Jeff Strand has earned a reputation for quirky, funny horror stories for both adults and young adult readers. On occasion, he sometimes reduces the funny part of the quotient and ups the tension, resulting in macabre gems like his Bram Stoker finalist novel PRESSURE. COLD DEAD HANDS is a novella that falls a bit harder on the tension side of the Strand scale than a story like “Really, Really Ferocious” in which a man finds a fascinating way to employ his wiener dog as an attack animal, but it is not completely devoid of a sense of humor. Strand’s worldview seems to require at least one laugh out loud joke per work, and luckily there are a few such jokes in this one. This is a good thing, since the premise would be pretty grim if played too straight.
Take an example of Strand’s brand of smirking through mayhem from one of the threatening killers:
“Yeah, you fuckers better cower! I’m gonna cut you all into sushi!”
Sushi specifically required rice, which made that a pretty silly comment, but still, there was a madman in the freezer waving a knife, so Barry wasn’t inclined to argue. (location 711)
After a local grocery store gets attacked by a handful of nuts with axes, crossbows, and other low tech but nevertheless dangerous gear, a group of shoppers seek refuge in a walk in freezer. With no windows or easy way to see what is happening in the store, the survivors are left to social media for updates as to what is happening out there. Is this some kind of large scale outbreak? A terror attack? Something else? Well, it’s not a widespread apocalypse, thank goodness. It seems to be an isolated incident. With at least that information gleaned from social media, the people in the freezer then try to figure out what they are going to do. This become complicated when an unreliable news source reveals that one of their number may actually be in league with the crazies. Suspicions and personality rifts result in a situation that is as threatened by the herded survivors as it is by the maniacs outside. This reaches a head when the maniacs outside start making threats about what’s going to happen if the survivors don’t walk out . . .
Similar to Donald E. Westlake (whose works we are reviewing in our exhaustive and sometimes exhausting ConsideringWestlake series), Strand finds humor in the interactions between (mostly) normal people. The setup for COLD DEAD HANDS lends itself to casting for drama—there are no guarantees that grocery store visitors will see eye to eye on anything whatsoever. In this case, we have a handful of folks from different age groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, and beliefs stuck together, united in their efforts to survive. As the hours pass, and the cold settles in, the question of survival becomes all the more vital. These people will find themselves doing whatever is necessary to live a few more minutes even if that means turning on one another in passive/aggressive or full on aggressive ways.
The viewpoint character here is Barry, a regular joe sort of character who does not have any particular skills suited for this kind of scenario. However, he will find within himself cowardice and courage when he is put to the test in terrifying episode after episode. Strand imbues him with a likable, affable charm. He’s not an action hero, he’s the sort of everyman character a young Bruce Campbell might have played before hitting on his iconic EVIL DEAD role of Ash.
Some might see COLD DEAD HANDS as a political book. Its adversarial characters use loaded language like “libtards”, after all, and they have an agenda that attacks liberal gun control values. However much time the dialogue lends these characters and their ideas, it does not seem to take such political stances seriously. Instead, the rationales are presented as exactly what they are—rationales used by crazy dudes to excuse attacking people.
The social media touches in the story are nicely done. Reliable information is not easy to glean from twitter feeds and whatnot. At one point, the crazies communicate to the survivors through these same feeds. It’s a nice satiric jab at just how potentially out of control social media is these days that a crazy dude holding a pregnant woman hostage with a meat cleaver feels the need to pause and post a selfie.
Strand’s language is easy going, readable. The quips his characters come up earn honest chuckles, and the best laughs of the book are observations about the crazy things zealots say, such as an exchange between Barry and one of the killers:
“I have to prove our message to the world. The rest of you have to die.” He walked over too a shelf and picked up a metal tray. He turned it sideways, spilling several steaks onto the floor, then pointed the pistol at Barry. “Get over here.”
“Because I’m going to beat you to death with this tray.”
“You heard me.”
“You’re forcing me at gunpoint to walk over there so you can beat me to death with a tray? To prove that you don’t need guns to kill people?”
“I’ll worry about how that sounds. Get over here.”(location 342)
Likewise another exchange between Barry and a wanna be murderer with a hunting knife follows a similar line of skewed thinking, particularly when the killer decides to prove his commitment to his friends’ theories about murder not requiring guns by demanding the opportunity to skin Barry alive (or else he will resort to Plan B, a suicide bomb that will take out the whole group in the freezer). The exchange culminates with an ultimatum, and allows Barry to take a moment to assess his situation. However, as it turns out the final decision is not his to make alone:
This was now the second time today that Barry had been threatened with, basically, “Let me kill you with this weapon or I’ll kill you with this other weapon.” Obviously, he was not going to stroll over there and let Ethan start slicing strips off flesh.
“Go over there, man,” said Trevor.
“You’re the one getting all lippy with him. Don’t make the rest of us pay the price.”
Somebody shoved Barry forward. He was so taken aback by this that he stumbled forward and almost slipped. When he glanced back over his shoulder, he saw Pete lower his arms. The little shit. (location 792)
These exchanges are quick and yet they have the ability to present character and suspense through dialogue. This is the sort of character building found in the best entries by Westlake or Elmore Leonard. The characters here like to talk, and Strand knows how to communicate things that get left unsaid as well as to question the idiotic demands some people make while in positions of perceived power.
Although slim in terms of page count, COLD DEAD HANDS has enough entertainment, surprises and tension to fill a full novel. In many ways, the novella reads like a film for the mind’s eye, and in fact serves as the basis for an indie production helmed by director Lynne Hansen. I’ve yet to see the picture, but I am interested to see what she does with the material.
COLD DEAD HANDS is a brief but thrilling read available in an eBook edition today. Supposedly, Cemetery Dance may be releasing a hardback, but I expect that won’t see the light of day for a minute.
Next week, we return to our ConsideringWestlake series to take a look at NOBODY’S PERFECT, the fourth installment of the Dortmunder comic capers which finds Dortmunder and his string trying to steal a painting for its current owner. This volume introduces a new regular character, Tiny Bulcher, as well as some memorable antagonists and secondary personalities. It’s available in eBook and audiobook editions.
Strand, Jeff. COLD DEAD HANDS. Self Published eBook: 2018.
“In a World So Cold: Jeff Strand’s Cold Dead Hands” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Quotes and Image taken from the eBook edition.