Content Warning: mention of animal death.
Cold Storage is David Koepp’s first novel, but odds are good that you’re familiar with his work as a writer in a different medium. As a screenwriter, he adapted Jurassic Park for the big screen and wrote the David Fincher-directed thriller Panic Room. As a writer-director, he channeled the menace and social commentary of vintage Twilight Zone with his film The Trigger Effect and told an unsettling ghost story with Stir of Echoes, his adaptation of Richard Matheson’s A Stir of Echoes.
It will likely shock no one to hear that Cold Storage, a novel about the effort to contain a mutated versions of the cordyceps fungus, has a decidedly cinematic quality.
Cold Storage opens in 1987. A pair of government operatives, Roberto Diaz and Trini Romano, link up with a scientist, Dr. Hero Martins. Something odd is happening in an isolated Australian town—something pertaining to a fragment of Skylab that fell to earth years before. The trio venture there, the dynamic among them constantly shifting: Diaz flirts with Martins, Romano hassles the very married Diaz, and so on. When they do arrive in the small town, they find a horrific scene and a new organism: a supercharged fungus dubbed Cordyceps novus. And things go very, very wrong.
In this section, which effectively serves as a long prologue for the present-day segment that follows, Koepp establishes a complex grid of relationships among his characters. He also eludes easy expectations: he does a variation on a familiar scene, in which someone is unwittingly infected by a sinister organism—but in his telling, the person infected immediately figures out what’s gone wrong, and acts accordingly.
The 1987 sequence ends with Cordyceps novus hidden away in frigid temperatures in a government facility. And then thirty years have passed; the project’s advocate no longer holds sway, and that facility is sold off to become self-storage units. And that’s how Teacake and Naomi, a pair of security guards, find themselves in a position where, as the saying goes, the fate of humanity is in their hands.
It’s not hard to imagine this same storyline working on the big screen. Koepp does take advantage of the structure of the novel to, for certain scenes, double back in time and reveal some other facet of a particular confrontation—or even what the fungus was doing at a particular moment. But aside from the novel’s blockbuster tendencies, there’s also a gleefully bleak sense of humor running below the surface of the novel, which makes for some of its most memorable scenes.
To begin with, there are the circumstances that cause the fungus to be loosed on the world again: a blend of governmental neglect and global warming. There are scenes of the fungus directing people and animals to spread it—which leads to one particularly memorable scene in which a dead cat returns to life, climbs a tree, and explodes. There’s the tendency of infected humans to attempt to spread the fungus by, well, vomiting on the uninfected. This is the kind of story where the jaded protagonist—Diaz shows back up in the present day, and the years have only made him more resourceful—pulls off a host of action setpieces that would thrill any stunt coordinator. But Koepp never loses sight of the fact that there’s something fundamentally ridiculous about the fungus’s (literally) single-minded plan to propagate itself.
The self-storage setting also allows Koepp to introduce a host of other supporting characters, from Teacake and Naomi’s ethically dubious boss to an elderly woman with a sideline in doomsday prepping. It’s a familiar scenario: the unlikely ensemble who are the world’s last hope, even if they don’t realize it. But Koepp’s storytelling chops keep this narrative from ever falling too far into cliche—and when he starts to, there’s also bizarre body horror aplenty to offset it. And thankfully, Koepp also understands that having a ragtag group of heroes trying to save the world only resonates if you actually care about the characters. In the end, he does; in the end, he makes the stakes feel real.