Ghost ships are not necessarily the haunted things horror movies make them out to be, crawling with pirate ghosts or whatnot. They are simply vessels found that have no crew or passengers. They may well be haunted, but it is more often by mystery than rampaging specters. There is a creepiness to such vessels, floating all alone across the great oceans of the world, and both the mystery and the inherent tragedy behind such vessels can be fascinating. Mira Grant’s novella ROLLING IN THE DEEP makes good use of the topic, kicking off with “footage” from a documentary aired on the Imagine Network (a cure stand-in for the SyFy network) about a modern day ghost ship called the Atargatis. Grant’s story then relates the fate of that ship over the course of five sections, each again separated not only by a title page but by bits of the documentary that attempts to understand what happened to that ship. The doom is inevitable, much as with Dan Simmons’ dark fantasy take on the Franklin expedition’s search for the northwest passage in his historical-based thriller THE TERROR.
The Atargatis was a deep see vessel, you see. When the strange incidents coalesced into an erasure of all hands aboard, the ship had plenty of hands. In addition to carrying her normal captain and crew, the Atargatis was carrying an Imagine network camera crew, a television reportage personality, plenty of scientists, auxiliary folks, and a group of performers called the Blue Seas troupe, who wear prosthetic tails and make a living as professional mermaids for water-themed venues. The vessel was chartered as part of an Imagine network exclusive show, which posited a visit the Marianas Trench in the hopes of catching live footage of real mermaids. Perhaps I should have said, “in search of” live footage of real mermaids, since the documenatary seems to be a modern spin on the classic show hosted by Leonard Nimoy. If real fish-people could not be located, then some saucy pics of fake ones would do for the ratings. What the ship found was a horror that left her completely lifeless . . .
Written in a style reminiscent of a found footage horror movie with a pretty killer budget, Mira Grant’s novella packs a lot of characters, events, and some bloody monster movie horror into a compressed length. As with her novella, FINAL GIRLS, reviewed on this site in September, we find a nice mix of interests and character based drama here. The science is unembarrassing, the emotions are authentic enough to give readers a stake in the mounting tension, and Grant does her expected job of making her characters are more than simple shills to be gutted by an aquatic horror.
Grant excels at writing interesting, likable scientist characters, and there are plenty to choose from with a variety of scientific interests in ROLLING IN THE DEEP. Grant knows that the title “scientist” is not the general practitioner role it was once played out as in the cheesy but lovable 1950s science fiction movies. These days, scientists are more often specialists, and the expedition pulls in a lot of specialists into the fold in its search. It trades money and publication opportunities (about each researcher’s specialized field) in exchange for the potential career-suicidal embarrassment of being connected to a search for mermaids.
As well, the professional mermaid entertainers are a surprise treat. Sure, they could just be a bunch of scantily clad babes who get into dangerous waters that so many aquatic-set b-movies require. However, in Grant’s capable prose, these ladies have more depth than simple bimbos whose only purpose is to be threatened by monsters with groping hands and gnashing teeth. There is real sympathy for these career gals who are in love with swimming and with the art of making mermaid-dreams into a reality.
Being a professional mermaid took skill, dedication, and a lot of hard work: it wasn’t just a matter of slapping on a neoprene tail and jumping into the water. Every woman in the troupe was a certified lifeguard, and had taken and passed at least three different diving certification programs. Several of them could hold their breath for up to five minutes underwater, and all of them knew how to breathe in via an oxygenated tank. Free diving was a requirement for any mermaid who wanted to go below ten feet. It wasn’t easy. Nothing good ever was. (location 508)
The only non-sympathetic character in the story is a douche-bag television producer who is more interested in his shoot than in safety. He’s the kind of guy most readers hope will come to a miserable end because of the misery he sows around him.
