I’ll admit it — I’m pretty scared of Mount Everest before you populate it with ghosts. Ever since I read Jon Krakauer’s riveting nonfiction book Into Thin Air, I’ve felt a little shudder at the very thought of climbing it. So when I heard about The White Road (2017), a horror novel set on Everest, I figured it was guaranteed to freak me out in epic fashion.
Simon and his friend Thierry run a website dedicated to creepy things. The White Road begins with Simon teaming up with a sketchy older man, Ed, to explore a Welsh cave system. Some spelunkers died there years ago, and their bodies are still in the cave; Simon hopes to get footage of the corpses for the website. Simon and Ed get into trouble in the cave. Simon nearly dies, and in his most desperate moments, feels a malevolent presence at his side. Against the odds, he survives, and Thierry’s next idea is for Simon to climb Everest and film the dead bodies preserved there.
The narrative shifts gears then to the journal entries of Juliet Michaels, a mountain climber who felt a similar presence during her ascent of Everest. We then switch back to Simon as he joins a party climbing the mountain; his story will intersect with Juliet’s in a way that becomes clear later.
The White Road is at its best when describing the physical dangers of the caves and the mountain. This is genuinely scary stuff! Simon is pretty unlikeable, but the situations he gets into are so riveting that I was still rooting for him.
The metaphysical horror is more vague, intentionally so; the reader is never quite sure whether it’s supernatural or psychological. Characters are drawn in broad strokes. Sarah Lotz gives Simon a tendency to liken people to celebrities, which in turn gives Lotz a shortcut whenever she needs to describe someone — Simon will immediately tell us what actor or character they resemble.
Simon’s struggles against nature, and against the presence that haunts him, culminate in an ending that left me deeply disappointed. Highlight here to view spoiler: This is, it turns out, a Shoot the Shaggy Dog story. I felt like I’d followed this guy, whom I didn’t even like, through a harrowing series of events … for nothing. It all just seemed so pointless. I think Lotz was trying to say something about survivor’s guilt and/or what drives people to keep risking their lives in these extreme hobbies, but the result was an anticlimactic ending.