on a successful but creatively unfulfilling series about roadies for rock bands, and Werner’s Dolomite Mountain Rescue, established years ago after a different tragedy in the hostile range, presents the opportunity for some professional and creative redemption.
But when a rescue goes fatally wrong while Salinger is filming a helicopter crew, he is introduced to the Beast, which would be clinically described as a manifestation of PTSD and which D’Andrea presents as a sense-devouring, omnipotent monster.
D’Andrea unspools this initial narrative so ably that it’s only later you realise it’s merely preamble; a little amuse-bouche before the main course, but essential set-up to explain Salinger’s vulnerable emotional and psychological state when he learns of the terror of the Bletterbach. He’s a guy looking for a reason to go on and lying to his wife about taking antidepressants, and Werner’s disclosure of the events of 1985 – prefaced by the feeble entreaty that Salinger won’t let himself “be devoured” by the story; those teeth and claws again – push marriage, fatherhood and other sensible pursuits to the wayside.
The notion of the Inuits having dozens of words for snow is validated by Salinger’s experience. Time and again, snow and ice have a life force stronger and more mysterious than his, and nature has a personality that is erratic, violent, and maybe even murderous. That’s if you believe in the legend of the Jaekelopterus Rhenanaiae, a prehistoric creature somewhere between a scorpion and a dinosaur-lizard, and D’Andrea shows serious sleight of hand with horror tropes as he lays out the potential killers as deftly as a croupier fanning out playing cards.
In reading The Mountain I was often reminded of Joël Dicker, whose biographical, disciplined yet discursive style D’Andrea’s recalls, and I spied only afterwards that the publicity blurb likens D’Andrea to both Dicker and Stephen King. It’s heady company for any debut novelist to keep, but I suspect neither master will resent the comparison to the newcomer, whose command of story and place has a memorably icy grip.
Every week Stephanie reviews the Book of the Week.
As the Coast book reviewer, Stephanie Jones shares her thoughts each week on the latest releases.
Stephanie has a BA (Hons) in history and English literature, and a background in journalism, magazine publishing, public relations and corporate and consumer communications.
Stephanie is a contributor to the New Zealand Book Council’s ‘Talking Books’ podcast series (listen here), and a member of the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel. She can be found on Twitter @ParsingThePage.