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Cold Skin

by Albert Sanchez Pinol

A young man sails to a tiny island on the fringes of Antarctica to take up a year’s post as Weather Official. Night falls and foreboding is swiftly replaced by complete terror as it becomes clear that he could not have possibly foreseen what horrors lie in wait for him.

The setting is very vague – in the past, possibly after some traumatic event (the First World war?) The narrator hopes that his self – imposed exile and the small demands of the job will also allow him privacy and silence and to read and contemplate. The island is utterly remote, far from shipping lanes and he believes it to unpopulated apart from his predecessor, whom he will replace. Apart from harsh weather and solitude what could possibly harm him?

However it seems that the island has other plans for him. His predecessor has vanished, leaving ominous signs in the shack and unexpectedly there is another man on the island – Gruner the lighthouse keeper. Then darkness falls and a terrible threat emerges from the sea.

The battle lines are drawn – the men pool resources, incarcerating themselves in the lighthouse, united against the enemy. The days settle into the monotonous routine of nightly slaughter followed by days passed in a fog of exhaustion. It is a sickening and depraved existence, a repulsive, repetitive groundhog day with both men exhibiting violence and sadism in fairly equal quantities.
Then everything changes when the narrator discovers that Gruner has broken the rules of engagement, the perspective shifts and we start to question the nature of their existence. Like a painting by Hieronymous Bosch, the island is a Hellish place where lust and violence are played out endlessly and remorselessly.

This is a very maverick and disturbing fantasy. Difficult to define, it is part sci-fi, part fairytale and horror. Pinol’s descriptions can be very strange (maybe the translation adds to the disorientation), but the island is always drawn with great conviction, the acts are repulsive and compelling and the message very disturbing. The story becomes an allegory of conscience and survival in an evil and corrupted place and is ultimately very bleak.
Perhaps this is an allegory of history itself: there can be no change, no lessons learned and certainly no explanations other than “Only those who have lost their faith arrive on these shores…” Readers, prepare to be possessed by an excellent story.

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