Book Review

A Haunting in the Arctic by C.J. Cooke


A Haunting in the Arctic is emphatically not a romance, but it has some elements that are relevant to our interests, specifically female rage and mermaids and selkie legends. It’s very atmospheric and creepy, but it forgets to make sense. The plot revolves around a LOT of rape, and also includes graphic violence, self-harm and gaslighting.

If I had realized that the plot involved so much rape, much of it committed on page and the rest implied, I would not have read this book. Once I started though, I got invested and couldn’t stop reading, which does speak well for the pacing of the book in thriller/horror terms. However, instead of getting any kind of catharsis from the story, I was just left feeling sad and, for lack of a more sophisticated word, icky, as well as confused.

Because the story is a mystery/horror/thriller/ghost story, it’s hard to describe any of the plot in any meaningful way without spoilers. It’s told from two points of view in alternating chapters. One is the point of view of Nicky, a woman who finds herself on a whaling ship, the Ormen, in 1901. The other is that of Dominique, an urban explorer in the present day who wants to explore and document the wreck of the ship, which washed up on the coast of Iceland, before it is dragged out to sea and sunk. There’s also a mystery about what happened on the ship in 1973, when it was a research vessel, and what happened to Skúmaskot, a village near the location of the wreck.

Not only is there rape, on page and off, torture, and death and trauma, but major plot elements are brought up and then dropped, questions are raised but never answered, and supernatural aspects to the story are only partially explained and explored. As a result, I was mostly confused when I wasn’t horrified by what was happening.

I can’t wrap this up without discussing a surreal and disturbing chapter in which the ship docks near an Inuit village. It’s not a spoiler but I’m hiding it anyway because it is just so very racist.

Show Spoiler

The Inuit women run all over the ship naked and have consensual sex with the sailors. It is stated that they do this as a way of bringing genetic diversity to the tribe. The Inuit are not given a single line of dialogue. None of them are named.

There are many historical instances of Inuit and non-Inuit people having sex, and in some cases marrying, and these instances take place within the complex cultural mores of everyone involved. However, this book does not address any of these complexities and instead portrays a kind of frolicking free-for-all.

This chapter felt awful because introducing Inuit people without allowing any of them to have any characterization AT ALL is horrendous. I can’t over-emphasize how much they are treated as wallpaper, but sexualized wallpaper, as if someone had dumped a bunch of sex toys onto the ship. Nicky observes them the same way she observes fish and seals – a new thing to look at and then ignore.

When I read horror/thriller/suspense, I’m looking for a certain cathartic feeling. I did not get that feeling with this book, because both heroines are passive until the last minute. Both heroines deal with their trauma by becoming numb, compartmentalizing, and dissociating. This is realistic and valid. However, their frozen state, and the limitations imposed on them by their respective situations, leaves them unable to exercise much agency. Once the revenge kicks in, it’s not satisfying because it’s not fairly directed and because it leaves the victim even more trapped in their identity as victim instead of allowing them to feel empowered and free. Not everyone looks for the same experience when reading this kind of material, so my dissatisfaction might not apply to every reader.

An even bigger problem is that the twist at the end does not bring coherence to the story. Linda Holmes wrote a review of Don’t Worry Darling which helped me understand why A Haunting in the Arctic doesn’t work:

The mechanics of a good mystery are usually such that as the story builds tension, it’s like the construction of a complicated lock on an ornate door. Every piece of new information creates another complication within the mechanism of the lock. Then, at some point, you are given a key. You put the key in the lock and you turn it, and there is a satisfying click as it disengages the lock and lets you in.

The story in A Haunting in the Arctic fails to give that satisfying moment when things fall into place. The pieces of information in the book appear and disappear willy-nilly. The ending hinges on a major choice, but the reason the character makes that choice is unclear. The motives and reasonings and emotions behind the characters are inconsistent and often illogical – not in the understandable way that real people are often illogical, but as though the puzzle of the book was simply not completely thought out.

This book isn’t all bad. I loved the atmosphere. It was genuinely spooky and scary and I kept reading, devouring the whole thing in a day. But afterwards, I felt grimy. I felt exploited instead of empowered. And, most damning from a literary perspective, I lacked the satisfaction of hearing that click as things fell into place. Instead, I felt more adrift and confused than I had before. There are not enough vengeful selkies in the world to make me read this book ever again.

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A Haunting in the Arctic by C.J. Cooke

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  1. Kathy MacAlister says:

    Wow, thanks for this review! I got to about 25% in the book, felt like I needed a bath, came back flipped to the last chapter and read it, then felt like I needed another bath! This started and ended as a most unpleasant book.

  2. dePizan says:

    Given the absolutely catastrophic levels of sexual violence against Native American/First Nations women in general, and even more in the Arctic (one study had 90% of Alaskan Native women who responded saying they have been sexually assaulted), and the vast majority of that is from non-Native assailants….that depiction of them is even more appalling.

  3. Kate says:

    Appalling. I’ve had my eye on this one because of the ghost element and setting, but sexual violence as a lazy way to instill fear and dread, or to “move the plot along” is an instant nope for me, even before we get to the racism. Thanks for the review.

  4. Jenny says:

    I had this on hold at my library, but I don’t think I’ll pick it up now. I was looking for an arctic horror after All the White Spaces, but I don’t think this’ll scratch that itch. I can sit through a messy plot if the atmosphere works, but rape and racism are mood killers

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