Mountaineering is a strange hobby. It’s not one I partake in: too strenuous, too expensive, too risky. Nevertheless I’m intrigued by it. I must have read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air at least three times. He does a good job of portraying the appeal of the sport, but illustrates the dangers and risks too – risks to himself, but to others as well. So does Olde Heuvelt’s Echo, except that it adds a twist to the familiar story. It’s easy to see where he got the inspiration: the name Maudit means cursed mountain. It actually exists, buried somewhere deep in the Alps. Olde Heuvelt, by the way, means Old Hill. I love it when a plan comes together.
Nick and Sam are a happy couple living in a quiet Amsterdam neighbourhood. American Sam studies linguistics; Nick is a travel writer with a substantial instagram following. They’re madly in love and happy, until Sam receives a call from a Swiss hospital telling him that Nick has been gravely injured during a climb. Sam rushes over to Switzerland, but soon discovers things aren’t adding up. Nick has been horribly disfigured but his specialist seems to lie about the how and where. According to the rescue crew, Nick’s face was ripped open by a nasty rock fall, but it looks like it has been sliced open by an ice axe. And what has happened to Nick’s climbing partner Augustin? Why do the authorities insist Nick was found in a lower lying valley rather than where he was actually found, at mount Maudit?
Sam is initially thrilled, of course, to have his boyfriend back but struggles with the fact that he is now severely disfigured. Nick, meanwhile, suffers from memory loss and has nightmares about Augustin trapped in a serac. But then strange things begin to happen. Two of Nick’s specialists commit suidice and then, one night, thirty-two of his fellow patients die an unexplained death. Nick, meanwhile, keeps exhibiting increasingly strange behaviour that Sam struggles to cope with as he becomes increasingly suspicious: just what, exactly, has happened up that mountain? Why does nobody seem to know or what to talk about the Maudit? Why does Nick refuse to take off his bandages?
Echo is a wonderfully creepy novel that gradually builds up tension, though not all of the elements work equally well. What does work is the backbone of the story: Nick and Sam’s relationship. They are madly in love, but before the accident their relationship seems to be a bit shallow. After they’re reunited, Sam has trouble accepting that his once beautiful boyfriend is no longer what he used to be, but he is in equal parts fascinated by and afraid of what Nick has now become. That doesn’t always work well; not all of Sam’s actions are designed to support Nick, but rather to see how far he can be pushed and what new Nick is capable of. At the same time he is caring and determined to fix Nick the best he can.
The rest of the book is your basic horror novel full of unheimisch chills, animals going haywire, ominous dreams and locals who come bearing pitchforks and legends of yore. Occasionally, though, original plot points were added that made me take notice. It’s well-written, and I appreciated that it had a gay couple at the centre of it in a sort of matter-of-fact way (though Sam occasionally veers into camp territory). And though the ending was a bit of a letdown I really enjoyed reading it, probably more than Olde Heuvelt’s previous outing Hex. The ending gets a little self-indulgent and by that point I was eager for the book to end, but otherwise it was a solid read.
But I am still not climbing any mountains.