Durango author Robert Stump has created a supernatural thriller to explain how our local river got its name. Before it was the Animas, he writes in El Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio or The River of Souls Lost in Purgatory, it was the Mad River and the Navajos feared it.You'll see from the title that Stump slides in references to the local ski hill; he also sets the last half of the book on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, to mixed effect.
I know we're having a hard time these days, but the commercial implication of a lengthy, loving depiction of a prosperous local business, right down to the yummy cocoa it serves, strikes a disquieting note in an otherwise original thriller.
But the book catches the attention from the start, after the reader has wisely skipped a couple of pages of anonymous, 19th century doggerel, a poem with the same name as the book. Next comes an outline of the book's cosmology, which posits that lost souls can escape purgatory only by possessing the spirit of an innocent during the winter solstice.
The cosmology grows more complex, and it's fun. In fact, it provides the book's plot. My favorite supernatural detail was that Spanish-speaking lost souls who died in 1868 had learned to speak English by the present day, a device necessary to the plot.
The intriguing protagonist is the Raven, a Navajo shape-shifter come on hard times, who happens upon a party of Spanish soldiers carrying gold. Raven's peculiar supernatural requirements dictate that he has to kill his prey in elaborate ways and make off with the gold. For instance, he makes a cursed rattle and leaves it on the trail for the soldiers to pick up and die.
Raven's magic means all end up dead and worse. Thus the river's name. It turns out to be complicated being a ghost.
Then comes the shock. The scene shifts to the sunny present day and the lovingly described train, an intellectual moppet named Jimmy and his dim-bulb mother. And they're riding on December 23, the most dangerous day of the year. On the train they meet Nighthawk, an old Navajo man who had a dangerous encounter with Raven as a teenager.
Then all the ghosts and spirits fight, and the kid, naturally enough, is in terrible peril. But amid all the conflict, there's a comic scene in which two of the ghosts try to speed up the train so it will crash. They're confused by the controls because they died before the train was invented.
This is a beginning writer's book, and the writer is unsophisticated in his execution, though clever about spinning a plot. It's self-published, and there are spelling and grammar mistakes along with homonym confusion such as "creaks" for "creeks." I hope Stump has only ordered a small print run so he can give the book one final editing and then let it back out into the world.