The writing contains details about captaining this kind of vessel, being a scientist caught in the publish or perish model, making a living as a mermaid fantasy performer, and more. However, these details add layers to dramatic sequences and therefore don’t feel like unnecessary asides or padding. Take this piece about the requirements for being a television celebrity:
Being a professional tautologist paid well enough that she was planning to stick with it as long as she could. Knowing just what shade of Felicia Day red to dye her hair, and what glasses to wear to give herself the exact right combination of cute, approachable, and “I know something you don’t know” was all part of the game. (location 79)
It’s got a few touchstones that geek culture can relate to, but ultimately it gives us a real sense of this character. She knows what she needs to do to keep working, and while the goalposts continue to move as she pursues her career, she’s savvy enough, clever enough to keep on top of things. Again, this for a role that could easily be filled with an airhead if this were a movie.
The plot is a hungry one, moving as relentless as a shark from the Atargatis’ initial launch through its voyage and then to the point of no return, when the reasons behind the vessel’s ghost ship fate is revealed.
Although a novel has since been announced that follows the events in this story, ROLLING IN THE DEEP stands alone quite well. The plot has a beginning, middle, and end, and while it leaves a few things open, it does enough heavy lifting to give the story proper doses of solid stakes, emotional gravitas, and gleeful mayhem.
The suspense is well executed. From the opening, we have a ship as a scene of some unspeakable crime. We have footage that might have been manufactured for ratings. These elements give us a hint of the end, and as we meet the many characters, those elements remain lingering around them. While some readers will prefer not to attach themselves to the characters for fear of losing them to some horrible demise, it is difficult to remain aloof from all these people. They are so damned likeable.
Of course, that’s part of the fun right? Readers prefer to have challenges happen to folks we like, so we can see them triumph (if only momentarily) based on their own abilities. Of course, the fiction of fear such as Grant writes is chock full of terrible things happening to likeable folks. This is definitely one of those books. Although Grant is no splatterpunk writer, the sort of writer who focuses a narrative lens on borderline gratuitous levels of dismemberments and bloodletting, she is not afraid to have monsters running amok and doing terrible things. And even those monsters have a rather believable motivation involving predatory territoriality. If there are a few too many of the creatures for any one predator’s stomping ground, well that only makes for more shocking entertainment in the final act and can be forgiven.
I like to see Mira Grant at play. A novella such as this lets her (and her alter ego Seanan McGuire) play with folklore, journalism, and science, the three passions that drive much of that author’s output. This chilling take on the subject of mermaids or as one character mistakenly puts it
“We said ‘pretty women in the sea,’ and that was good enough, because who doesn’t want there to be pretty women in the sea? We turned monsters into myths, and then we turned myths into fairy tales. We dismissed the bad parts. We were too interested in . . . in . . . in pretty women in the sea.” (location 969)
is an engaging read. It is definitely for readers looking for something that takes about the same time to consume as a SyFy movie but with better special effects, characterizations, and plotting.
Mira Grant’s fun spin on mermaids was released as a Subterranean Press limited hardcover, once upon a time. Those suckers are expensive as all getout these days. Wish I had grabbed one when they were released. However, the story is still available in an eBook format, which is how I read it. The cover art is a stunner by Julie Dillon.
A quick aside, in case anyone was wondering. There are no disclaimers about all these Sub Press books I have been reviewing. No, “I was given this copy in exchange for a review” nonsense. Subterranean Press does not give me contrib copies of their books. I have simply been a long time reader of their works. Although there are numerous specialty houses, many of which I have purchased books from, Sub Press really does a great job of producing books that often match my own tastes, interests, and hobby horses. Oddly enough, they are also based out of the same state as where I was born and raised, which pleases me to no end. If you have not checked out their output, drop by their site and check them out. They may be pricy for their hardcovers, particularly for non-collector types—but the editions are worth the costs. Also, they have a great supply of eBook versions that are happily error free (mostly) thanks to rigorous quality control.
Next week, I aim to shift over to a non-Subterranean Press release from Mira Grant’s alter ego Seanan McGuire. Some years back, I reviewed SPARROW HILL ROAD (still available in paperback/eBook/audiobook), a fix up novel of chilling episodes about hitchhiking ghost Rose Marshall. Well, the sequel novel hit stands earlier this year. I will be checking out THE GIRL IN THE GREEN SILK GOWN for my pre-Hallowe’en release. Grab a copy of the eBook or paperback (no audiobook edition yet) for a sneak preview.
Grant, Mira. ROLLING IN THE DEEP. Burton, MI: Subterranean Press. 2015.