Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Under The Water And Through The Woods

The Deep by Nick Cutter [Craig Davidson] (2015): Nick Cutter, the horror-writing pseudonym of mainstream Canadian writer Craig Davidson, became a James-Herbert-Award-winning nom-de-plume with the horror novel The Troop (2013). The Deep is the follow-up, with a jacket design that mimics that of The Troop despite their lack of similarities. Well, they're both mainly set on, under, or near water. So there you go.

A new disease nicknamed "The 'Gets'" (from "Forget") is ravaging humanity. Victims go from being forgetful to forgetting how to breathe in a matter of months. But through a series of events I'm not going to summarize, scientists discover that the cure for The Gets may exist at the deepest part of the ocean floor, in the Marianas Trench. So about a gazillion dollars goes into building an underwater science lab and an above-water support base. Three scientists go down. Things get weird. Communications fail. Underwater disturbances make it impossible to get back down to the station to investigate. One scientist comes up, dead and horribly mutilated.

So the authorities, at the request of a cryptic radio message from one of the two surviving scientists, round up his estranged brother, a divorced veterinarian whose only son disappeared without a trace a few years earlier. The vet doesn't know why his brother would have summoned him -- they haven't spoken in eight years and were never close to begin with. The brother down below is a super-genius (and a bit of a sociopath). Has their relationship changed? Are all great scientists in horror novels sociopaths?

Only one way to find out -- so down we go, eight miles down, to the Trieste underwater laboratory and the mysteries within and without.

As in The Troop, The Deep's strengths lie in fast-twitch plotting and an exuberantly hyper-caffeinated approach to the synthesis of its horror influences. Cutter doesn't invent new horrors, but he does throw so many old ones at the reader in sometimes strikingly odd combinations that the effect is often one of horror born of a startling novelty of contrast. 

To cite one example, The Deep presents scenes of horrified claustrophobia that riff on antecedents such as John Carpenter's version of The Thing, Alien, and a host of other works that present isolated people under siege by Terrible Things. But in the midst of this, scenes reminiscent of Stephen King's "The Boogeyman" suddenly break out. And then we're plunged into a backstory of the abused childhoods of the vet and his brother. And then back to a new supernatural or science-fictional horror. And for the bulk of the novel, this sort of on-going juxtaposition of science-fictional, supernatural, and psychological horror actually works.

Unfortunately, the engine blows up with about 100 pages to go. The novel seems to lose sight of its above-water McGuffin, The Gets, which have never been fully developed as a threat to humanity. Indeed, the novel could have functioned quite well without The Gets, given how under-developed and under-shown this plague is. Cutter's synthetic horror cavalcade begins to replicate the content of his influences too closely, with a scene lifted almost verbatim from Carpenter's The Thing being just one example. There's also a lengthy bit involving mutated honeybees that's a weak riff on George R.R. Martin's "Sandkings." And a riff on a bit from Stephen King's "The Raft" that gets used once too often. A lovable dog also wears out its welcome.

These failures might have been survivable had the last fifty pages not degenerated into Basil Exposition's Nude House of Wacky Body Horror. We finally learn the secrets of what has really been going on. Well, sort of. But we learn these things from anthropomorphized antagonists who cackle and snark like the bitchiest of Joss Whedon's bitchy Big Bads. We get a very, very old science-fictional and horror trope as an explanation for the horror's existence in the Marianas Trench. We get about 40 pages of Cutter doing a bad imitation of Laird Barron, one with neither menace nor wit but only a gushy, goopy tide of bodily atrocities. We get a damp squib of an ending. We get characters behaving as stupidly and helplessly as characters can act. The end. 

Oh, for a couple of flame-throwers or a convenient nuclear bomb. They too would be borrowings, but they'd be welcome borrowings. Nuke the sight from orbit. Absolutely goddamned right.

Oh, well. The Deep really is a page-turner for 80% of its not-inconsiderable length. However, if you're one of those people who get annoyed by tiny, short little chapters in the manner of The Da Vinci Code or a novel meant for fourth-graders, steer clear. These are some of the shortest chapters you're ever going to encounter in a novel aimed at adults. Lightly recommended.

The Blair Witch Project Dossier by D.A. Stern and others (1999): As with the In Search of... style 'documentary' that promoted The Blair Witch Project on the SciFi and Space Channels when the movie came out in 1999, this book is better than the movie it promotes. The Blair Witch Project Dossier comprises fake newspaper articles, interview transcripts, historical records, photos, period illustrations, and hand-written letters and journals. It's old-school documentary horror of which Poe or Lovecraft might have approved. 

There's real wit here, whether in a name-check of one of Lovecraft's creepy backwoods characters or in subtle and fascinating implications dotted throughout the historical portions of the text. These things suggest a horror much larger and older than that which we see in the movie. They also offer a context for the scenes in the house that makes the events of the movie seem even worse. However, no explanation is offered for why those two bozos are fishing in two inches of water. Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. "They also offer a context for the scenes in the house that makes the events of the movie seem even worse."