Trench Mouth opens with a series of vignettes in which various characters – partygoers on a beach, the crew of a submarine, the population of a cruise liner – get too close to the sea and end up as meals for enormous, deadly creatures. Something has made the ocean angry, but what…?
We get an inkling of the answer when the action switches to an undersea research facility headed by Dr. Margot Yale. Things seem innocuous enough at first, as Yale’s colleagues Hobbs and Rafaelia squabble over what names to give the environment and sea life that they are monitoring. Hobbs, a dyed-in-the-wool geek who inherited the tastes of his parents (his name is short for “Hobbit”), has “fluent in Elvihs” on his CV and comes up with names like “orc-shark” and “balrog-squid” for new species. Punkish, octopus-tattooed Rafaelia, meanwhile, favours names like “dat-boi shrimp” and “Squidward”. Another of Yale’s colleagues, Vance, is interested less in the local fauna and more in the human volunteers who also inhabit the facility, and his nickname for them is uncompromising: ”guinea pigs.”
The guinea pigs come from varied walks of life. Lenka was an Olympic swimmer, but was disqualified after tests she claims were falsified. Ellen and Nikos are a married couple, described as resembling a stereotyped “sitcom mom” and a Meditteranean hunk retrospectively, whose past has a dark secret involving the death of Ellen’s first husband. Hunter and Tanner, known collectively as “the Bros”, are a pair of frat boys who trade in crass YouTube pranks. Their acquaintance Reggie found a degree of infamy by filming and uploading a video of his girlfriend being gang-raped by dolphins; he now regrets this, although the Bros still find it hilarious. Shandee performed as a mermaid at an aquarium, but was fired after too many spectators complained that “mermaids can’t be black”. George and Scott are an estranged father and son whose reunion is extremely awkward – not to mention violent.
The novel’s portrayal of scientific enquiry does touch upon some serious themes, from the potential of sea-based civilisation in an era of rising water levels to Yale’s practice of recruiting colleagues who are stuck with questionable projects after facing prejudice in mainstream STEM. But Trench Mouth is ultimately a saga of mad science: it eventually becomes clear that the purpose of the “guinea pigs” is to be engineered into amphibians. They make a speedy adaptation to their new environment; Shandee has the opportunity to prove the world wrong by showing that there can be black mermaids after all, while Nikos and Ellen find a new angle for their sex life:
On land, her knees would have buckled, but here, she could let herself go neutrally buoyant, Nikos holding her in place as he entered her from behind. Instead of moans and gasps, they were awash in galvanic and other sensory stimuli, his pulsating bioluminescence matching the increasing pace of his thrusts, her ribbon-fins undulating with each clasping flex of her loins.
Alas, the group is not alone in the sea, and its members inevitably begin falling victim to the lethal denizens of the deep. The death sequences in the novel are characterised not only by graphic gore but also by a pervasive tone of nihilistic snark. At one point we read of a giant squid doing to one man’s skull “what that cartoon owl did to the Tootsie Pop in the old commercial. Skip the ‘one, tuh-whoo, three!’ licks, just motherfuckin’ CHOMP. Half his head gone, amid a murky cloud of blood and cerebrospinal fluid and mushy overcooked-oatmeal-looking lumps”. With each death, the survivors are faced with such concerns as how to write a letter to the next-of-kin “that doesn’t come off sounding like something from one of those sepia-toned Civil War documentaries”.
While the mutations and mayhem are going on, the characters’ backstories bubble to the surface, and none are more memorable than the ongoing saga of the frat-boy dolphin video. The footage takes on a new dimension when the test subjects pick up the ability to understand dolphin speak, and so learn exactly what the aquatic rapists were saying: “We gonna get some of that leg-walker action?” “Oh yeah, nice milk-sacks, that’s what I’m clicking about!” “Teasy she-breather, you know you want it!”
