Now comes Koryta's eighth novel, "The Ridge," another genre-bender, set in the remote town of Whitman in eastern Kentucky. It's December, "the season, quite appropriately, of death," and Wyatt French — town drunk and nutcase who'd built himself a lighthouse in the middle of the woods near Blade Ridge Road — has something on his mind. So he calls Kevin Kimble, the county's senior deputy sheriff, on his cellphone with a strange proposal: "Which would you rather have: a homicide or a suicide?" Although concerned about the "old degenerate" — especially after French asks what if the suicide victim wasn't entirely willing — Kimble's on a mission. He's on his way to a women's prison for his tortured monthly visit with inmate Jacqueline Mathis. Kimble's unspoken sexual attraction toward Mathis has endured despite the five years she's spent in prison — and because she murdered her husband and shot Kimble in the back during his investigation, facts she still can't quite recall.
French's cryptic last comment, "I didn't have to die. I could go on as long as I want," compels Darmus to drive out to the ridge, where he finds the old man at the top of his lighthouse, dead from what appears to be a self-inflicted shotgun wound. In his haste to leave the grisly scene and call the police, Darmus falls and breaks one of the lenses French so obsessively tended. Shortly thereafter, a sheriff's deputy miraculously survives a massive car wreck en route to the scene and one of Audrey's big cats goes missing, among other strange doings on Blade Ridge.
"The Ridge" alternates between Kimble and Darmus as they unravel the clues French left behind, including the lyrics to a creepy Josh Ritter song ("I can feel the world circling, sniffing round me in the night") and the names and faces of decades' worth of victims of accidents on the ridge. In the process, they uncover a story of 19th-century greed and hubris that embroils Jacqueline and Kimble, Darmus and the deputy, Audrey and her big cats and other residents of Whitman as they struggle to answer their various callings until life's end and sometimes beyond. In the process, the ridge tests each character, especially Kimble and Jacqueline, in ways that are equally emotionally charged and chill-inducing. Like Koryta's other novels, "The Ridge" is particularly powerful when revealing the telling details of those who are isolated — by profession, by geography, by temperament.
It's admirable to attempt a ghost story that can withstand the cynical skepticism of our time while engaging the reader with characters who struggle with all-too-real dilemmas. Here, Koryta has created a vivid world that's hard to shake for days after the book is finished. In "The Ridge," he has delivered a nuanced supernatural thriller worthy of the praise he's received and that is surely yet to come.
Woods is the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.