Dead Sea Chronicles by Tim Curran (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

DeadSeaChroniclesDead Sea Chronicles is a collection of two novellas, “Weed-World” and “Devil in the Deep”, each set in the universe of Tim Curran’s 2007 novel Dead Sea. Not having read the original book, I came to this follow-up with no particular expectations.

“Weed-World” opens with the private jet of wealthy playboy Marcus Dupont breaking down in the middle the ocean and having to make an emergency landing on the sea’s surface. Marcus and his band – his secretary Ava, his yes-man Brice, his pilot Bisson and the story’s everyman protagonist Ethan – find themselves in a strange area where there is no wind, and the water is coated with dead seaweed of various unusual varieties. It soon turns out that dangerous creatures lurk beneath the thick weed – as Bisson, who tries to swim to the plane’s life-raft, learns the hard way when an unseen monster pulls him below the depths.

At first, “Weed-World” looks like the sort of story that will be easy to peg. The cast consists of an unmitigated douchebag, multiple shades of acolyte and a single likeable character to act as audience-identification point, with the narrative voice continually reminding us of the ensemble’s shortcomings (“The only way [Brice] could have sucked more ass on Marcus was if he had a bigger mouth with a vacuum attachment”). So, in short, a selection of disposable stock characters are placed into a Jaws-multiplied scenario. Entertaining, perhaps, but hardly remarkable.

Then things start to get interesting. The first twist takes the form of a gradual realisation that the survivors are menaced not merely by a single predator, a species of predators or even multiple species of predator, but multiple species that share a single symbiotic intelligence. The partly-glimpsed creatures show a collective cunning and even sadism, as when they use Bisson’s corpse as a gruesome puppet to taunt his cohorts:

It broke the surface, standing straight up, a ruptured carcass that leaked gouts of water. His left arm was missing and his face was peeled like an apple, right down to the skull. Much of the meat of his perforated torso was gone, torn away by what looked like ragged bites and his ribs were visible, glistening in the flashlight beams. […] Then, the grisliest thing began to occur: he bobbed up and down like some crazy, gruesome Jack-in-the-Box on a spring, his head bouncing from shoulder to shoulder, the flap of his tongue slapping fatly out of his sprung jaws like a swollen pond leech.

One of the main virtues of “Weed-World” is that it turns out to be smarter than its characters. This is a story that achieves the rare feat of capturing the Lovecraftian touch of genuine strangeness; but it wisely avoids making direct references to Lovecraft’s mythos (although a vast tentacled monster exists in the sea, we never learn if it is that tentacled monster). Instead, the story invokes Fortean folklore of the Bermuda Triangle and UFOs. The survivors begin witnessing not only creatures in the sea but strange lights in the sky, and later find that their plane is not the sole vessel in the Dead Sea: an antique sailing ship is also trapped, its hold containing mummified bodies and a logbook that witnesses madness.

By that point, the once-simplistic characters have begun to show new sides, fracturing and fragmenting under pressure. Brice can no longer get ahead by sucking up to his boss. Ava, introduced as a one-dimensional bimbo, becomes a subject of pity: having been brought up to get by on her looks and to stake her entire life on the prospect of marrying a wealthy man, she has learnt no independence or self-assertion. Marcus undergoes the heaviest changes as the story progresses, initially clinging to his can-do persona despite the fact that his money and influence are of no use, and later being ground down to the point of mentally regressing to a chilhood.

The story has enough ambiguity and intangibility to allow for further outings in the same setting – which brings us to the collection’s second novella, “Devil of the Deep”.

The initial premise of this story is essentially the same as that of “Weed-World”, with another group of characters getting lost in the Dead Sea, albeit with some minor changes: they arrive by boat rather than plane, and instead of a antique sailing-ship that is miraculously preserved, the action reaches a cutting-edge vessel of circa 2019 that has somehow acquired decades’ worth of mould and decay. But far from a mere retread of the previous story, “Devil in the Deep” has a tone of its own.

The characterisation is less noisy, the atmosphere thicker, the creatures glimpsed in the fog somehow still stranger. Furthermore, the inhuman intelligence within the Dead Sea finds even more twisted ways of tormenting the lost travellers. While exploring the derelict ship, the characters find the bloated, headless, limbless torsos of the crew hanging from fish-hooks; initially they are swinging “back and forth like sides of beef, throwing distorted, leaping shadows”, and they soon begin “pulsating, throbbing like human hearts.” The sight grows worse still:

The swinging torsos began to vibrate and convulse, one of them—the nearest—sheering open and raining a gray, vile slop of what looked like blood and sea-slime, fish scales and rotting sea grass. And then something else emerged, something unimaginable: a hand, a tiny hand that looked soft and rotten like the pallid flesh of a mushroom.

 

The creature born from the sundered torso turns out to be “an embryonic, unformed thing that looked very much like a human fetus save that it was not a healthy pink, but a pale mottled gray, scaled like a carp” and with tentacles instead of legs.

“Devil in the Deep” is longer than “Weed-World”, and allows its characters to get closer to the true nature of the intelligence that haunts the Dead Sea. But at the same time, it knows when to stop, the reader being left with no more than a partial glimpse of the nightmare – and as in any good horror story, that glimpse is sufficient.

Dead Sea Chronicles is a bravura piece of work, accessible even to readers unfamiliar with the original novel.

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