Where the Dead Wait: A Novel

Image of Where the Dead Wait: A Novel
Release Date: 
December 5, 2023
Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Reviewed by: 

“While the premise of this story is engaging the overall execution is wanting.”

Where the Dead Wait by Ally Wilkes is a gothic horror story set in the Arctic in the late 1800s. Her debut offering All the White Spaces, also set in the Artic, was nominated for a Bram Stoker award.

Where the Dead Waits uses two timelines that follow William Day through two separate Artic expeditions. The first is set in the 1860 when Day, a young officer aboard a ship called The Reckoning, is forced to take command when the captain succumbs to scurvy. The ship becomes bound in ice. The ship's supplies run out and the crew has little hope for rescue. As the crew slowly succumbs to starvation, desperate measure are considered. Day sanctions cannibalism, seeing that as the only way for them to survive. Day is led to this decision under the urging of Jess Stevens, his second in command. Day feels a strong admiration and connection to Stevens.

The second timeline occurs in 1882. After their rescue, Day lives in disgrace, marked as the man who led the disastrous expedition and condoned cannibalism. In 1882, he is commissioned to command a new ship, The Resolution, whose mission is to find Jess Stevens who disappeared in the Arctic on another voyage.

Day has strong misgivings in leading the expedition beset by overwhelming feelings of guilt and his obsession with Jess Stevens. Day is brought on at the request of Olive Emeline Stevens, the wife of Jess Stevens and a well-known psychic. Olive is determined to find her missing husband and with help of her companion and psychic Qila, they conduct several seances to find clues about his whereabouts. As the trip progresses, Day has increasingly violent visions and is haunted by images of Jess Stevens, brought out through the seances that Olive conducts. As they close in on Stevens, Day is forced to confront his past as they follow a trail littered with skeletal remains of the members of Stevens crew.

The two timelines are expertly woven by Wilkes, with the pieces of the original trip aboard The Reckoning and the subsequent trip on the Resolution seamlessly intertwining.

Although the idea of melding the theme of regret with the setting of the arctic with its harsh cold and desolation is promising, the overall execution does not live up to that promise. The plot is too thin to justify the length. Captain Day spends far too much time in a frozen sense of inactivity, ruminating over his past and his fascination with Stevens. The story languishes, relying too much on the horror and fear in cannibalism and many of the scenes. Descriptions are repetitive. Much of the writing, especially early on, seems overburdened with metaphors, in many cases the metaphors are strained and only serve to detract from the narrative. Also many of characters are undeveloped or flat one-dimensional representations. While the premise of this story is engaging the overall execution is wanting.