The Silent Land
Graham Joyce has been called a fantasist, a horror writer, a straddler of genres, and, in his own words, a writer in the “Old Peculiar” mode. But though his 18th novel, The Silent Land, operates within a darkly fantastic premise, the concerns that power it are surprisingly prosaic.
Zoe and Jake are a couple in their 30s, happily married, with a deep and loving bond between them. We know this because we are told so early on, rather than seeing their tenderness in action, and for the purposes of this story that’s just fine. As an outsider, how can you judge the strength of anyone else’s relationship? Joyce does, in fact, aim to show us—but not just yet. The book’s opening declaration of love is to snow, and to skiing; Zoe and Jake out for an early morning run in the Pyrenees:
Gentle six-pointed flakes from a picture book, settling on her jacket sleeve. The mountain air prickled with ice and the savor of pine resin. Zoe pulled the air into her lungs, feeling the cracking cold of it before letting go. And when the mountain peak seemed to nod and sigh back at her, she almost thought she could die in that place, and happily.
But when the fates threaten to make good on that boast and the couple is caught in an avalanche, Zoe finds herself fighting like hell to stay alive. In one of the book’s most harrowing passages, she regains consciousness—entombed in snow, upside down, unable to move, seemingly doomed until she hears Jake calling for her. He manages to dig her out and the two stagger back down the mountain. But when they reach the lift cabin, it’s empty. And when they finally make it down to their hotel, the front desk is deserted, so Jake and Zoe retire to their room, shower, and make love, grateful to be alive.
Ah, but things are not as simple as all that. Not only is the front desk abandoned, but the entire hotel is empty of life, as is the town. Attempts to reach the next town over are consistently unsuccessful: the pilfered police car swerves off the road, a whiteout blizzard comes out of nowhere, and Jake’s compass spins pointlessly once they get past a certain point. All roads, all ski trails, keep leading back to where they started. The food left out in the hotel kitchen doesn’t spoil, and while the candles they light burn, they don’t burn down. Time, it seems, has stopped. And Jake and Zoe are its prisoners.
It’s not much of a spoiler, or a surprise, to reveal that the two come to the conclusion that they did in fact die in the avalanche, and are caught in some form of shared afterlife. There are other clues. Jake’s beloved childhood dog Sadie, long dead and buried, shows up. And although they’re free to take whatever they want from the town’s shops and restaurants, actual sensations—the taste of food, the feeling of drunkenness, even the need to pee—only manifest when one of them reminds the other what it was like.
And that’s where the concept gets interesting. Although their mounting claustrophobia and uncertainty is gripping, it’s the implications of their two-person afterworld that got me. As Zoe—whose point of view drives the story—understands it, the power of their love has granted them this extra time together. But the blessing is dark around the edges; they’re deeply codependent, unable to experience anything of the physical world without the other’s input:
Jake served them both a beer from the pression taps at the bar. Again she pretended to sip. Wanting to shift the subject … he started talking about the taste of the beer. He said he would remember the taste of it for her, but when he said hops and barley she said that meant nothing to her. So he said: Acorns, malt vinegar, sugar, autumn leaves, copper pennies, grief, weak sunlight, laughter, the crust on a loaf of bread … until she said, Stop, I’ve got it.
Because of her dependence on his validation in all things, her fear of losing Jake is enormous. As locked into each other’s orbits as they are, she’s aware that he’s not experiencing their world in exactly the same way she is—that he’s still, above and beyond everything else, separate, and sometimes strange.
In other words, this silent land of theirs is romantic love writ large. The feeling that nothing is quite real unless it’s experienced through the filter of the other person, the literal need to stare into each other’s eyes, and the quiet fear of the other’s other-ness—it’s true love ratcheted up a few more notches than the real world can give us, but totally recognizable all the same. And it’s a great question: What if you loved someone so much that you were rewarded, in the afterlife, with this sort of horrifying über-love? Where everything you might ever desire was there for the taking, but was only as enjoyable as your partner made it for you? Could any love survive that? Could yours?
There’s certainly more action to the book than this theoretical stalemate. There are Zoe’s visions, appearing and disappearing: of the hotel lobby suddenly bustling with life, a quietly threatening group of men standing outside in the snow, smoking, a disembodied foreign voice on her cell phone, and—a weirdly out-of-place detail—a giant black sleigh horse with red eyes and iridescent shit. A couple of chapters take us outside the action, back to the deaths of Zoe’s and Jake’s fathers. And slowly, incrementally, time does begin to move again. The steak left out on the counter grows a gray fuzz of mold and the logs in the fireplace burn down to ash. What’s been given can, and will, be taken away. Indeed, it feels as though Joyce wants to use the trappings of his thriller as a chance to muse on the transitory nature of life, on loss, on acceptance. As Zoe puts it,
We know death is coming. And yet we always see our loved ones as taken away from us, instead of given to us for whatever time they have.
But honestly, that stuff is small beans and sometimes verges on the trite. The oppressiveness of the deepening snow, the silence, the strange apparitions—all of this is appropriately unsettling in Joyce’s hands. The big question, though, about the places that devotion can take us and where tenderness and need intersect, is the scary one. And it has an afterlife of its own, something to mull over for a while once the book is back on the shelf. In that sense, The Silent Land’s smaller moments are somehow the most memorable, and even after the mystery of Zoe and Jake’s enigmatic world is resolved, that’s what we’re left with: two people, alone with their love:
The snow on the mountain slope groaned again overhead. There was a further inexplicable sound like great fishing nets cast into the sea. She slipped her arm inside his and they hiked on into the village under the soft orange glow of the daytime lamps.