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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Ararat by Christopher Golden

April 1, 2018

Headline Publishing Group:  London, UK
(2017) (pb)

Ararat is a great example of that popular staple of archaeology fiction:  the supernatural horror unearthed by unwitting excavators.  This sub-genre can be traced as far back as the mid-19th century.  Edgar Allen Poe, Louisa May Alcott and Arthur Conan Doyle contributed early examples of this type of tale.

Christopher Golden sets the scene for his hair-raising novel with an earthquake and avalanche that exposes a cavern opening high on the southeast face of Mount Ararat in Turkey.  Travel/adventure writer Meryam Karga and film maker Adam  Holzer postpone their wedding plans to ascend the almost mythical mountain in the outside chance that the cavern might yield clues to the legend of Noah’s ark, which, according to the Old Testament, came to rest high on Ararat after the biblical Flood.

A small climbing group is hastily assembled, with guides drawn from an indigenous family with whom Adam and Meryam have worked previously.  In a feverish attempt to beat at least two other competing “ark-ologist” teams to the exposed cavern, the two adventurers succeed in their quest and discover, to their absolute amazement, the skeletal remains of a mammoth wooden vessel frozen within the mountain.  The ship, three decks high, with animal bones scattered about, also yields a mysterious wooden box sealed with bitumen pitch and featuring an unknown script on its surface.  The explorers surmise that it might be a coffin or tomb and, and as Conan Doyle might have written, from then on “the game was afoot!”  The coffin is opened, exposing the remains of a monstrous, demon-like cadaver and a malignant atmosphere immediately pervades the ancient site.

Some weeks later a full contingent of excavators have been flown in to aid Adam and Meryam in scientifically exploring the ark and its contents, as the Karga-Holzer Ark Project (KHAP) is formally established.  The archaeologists determine that the vessel, at least 5,000 years old, had come to rest on a mountain ridge 4,000 meters above sea level, and then covered by countless ages of rock and landslides.  A team of archaeologists, led by Oxford scholar Helen Marshall, are joined by Ben Walker, ostensibly a representative of the National Science Foundation, but in reality functioning as an agent for DARPA, the US Defense Department Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; Kim Seong, a United Nations observer; Father Cornelius Hughes, an expert on ancient civilizations and languages; Professor Armando Olivieri, a biblical scholar; two Turkish government observers, most likely military; and  Dr. Dev Patil, a Cambridge University paleopathologist, who has been added to the team to study the monstrous cadaver, as well as the human remains that have been unearthed—two adults and one child.

The project begins to deteriorate almost at once as crew members begin suffer a variety of maladies, both physical and emotional—and then people begin to die.  A claustrophobic and panicked atmosphere settles upon the site as even weather conditions seem to conspire against the intrepid investigators—a blizzard is descending upon Ararat.  Father Hughes’ translations of the texts on the coffin seem to confirm that this is indeed the ark of biblical times and that the cadaver is demonic in nature and perhaps still lethal.  Madness and death spread through the remaining crew and the survivors determine that, blizzard notwithstanding, they must escape the ark and the demon before there are no survivors left of the Karga-Holzer Ark Project.  The balance of the novel follows those survivors, ever dwindling in number, as they flee the hateful site high atop Mount Ararat.

This is a well-written horror-thriller—one whose suspense and intensity ratchets up with every turned page.  The characters are well-conceived and believable within the context of the story—something that is not always the case in this genre.

I do wish a bit more attention had been given to the origins of the vessel discovered high on Ararat and that it would have been worked into the plot.  It is suggested that this ark is the source of the biblical Flood story but that its actual roots lie hidden in the mists of time.  Nonetheless this is a fine example of archaeology horror fiction and as such earns a solid three trowels.