The Route of Ice & Salt
by José Luis Zárate
Translated from the Spanish by David Bowles
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 20, 2020
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Originally published in Mexico in 1998 by Grupo Editorial Vid, José Luis Zárate's The Route of Ice & Salt is a retelling of the voyage of the Demeter, the ship that brought Dracula to England. It was intended to be the beginning of publishing native Mexican speculative fiction authors, but it was not successful. The novella was later translated into French, but this is its first appearance in English, thanks to an Indiegogo campaign spearheaded by Silvia Moreno-Garcia for her independent Innsmouth Free Press. I got the e-book for contributing, for a little bit more I could have had it in paperback. It will get a general release next month, January 19. See above links for purchase details. The translator was David Bowles, Silvia provides an introduction, along with a new one from the author, and Poppy Z. Brite contributes an afterword. Silvia has spoken many times about the dearth of opportunities for Mexican writers beyond the literary spectrum, most SF and fantasy printed there being translations of US and UK writers. That probably contributed to the poor reception for this story, and for Grupo Editorial in general, but another factor may have been the subject matter. The Russian captain of the Demeter is homosexual, and that is just one of the burdens he carries.
This is hardly the first story to concentrate on the erotic nature of vampire myths, not even the first to consider the homoerotic context. Brite's afterword speculates that Stoker was influenced by the legal problems suffered by his friend Oscar Wilde. The "Ice" of the title refers to the cold waters of the Black Sea where the voyage begins, but possibly also to the psyche of the captain who has to guard his secret from everyone he meets. There are a few instances early in the story which I thought implied he was physically seducing other men, but that was all in his mind, only his fantasies. He knows what happens to queer men, a memory that still haunts him. He writes about textures a lot, how the feeling of the wood of his ship compares to running his hands over a man's body, how the drape of the sails reminds him of the clothes he wishes to rip away from them. "Salt" of course is for the seawater spray, but also the taste of sweat, tears, and semen. The way the ship is propelled through the waves is visually similar to the clichéd movie image of a train entering a tunnel. He dreams of penetrating his own ship the way the ship slices through the water. He also fantasizes encounters with his crew, although it is not clear if they are aware of his desire.
As far as captain and crew are aware they are transporting only boxes of dirt and clay, which they are told are to be used in scientific research. They are several weeks into their journey before the eerie events begin. All suffer from fitful sleep, weakness during the day. A few report seeing ghosts, but they are dismissed as only nightmares. Each of the crew are from different countries, but all of them know the legends of creatures of the night. The Pole knows of the wieszczy, others have heard of the rakshasa. In Bulgaria they speak of the obour, in Romania they are the vlkoslak. Vampires. The blood-thirsty living dead. Crewmen start to go missing, one by one, until the captain is alone with Dracula. His dead crewmen come back to haunt him, which inspires his plan to thwart the vampire. As much as he has suffered, he knows he is not the monster, he finally expells that thought from his mind. Dracula is a monster since his crime was taking what was not his, just as the men who killed the captain's lover Mikhail were the monsters. He comes to terms with all of that pain, knowing what he and Mikhail had was love and affection, consensual, not sinful or immoral. He is sure he has eased the passing of his men, possibly restored the soul of Mikhail. He is found tied to the helm of the Demeter, drifting off the coast of Whitby, blissfully unaware of success or failure against Dracula.
A highly literary expression, full of visual imagery, metaphor, and piercing emotion. If queer content disturbs you this is not your type of story. But for those who are sensitive to all truthful expressions of love and passion, it will live long in memory. The sea voyage is life, it has a beginning, middle, and end. The value of the journey is what is learned along the way. Highly recommended.
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