José Luis Zárate’s 1998 The Route of Ice and Salt is a nautical horror novel. The 2020 English translation is by David Bowles.
The captain of the Demeter is a skilful, experienced mariner, known for his attention to his crew. Not all captains are as humane.
His latest commission seems straightforward enough. The route from Varna to Whitby is well charted. Nothing could be more harmless than a few crates of Transylvanian soil.
The captain, having had a previous lover horribly murdered by a mob, is careful to keep his attraction to men secret — or at least this is his intention. To what degree he is successful in this is an open question. What is clear is he values his employees’ good regard, and is deeply invested in their well-being. Too bad that he doesn’t know the danger that his cargo poses … to his crew and to him.
Among the first hints that something has gone horribly wrong: an absence of rats. Then crew begin to vanish. One missing man might be due to misfortune; perhaps a careless or unlucky man has been lost overboard. But the disappearances continue.
I’m sure you’ve figured it out by now. Too bad the captain doesn’t know that he’s living in a famous novel: the doomed voyage of the Demeter, as depicted in Stoker’s Dracula.
This is where I admit I’ve never read Dracula. The only Stoker I have read is The Jewel of the Seven Stars. Undoubtedly I am missing elements of this expansion of the Demeter incident.
I have a feeling that despite the Captain’s earnest efforts to appear straight, the crew may suspect that the captain is gay. There are subtle hints, such as when he impulsively licks the neck of one of the Tzigane loading the boxes of dirt onto the Demeter. But life aboard the ship must be tolerable, because the ship is fully crewed.
When this book was written, gay characters virtually never got to have happily-ever-after endings. When the book opens the captain has already suffered one tragedy. By the time it ends … well, it couldn’t get worse.
The captain could have saved some of his men if he’d put into port before he reached Britain and off-loaded the deadly crates. But because the author was retelling Dracula, he had to end, as did the earlier book, with a ship that arrives at Whitby with the entirety of its crew either missing or dead.
This is a classic of Mexican horror, written at a time when gay characters were uncommon in the field. The significance to the field is provided in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s introduction and further context is provided by José Luis Zárate himself.
If it all sounds a bit of downer, well, it is a horror story. Take comfort in Stephen Vincent Benét’s Nightmare, With Angels. True, given the constraints imposed by the source material this story cannot end well for the Captain. But given enough time that’s true for everyone. The Captain simply reaches the destination a bit earlier than the rest of us.