Filler content from the ocean – Part 1

A review of an anthology and the first part of a feature on maritime mayhem that originally appeared in Black Static #51:-

STAY OUT OF THE WATER

Having covered most of the geographical areas of the British Isles in previous volumes of the Terror Tales anthology series, editor Paul Finch now turns his attention to the sea that surrounds this spectred isle for the enticingly titled TERROR TALES OF THE OCEAN (Gray Friar Press pb, 262pp, £9.99). Interspersed between the stories there are the usual treasure trove of non-fiction items that are a vital ingredient in making this series stand out from the crowd, each a fascinating snippet of information about aspects of the sea that hint at something beyond the things known of in our philosophy, with such subjects as monstrous beasties, the Flying Dutchman, and the Bermuda Triangle all discussed.

The fiction complement leads off with ‘Stuka Juice’ by Terry Grimwood, a story with more than a touch of the Indiana Jones about it, as a scientist is co-opted by the Nazis to recover a magical artefact from the seabed, but along the way Grimwood throws in references to legendary musician Robert Johnson of “deal with the Devil” fame, and band leader Glenn Miller, dumping a JCB worth of guilt on his philandering protagonist. It’s a winning mix of fact and fiction, one in which the entirely credible characters and the fantastical situation play off of each other, and in the presence of SS Officer Dietrich we have a memorable villain, somebody it feels good to hate. In ‘The End of the Pier’ by Stephen Laws a young boy’s grandad recounts how he got the burns on his arms when Brinkburn Pier burned down in 1931. It’s a tale that begins slowly and on a personal level, with an overly protective boyfriend out to settle scores with the up-himself yahoo who assaulted his lady’s honour, but then ratchets things up a notch to give us an ending that has Cthulhu’s lesser known cousins throwing a tentacle or two into the wheels of revenge. The story is thoroughly entertaining, not least because of the engaging voice of the protagonist, a man who is confronted with something that is far beyond his understanding, but whose determination to do the right thing carries him through.

The first of four stories first published elsewhere, Steve Duffy’s ‘Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed’ features an understated love triangle and ancient folklore, but the real thrust of the story lies in how the three people on board a fishing boat react when they rescue somebody from the sea who seems rather far gone. The moral dimension, with questions of how do we deal with the zombie menace is the most interesting aspect of a lively but ultimately predictable tale that had echoes of Carpenter’s The Fog about it. Taken at face value, it’s a lot of fun and nothing wrong with that, but part of me wishes that Duffy had explored the implications of the zombie survivor a bit more instead of so readily seguing into the maritime equivalent of a shoot ‘em up. In ‘The Seventh Wave’ Lynda E. Rucker gives us the first person account of an elderly woman haunted by the ghosts of her past and the things she has lost to the sea, a tale of abuse and love misplaced, the haunting, elegiac tone almost bordering on that of a fairy tale, and adding a subtle dimension of unreality and terror to what is taking place. At the end we are as unsure as the character herself appears to be as to what happened to her children on a deserted beach all those many years ago, and it is this uncertainty that grants the story its power.

‘Hippocampus’ by Adam Nevill is the most original of what is on offer, told from the perspective of an all seeing eye as it roams the halls and corridors of an apparently abandoned vessel, a setting in which everything appears placid at first, but with slowly building tension until we have the first gruesome signs of what has really taken place, culminating in a revelation that makes horrid sense of the story’s title. It is a magnificent performance, with Nevill delivering sufficient chills to make his method irresistible, in a story that in part reminded me of a sequence in Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables in which the narrative lens focuses on the dead body of Judge Pyncheon, but Nevill’s tale is far more horrific in what is ultimately laid bare to our disbelieving eye. In Conrad Williams’ subtle tale ‘The Offing’ the girl child Fearne is fascinated by the sea and the objects that it throws up, but this plays counterpoint to her relationship with an alcoholic mother and absentee father. Strongly conveyed is the atmosphere of the rundown seaside town in which the action takes place, with an almost apocalyptic sense of dread mounting as the narrative progresses, so that we anticipate a great wave that will sweep it all away, the story culminating in a tsunami of blurred imagery.

The best laid plans come undone in ‘Sun Over the Yard Arm’ by Peter James, as a wealthy retired couple set out to sail round the world, but complications set in, both emotional and mechanical. One of four previously published stories, this has a Roald Dahl feel to it, with wife Juliet realising that she doesn’t quite know husband Tony as well as she thought, and the subtext that even the most carefully plotted and idyllic existence can be prone to stray into uncharted territory. In ‘First Miranda’ by Simon Strantzas another married couple with problems go back to the seaside cottage owned by the wife in an attempt to heal the wounds in their relationship, or so the unfaithful Jules believes, but something far more sinister is taking place. With its revelation of a group mind at work, this story offers perhaps the most unworldly vision in the collection, one in which strangeness gives place to the terror of revelation and an ending from the just desserts school of horror fiction.

Third reprint, ‘The Derelict of Death’ by Simon Clark and John B. Ford tells of the fate of the crew of the vessel Jenny Rose, whose encounter with a derelict leads to ever increasing horrors. It’s an old style piece, the sort of thing I suspect William Hope Hodgson would have been happy to put his name to, with a convincing feel to the descriptions of nautical affairs and a sense of the nightmarish immensity of the ocean depths and the things that it might contain, and never less than entertaining. And no doubt some of those things would include Lovecraftian Old Ones, one of whose progeny appears in Jan Edwards’ story ‘The Decks Below’, in which an intelligence officer who specialises in the supernatural investigates what happened to the crew of a submarine. Reading between the lines, it seems clear that Captain Georgianna Forsythe has had other adventures, and this outing is a good advertisement for her back catalogue, with an original monster, some suitably repellent wet work, and an intriguing plot. The fourth and final reprint, ‘Hell in the Cathedral’ by Paul Finch has tourists on holiday in Greece falling prey to local cupidity and monster worship, a solid story with an engrossing plot and engaging characters, and given a certain gravitas by an attempt to tie it in with Greek mythology.

The last two stories are perhaps the strangest. There’s a surreal, dreamlike quality to Adam Golaski’s ‘Hushed Will Be All Murmurs’, set in a world overcome by fog and where a woman’s detached head rests on a beach. It’s a fascinating piece, with powerful and minatory imagery, but the sense of it all remained tantalisingly out of reach for me, the whole like a jigsaw from which several key pieces are missing. ‘And This Is Where We Falter’ by Robert Shearman is an elaborate confection of stories within stories, and central to it all the relationship between a vicar and a gravedigger, with a cemetery planted on a cliff above the sea, and memories of past unhappiness regarding water conflated with a narrative found written on the insides of coffins. At a push you can draw comparisons between the ocean as symbolic of death and the coffin a vessel in which we set sail, or perhaps not. It’s a lovely piece with which to end this anthology, a story that opens up even as the narrative seems to grow ever more cramped and claustrophobic, incorporating elements of the fable and familiar horror tropes, such as fear of being buried alive and the doomed ocean voyage, with a monster lurking below decks. I loved it, and this latest volume in the Terror Tales may well be the best yet.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

 

 

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