Jake and Zoe are a typical British couple enjoying their tenth-anniversary holiday at the Saint-Bernard-en-Haut ski resort in the Pyrenees. Their pleasant morning on the slopes is interrupted by a most unwelcome avalanche. After digging themselves out, they notice that the entire resort is deserted, as if in a desperate hurry. Fireplaces are still lit and candles still burning. In the hotel kitchens, fresh meat still sits out on cutting boards. At first they assume a routine evacuation has taken place. But then they discover the entire town is equally barren of life. And after all of their attempts to leave town on their own are thwarted in inexplicable ways — they can't ski or drive or even walk away without their route somehow taking them right back where they started — they reluctantly reach the conclusion already reached by any reader who's ever watched a Twilight Zone: they didn't actually survive the avalanche.
In summary, Graham Joyce's macabre, World Fantasy-nominated story sounds like a lazy compendium of clichés. In execution, it's a remarkably eerie and affecting dark fantasy that overcomes the familiarity of its tropes by framing itself as a story of love and commitment, and of taking stock of what is truly valuable and meaningful — the deep personal bonds we create with our loved ones — in life. I liked Jake and Zoe because they were not presented as an idealized couple but a realistic one. It is all too easy in stories like these to make the protagonists more perfect than they'd likely be, in order to pound our emotional buttons by horrifying us with the unfairness and cruelty of their fate. But Jake and Zoe have all the flaws you and I have. They love each other deeply, but keep secrets from one another, the kind couples probably shouldn't keep but do all the same. They tend to live a little beyond their means. There has been some infidelity, many years ago, and the wound is still sensitive. Their bond is as dependent on their points in common as it is on those little moments all couples have, when you drive each other crazy.
I can imagine how strange it might be, stuck in limbo, knowing you've died but not knowing what comes next. For a few days Jake and Zoe decide to live (in a manner of speaking) large. They keep skiing. They crack open the most absurdly expensive bottles of wine and liquor in the hotel. They unwind in the sauna, make love every night. But new and increasingly disturbing changes to the stasis of their environment begin taking a toll. Zoe has a secret she's keeping from Jake, because in their current circumstance its implications are too upsetting to face. The electricity in the hotel starts to fluctuate. Hints that they may not be alone, even that something may be trying to separate them, emerge. Then Zoe's cell phone starts ringing.
There are strong, atmospheric scenes of creepiness and dread here which, given the wintery resort setting, make recollections of The Shining inescapable. Though I suspect he's never played it, there's also much about Joyce's novel — its foggy and deserted setting, its themes of redemption for the failings of love, even its title — that recalls the videogame series Silent Hill. The monsters here, though, are of a much different variety. Mostly, Joyce uses his nightmarish love story to explore the ways in which we never understand loss until it's happened to us. Two sequences in particular, in which the couple recall the deaths of their fathers, convey the profundity of how we reflect when the end comes to our very nearest and dearest. Zoe wonders if we wouldn't see things differently if, instead of despairing that our loved ones have been taken from us, we chose to think they were given to us for a time, to be cherished in that time. I'm reviewing this at a point in my life when both my own parents are on the other side of 75, when it requires an effort to draw a balance between bracing for the inevitable, and turning that act into a demoralizing death watch. There are days when that's easier than others.
Some readers might find the climax and denouement a bit more uplifting than the story warrants. But what happens is rooted logically in what has come before. Ultimately, the power of The Silent Land stems not from its morbid scares and icy windblown streets, but from the last moments of warmth between its lost lovers.