Review: The Route of Ice and Salt by José Luis Zárate, trans. David Bowles

Publication Date: January 19, 2021
Attributes: adult fiction, novella, gothic horror, Dracula tie-in, cis gay m POV character
Content warnings: lots of complicated sexuality, some references to child sexual abuse and assault, past homophobic hate crime
Quick note: I received a free copy of this book from Innsmouth Free Press via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. That did not influence the content of this review.

This is a weird, lonely, queer little novella, and I love everything about it.

It's a new translation of a tale released by a now-defunct Mexican indie publisher in the late 1990s. The novella apparently has a cult following in Mexico; it was published when queer literature was much rarer and popular opinion tended to be much more homophobic. Despite that rather specific cultural context, the novella grapples with concepts of shame and monstrosity in ways that feel timeless and adapt well for a modern audience. It's especially remarkable as an explicitly queer turn on a genre that too often only plays with queerness, invoking it as a subtextual horror.

The translation, from David Bowles, is lyrical and horrifying. This new edition comes from Silvia Moreno-Garcia's micropress with a beautiful foreword from the author and an excellent post-script essay from trans horror novelist Poppy Z. Brite; those essays alone are worth the paperback purchase price. (I received this one as a review copy, but I loved it so much that I've since purchased a physical edition.)

There's a lot of disturbing and fraught sexual elements in this, though none of it is particularly graphic, so this might not be for everyone. But if that doesn't bother you as a reader, this novella is well worth your time.

The book follows the crew of the Demeter, which took Dracula to England. In Dracula canon, the ship arrives mysteriously devoid of its crew — except for the captain, whose corpse is tied to the wheel and grasping a crucifix.

Worth noting that the book does not rewrite the captain's fate. Instead it recounts his fight against the vampire, and recontextualizes his eventual death as an act of self-sacrifice in honor of his dwindling crew.

The Route of Ice and Salt asks “what happened there” and gives one hell of an answer through the captain's private diary. He normally dedicates the space to a secret log of all his secret shames and sexual fantasies about his crew. The diaries at first just contain notes of pression, trauma, loneliness, guilt, and shame. The ocean he describes feels vast and gray and empty. The captain struggles with the power he holds over his men, and its implications in context of his desires.

But the longer the Demeter carries mysterious boxes of dirt, the captain begins recording events that become increasingly odd, and violent, and terrifying.

Soon, he realizes that something is hunting his crew. The voyage grows more and more fraught as crew disappears and mysterious problems crop up — complete with a plague and vampiric rat infestation.

As the tale unfolds, the captain is also haunted by his memories of a lost love, who was murdered in a homophobic hate crime. Zárate uses this backstory to explore the tension between the eroticism of the gothic genre and the treatment of gay men as monsters (even when there are literal monsters about). This is perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book, though it's harrowing.

The book as a whole is feverish, and Gothic, and haunting. I'll likely be revisiting it, as there's a lot going on. I'm very glad it's been translated for English readers for the first time, and I hope I'll see similar pieces from the publisher.

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Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.