Book review: Cold Storage by David Koepp

Cold Storage is the debut novel of David Koepp, a screenwriter whose most famous credit is his work on Jurassic Park. Here’s the blurb:

“They thought it was contained. They were wrong. After decades underground in a forgotten sub-basement, a highly mutative organism – capable of extinction-level destruction – has found its way out. Only Pentagon bioterror operative Roberto Diaz can stop it. With the help of two unwitting security guards, he has one night to quarantine this horror, before it destroys all of humanity.”

I picked it up on the strength of Koepp’s credentials in the screenwriting industry, and also because it the blurb made it sound like a Michael Crichton-style techno-thriller crossed with a Stephen King schlock horror. Turns out I was right, and Cold Storage – although not without its flaws – is a lot of fun. 

The premise is very simple, and if it sounds like an ‘80s creature feature (or a “nature gone bad” scenario) then you’re in the right ballpark. The “mutative organism” is actually an infectious and semi-sentient fungus, but I guess “fungus” doesn’t sound as exciting! It has a tight and fairly basic plot – fungus develops, gets contained, is contained in a storage facility (the cold storage of the title) and gets loose. However, the novel carried me along and engaged me until the end. 

There are two reasons for that. Firstly, I really enjoyed Koepp’s writing style. On the surface, it breaks many of the rules that novice writers are told are sacrosanct. For example, it regularly jumps POVs – you are in someone’s head, experiencing their intimate thoughts, and next paragraph you’re somewhere else. That’s a big no-no for most writers. It is very off-putting if done badly and often the sign of a rookie writer. Not so where Koepp is concerned: his head jumping worked fine for me and I didn’t even realise he was doing it until I looked back on the book. Another feature of Koepp’s writing is regular forays into back story. The cast of characters is small, but by the end of the book we know almost everything about them. Koepp has no qualms about taking a detour into their background, sometimes giving you extreme levels of detail that seem – at the time – irrelevant. If you feel that way when you read Cold Storage, just go with it. It’ll all make sense in the end, and the characterisation is essential to drag you along and really care about the characters. 

The second reason I found Cold Storage so engaging was Koepp’s writing style. It is very direct and easy to read. It would make the perfect holiday book (that is, if anyone is able to go on holiday in the current pandemic!). This is another aspect of Cold Storage that reminded me of a Crichton, and. Koepp’s style really dragged me in. 

I said that Cold Storage isn’t without its flaws. The story is very narrow, and this is where comparisons to Crichton or King falter. Cold Storage doesn’t expand on its premise; the fungus gets free, but it essentially only does so in the storage facility. We don’t, for instance, see the stakes heightened by a town becoming infected, or really feel the fear of the fungus getting to a populated region. (In some ways, the reverse occurs: the novel starts with the fungus loose in a town, and then it becomes contained in a much smaller storage facility.) The threat really depends on how much you care for the characters: they are the only ones facing and sort of peril. This is where, I feel, some of the bigger thriller or horror writers would’ve expanded the arc – and it would’ve been great to see Cold Storage develop into more of a zombie or military scenario. But it doesn’t, and it becomes clear at about the half way point that Cold Storage isn’t that brave. However, that said, the personal nature of the threat brings its own menace. I liked the characters a lot and the risk to them was enough for me. 

Overall, Cold Storage is an easy and highly entertaining read. It has a narrow plot and a fairly basic premise, but Koepp’s writing and the characterisations of the main cast were enough to keep me engaged throughout.