Cradle Lake by Ronald Malfi © 2013 Medallion
Urbanites Alan and Heather Hammerstun have endured two miscarriages and Heather’s near-fatal depression. When Alan’s late uncle leaves Alan a house in rural North Carolina, the Hammerstuns decide to move there and start anew. Near the house is a lake whose waters are, for some, miraculously healing, and for others, horrifically toxic. Alan and Heather test the waters.
His ulcer is cured and his tattoos fade. Her depression and the scars it left behind recede. And they end up expecting another child. The sheriff, neighbors, and a wise Native American warn Alan he is playing with fire, but Alan dismisses them as meddlers trying to keep the lake all to themselves, even as stubborn vines and vultures start taking over the Hammerstun home, even as Alan is tormented by visions of his dead father and a dead former victim of the lake.
A pretty good premise with some pretty good creepy details, especially the Native American spiritual angle, the threat of unearthly creatures in the woods, and a neighbor child who’s life is saved by the lake, but thereafter becomes a goth animal killer. The problem was all of these cool elements were brought up and then dropped. None of them figured in the ultimate resolution, which was whether the waters would save or destroy Alan and Heather. In the end, you find out which way it goes for them, but never why.
Cradle’s tension came from whether the neighbors, ghosts, etc. were trying to help or hurt Alan, and Malfi touched on a nice thematic element of whether we need flaws to be human. But this theme and the mild tension were again only touched on, and didn’t pull through to the ending. The biggest problem with Cradle was any real sense of peril for the main character, Alan. He dealt with vines, vultures, pushy neighbors, and ghosts like they were pests—annoying but not life-threatening. Alan never seemed conflicted about how the big problem—whether he and Heather would live or die—would turn out.
I like some ambiguity at the end of a story—you don’t need to explain everything—but ambiguity about what Alan was trying to accomplish kept me from caring how it would turn out. Heather never seemed to care about what her husband was going through, either. She was a cardboard cutout like all the other secondary characters.
A few nice details that never jelled into much of a story. Cradle Lake is recycling bin bound.