The Route of Ice and Salt by José Luis Zárate

Posted on February 15, 2021 in 2 Oogies, Book Reviews, Genre: Horror

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The Route of Ice and Salt by José Luis Zárate
The Route of Ice and Salt by José Luis Zárate

Innsmouth Free Press, $7.00, ISBN 978-1-927990-30-8
Horror, 2020

The Route of Ice and Salt was initially published in 1998 in Mexico, as La ruta del hielo y la sal. Well, it is now translated into English by David Bowles, and it also comes with a new prologue by the author and a bonus essay by Poppy Z Brite. Much has been made about this particular edition as some kind of groundbreaking work in Mexican queer literature back in those days, because the lead protagonist of this one is a bloke that is hungry for pee-pee.

Mind you, these days it is pretty common to find characters of all kinds of sexuality in horror, but back in those days, such characters are considered “niche”, and their stories are euphemistically called “cult classics” because they hardly find a way to penetrate the mainstream market. Of course, these days American publishers are desperate to feature as many queer characters as they can in their books—for the US markets only, though, as they are also the first in line to censor their own products or willingly ban them if China demanded thus—but that’s a sign of just how far we have come, or, if one is skeptical, how low we have sunk that these days, corporate bigwigs would indulge in performative wokeness so long as their antics are confined in the US and hence, won’t affect their bottom line elsewhere in the world.

Back to this book. This is an illustrated book of sorts, in that there are some lovely art motives for the chapter opener and what not, but I own the digital version and oh boy, the artwork looks like smudged temporary tattoos due to how low-res they appear on my Calibre. Maybe I should have just bought the hard copy, ugh.

Also, the prologue is not one in the conventional sense. It’s more like an introduction, with the author talking about why he wrote this story. Of course, given that he is an award-winning literary sort, his rambling comes off like words emanating from a sentient, talking navel. It asks me all kinds of pretentious questions, like:

Why do you write horror and not reality?

Why write a vampire story?

The author is trying to convince me that this story had been writing from anguished, tormented conversations such as the above that he had with… some kind of sinister darkness in his mind, or maybe from his belly button. Dude, it’s just a horny dude stuck in a vampire story, let’s not pretend that it’s anything deeper than that. Still, at least he’s not acting like he is writing stories that are transmitted from space to some turban he has on his head, or something.

Now, let’s move on to the actual story, which is actually a novella that I am charged a full price story for. The backdrop is Count Dracula’s sea voyage from Transylvania to Whitby, England, on the ship Demeter. Our protagonist is the captain of that ship, and boy, he is hungry and thirsty for man-meat. The salt in the question comes from just how much of it is in the air during the sea voyage.

And when the men strip away their clothing, they find it between their thighs, hidden where groin and testicles meet.

The sailors are Lot’s wife.

Creatures of salt.

Of course, he can’t bring himself to slake his thirst or hunger, as he has to be proper and what not. As a result of this, he also insists that his crew remain celibate too. If he ain’t getting any honey, no one else is allowed to touch the pot, no indeed!

Impossible that I order one of my men to come to my cabin and ask him to undress, much less insist he stand still and permit me to clean him with my tongue, lightly biting his flesh, trembling with craving for his skin.

And if there is no flavor?

That would mean that some other has saved him from the salt.

Then I should have to demand an accounting, impose discipline, require they reserve for me alone their salt, their warm sex.

But I cannot demand an accounting.

You know, this could make a great erotic story. Just think, a hunky captain ordering his equally hunky, brawny sailors to line up and take down their pants, so that he can use his tongue to test whether the saltiness is there or not, before using his crop on those that dare to do the hanky-panky behind his back.

Of course, that would be a different, fun story altogether. Not this story, alas.

While there are some intriguing themes comparing homosexuality to vampirism (only to, amusingly, reject the comparison—a lovely subversion of the trope popularized by many vampire fiction of that time) as well as redemption, The Route of Ice and Salt is bogged down by a narrative style that is best described as falling into the deep darkness of José Luis Zárate’s tormented navel. Perhaps the original story in Spanish is more lyrical and elegant, I don’t know, and there are different nuances in different languages that can’t always be captured by English. Perhaps Mr Bowles has done his best, or maybe he could do better, I don’t know, but the end result is a meandering story that takes way too long to pick up steam. The protagonist spends way too much time trying to make all kinds of overwrought similes revolving around his poor blue-shaded testicles, so much so that my plebeian self can only snort and wonder why he can’t just grab that thing and whack away if he really wanted release that badly. Maybe it’s artistic to flail around in unfulfilled desires, I don’t know, but frankly, a lot of the nonsense in this story is self-inflicted for no reason other than a protagonist in an arty-farty story is supposed to posture and preen while wailing about how horny they are.

Well, all I can say is that folks can always read this if they like this kind of literary posturing that all but buries the actual story, or they can always buy the hard copy and show it off on their bookshelf to convince people that they are really very smart. Me, I would be interested should someone write a porn parody of this story. Yes, line those hot sailors up to test for saltiness in their private parts, baby, and I’d be in line to read that thing.