Book review: Salvage by Duncan Ralston

When I bought Salvage, it was because the blurb made me think of Harbour, and I hoped it might carry some of the same elements of humor, charm, and dread. Unfortunately, this book never really appealed to me. It lacks any trace of charm, the dread found within has no sense of impact, and the humor is mocking derision of stereotypes. I stuck with it, but every few chapters, I’d put it down and look for something to distract me. I finally forced myself to finish it so I could move on to something else, but the ending was just as dissatisfying as the start.

I suppose my first and biggest problem is with Owen, the main character, who has no personality. He has a job, but that’s about all there is to him, making his introduction flat and dull. His connection to his sister is supposed to be really important, but this isn’t shown during the early chapters. In fact, the opposite is shown, that despite his sister’s zeal for life, Owen himself is just going through the motions, waiting for old age to take him. Even her death is no catalyst for change. Rather it’s the appearance of her ghost beckoning him to follow her to the scene of her death that incites him to action.

He’s also got no sense of empathy, and this is a trait that seems to be shared by the narrator. Everyone else in the story is cast in suspicious shades by Owen and the narrator’s shared scorn or derision, and while I admit it’s a personal issue, that sense of cynicism kept me from getting into the story.

But there’s other problems, like the narration being inconsistent. As an example, during one scene Owen is asked to close the blinds in a hospital room. But as he’s leaving, the other character “looks out the window at the darkening sky.” Right, through the closed blinds, huh? There’s quite a lot of this, as if something that happened only a few pages before was already forgotten.

There’s also a confusion in the story about what the real cause of these deaths is all about. Is it schizophrenia that creates the darker half of the villain? That really doesn’t make sense. It’s as if the author believes schizophrenia is the result of some internalized guilt over a childhood accident. That’s not how it works. But then this seems to be a major problem for the author, having only the slimmest understanding of mental conditions. Another character supposedly has down syndrome, but they have none of the physical traits of the condition, and only an Elmer Fudd-type speech impediment which is mostly played up for laughs.

Even if I set that aside, there’s no explanation for how this hallucination gives power to the villain and allows him to control water. It also doesn’t make any sense that the deaths of these cult members is what creates the haunting, as the only flashback meant to bring clarity to the central mystery suggests that their leader had died forgiving the people who had wronged them. So what’s going on? Did this figment of the villain’s imagination decide after his death to go all fire and brimstone? And if that’s the case, why did it wait a decade before beginning its “master plan”?

It’s all a muddled mess, a bland and confused haunting story that tries to find a meaning to its own rambling far too late to let me feel invested in any of these people. It doesn’t make much sense that Owen had to be the catalyst for these events, not with the deaths of several characters taking place many years before his attempt at an investigation. So this ghost just sat and waited for him to show up, murdered some random people who had nothing to do with the disaster, and then decided to go away? No, I’m not feeling it, any of it.

I’m giving Salvage 2 stars, and I can’t recommend it to anyone except the most die hard ghost story fans.