Hunter is still capable of justifying his role, as we see in a long internal monologue that segues from Michelle’s beachfront humiliation to Hunter’s general attitude toward women (“if he hooked up with a drunk hottie, was it his fault?”). Tanner, on the other hand, comes to reconsider his outlook, and an awkward combination with Shandee and Lenka forces him into self-reflection on the times he betrayed his conscience so as to avoid being called a triggered virtue-signalling snowflake. Reggie, meanwhile, is in no mood to forgive the exploitation of his girlfriend, and the experiments have left him in a prime position to avenge her. What starts as a gross-out joke about dolphin rape becomes a lens through which the story analyses both its characters and wider cultural attitudes towards sex, reaching an oddly poignant conclusion as Hunter clings to his simple-minded dudebro comforts even when faced with undersea death.
The novel makes frequent use of pop-culture reference points. Some flow naturally from the characters, as with Hobbs’ Lord of the Rings preoccupation, while others come from the narrative voice. The research facility, for example, is described as being “somewhere between Star Trek sterile and the complex in that stupid let’s-make-their-brains-bigger-oh-wait-now-they’re-smart shark movie; better appointed and far less grubby than the underwater oil rig in The Abyss, more compact and sensible than the facility in that foolish Meg movie.” This is common enough in Christine Morgan’s writing, but at her best, she uses these references ot create a contrast: in Lakehouse Infernal, the allusions to Disney cartoons add to the weird atmosphere as the novel is anything but a Disney cartoon. In Trench Mouth, a story that already somewhat resembles The Meg, directly mentioning The Meg runs the risk of seeming referential for the sake of being referential.
The excerpts quoted thus far may give the impression that Trench Mouth is, cover to cover, the prose equivalent of a song by the Bloodhound Gang. In fact, the tone is more varied than might be expected. Interspersed with the exploits of the human characters are sombre, straight-faced chapters written from the perspectives of sea creatures reacting with curiosity to the interlopers from the surface. One sequence details a giant squid’s attack on a submarine:
His suckers slip and lose purchase against a substance smoother than anything he’s ever felt, smoother than abalone, smoother than that long-ago female’s opaline skin. Smooth, yet hard, harder than one of the great mollusks that bask in the thermal upwellings. His barbs scrape but don’t scratch, their sting smearing useless.
Is it impervious? Is it alive? It seems alive; he detects a definite heartbeat, fast and almost frantic. Hosts of weird noises assault his senses. The vibrations of the thing in his grasp, its texture, its strength … he is thrilled, relishing this moment of triumph and awe. And yes–as he turns it, one of his eyes sees through not-flesh clearer and firmer than a translucent jelly–there is life within it! Something four-limbed and scrawny, with a ridiculous hairy knob like a head, something with its own front-face eyes staring back at him and its blunt-toothed mouth gaping.
Given its confined setting and monster-movie-elevator-pitch premise, a reader could be forgiven for going into Trench Mouth expecting something brisk and punchy. In truth, this is a fairly long novel by the standards of the genre – 339 pages in paperback, compared to the 180 pages of Morgan’s earlier Spermjackers from Hell – and it takes its time in establishing its broad set of characters This leaves little room for a sharp pace; indeed, the novel’s structure can be compared to the Jaws theme being played on a loop: rising tension, increasing unease, and then back to the start. Even when the character deaths begin, their impact tends to sink back into the stream-of-trashmouth banter.
The size of the novel, partnered with its even pace and overwhelming tone of lip-curling snark (even if broken up by the musings of giant squid) may make Trench Mouth a long haul for some readers. But even a detractor could hardly accuse the novel of purporting to be something other than what it is. From its earliest chapters, Trench Mouth makes clear that its main concern is in housing pop culture addicts with mad scientists, dim-bulb dudebros with hapless victims of prejudice, shady agendas with weird backstories – all in a confined space that can be shaken up like a can of pop and cracked open. Nothing fizzes out that was not there to start with.
And the novel’s final scene makes for a pitch-perfect conclusion.