Sarah Nichols – The Very Dead of Winter (1974)

Review by Justin Tate

When an orphaned heiress suffers a difficult breakup with an older man, she checks herself into a remote group therapy lodge near a mountainous ski resort. The lodge is peopled with psychologists and fellow patients. Rather than feel better about her distress, however, Hallie is thrust into a series of fearful encounters.

Nocturnal visitors enter her bedroom unannounced and strange sounds are heard among the wintry wilderness. She feels perpetually drowsy, faint and forgetful. Have drugs been mixed into her wine? Did someone swap her aspirin with hard sedatives? Is she just paranoid, or is everyone out to get her? After several near-death experiences which are far too calculated to be mere accidents, Hallie pieces together the sinister plot unfurling around her. But can she escape before it’s too late?

In many ways this is a classic gothic romance. You got a creepy dwelling far removed from society. There’s scheming characters all around. Multiple hunky suitors, some trustworthy, some plotting murder. The setting is atmospheric. There’s even a splash of incest near the end and implied daddy issues throughout. What’s not to love?

Unfortunately it’s all put together rather haphazard. The first hundred pages feature strong, polished writing that is rich in characterization and musical prose. Then the author seems to remember that gothic romances are 50,000 words or less. Suddenly everything starts happening at breakneck speed, with a whirlwind of characters introduced, implied romance forgotten, and vague eerie cliffhangers tossed in at random.

It really is a sin to have scenes move so quickly when a more languid pace (and five fewer characters) would allow sexual tension to brood, fear to linger, and atmosphere to dazzle. With a title like The Very Dead of Winter one would hope for several paragraphs of gorgeous snowy descriptions, but there are none.

I’ve read gothic romances which accomplished these high expectations in half the page count. I think this is a sad case of poor planning and a tight deadline. It could have been much, much better. But even still, the novel satisfies in a shadowy dreamlike way. The characters are faceless and the plot threads are indecipherable, but the general vibe is chilling enough for the pages to turn easily.


Sarah Nichols is actually a pen name of the author Lee Hays. A casual dig through my most reliable sources found no concrete information about him, except that he also published several novelizations under his own name. Notably, he wrote the highly sought-after novelization of the 1974 film Black Christmas.

His ‘Sarah Nichols’ gothic novels all have fabulous titles, such The Sunless Day, House of Rancour, and Satan’s Spring. These books are scarce and expensive when available for purchase. Not sure if that’s an indication they are in high demand, or that they were relatively unpopular when first published and thus leaving fewer copies in circulation.

Despite a generally negative opinion of The Very Dead of Winter, I’ll no doubt be reviewing more Nichols/Hays books in the future.

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