TITLE: The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea
AUTHOR: Ellen Datlow (editor)
GENRE: Horror, Short Stories
PUBLISHED: March 20, 2018
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
Humanity simultaneously loves and fears the ocean. For every story that presents the ocean as a tropical idyll or a means to adventure, there are others that present its dangers. The movie Jaws is a powerful, visceral reminder of the threats that inhabit the ocean, and though Titanic is more known for its love story, it is also an excellent reminder of how thoroughly human hubris collapses in the face of the threats the ocean presents. Even being near shore does not guarantee safety, since people can and often do die of things like riptides and jellyfish stings. And this does not even take into consideration the things that lurk deep in the ocean’s depths, in the places where humans have yet to explore.
The Devil and the Deep is an anthology of fifteen short stories that play on the darker side of both the human psyche and the ocean itself. In the Introduction, editor Ellen Datlow states that the stories in the anthology “cover a range of aspects of the sea and the shores around it,” but that ultimately all these tales are about “people, and how they deal with the mysterious entity surrounding us.” And as might be expected from a short story anthology, some of the stories manage to achieve that goal with aplomb, while others don’t do so quite so handily. What follows are my reviews of each individual story, for better or for worse.
Deadwater - Simon Bestwick
It’s the absences that get you, with any death. The gaps, the depths, the holes people leave behind: they’re what we mean by ghosts.
Generally speaking it helps to open a short story anthology with a bang, but this story is more akin to a whimper than the grand opening an anthology ought to have. More a murder mystery than a horror story, the potential of this story lies in the protagonist’s identity: whether she is, or is not, some kind of supernatural entity. The overall flatness of her suggests something of the alien: as if she is holding the world at arm’s length because she doesn’t quite belong in it. That would have made her an interesting protagonist – or it may be a sign that she is simply not as well-developed as she ought to be. That is a possibility, too, though whether or not that is some fault of the author or the result of the constraint of the short story format is not something I can say for certain since I have never read any of the author’s other work prior to this. I hope it is the latter, rather than the former.
Either way, the protagonist/narrator’s lack of development means that this story is only mildly interesting for reasons that have no bearing on the story at all, such as its atmosphere and the resolution of the murder mystery plot. As I have said, this is more a whimper than the grand opening a short story anthology ought to have – although, as perhaps the weakest story in the anthology, it might have been a good idea to put it at the beginning, so that the reader can get it out of the way before it spoils the rest of the anthology.
Fodder’s Jig - Lee Thomas
He eyed me with a blatant fabrication of concern and stepped closer to the fireplace. I allowed him a moment to enjoy his petty jab, seeing the remarks for what they were. A tormenter’s lies. A fiction he hoped would infect and linger and sting. It was the shitty move of a bested bully.
When he turned to face me, he was smirking. Perhaps he was attempting a sympathetic smile. Perhaps not. Wolves often looked as if they were grinning as they circled their prey.
“Thank you for your concern,” I said. “But your father and I fucked a lot, Barry. I didn’t catch anything.”
This story was certainly more interesting than the preceding story – partly because it revolves around a gay couple and partly because of the monster at the heart of the story. There are moments that remind me of the rhetoric surrounding the early years of the AIDS epidemic: how people talked about the disease despite knowing so little about it, as well as the way gay people (HIV-positive or otherwise) were treated both within and without the gay community.
The connection to the ocean is somewhat tenuous, but I am willing to forgive that because the whole point of this story isn’t the horrors of the deep so much as it is the horrors of discrimination during times of crisis. It also helps that the horror, when it is revealed, is sufficiently creepy (and gross) to make up for how loosely it is linked into the rest of the story. All in all, this isn’t quite the story I was expecting it to be, but it was nevertheless a treat to read – especially coming off the first story in this series.
The Curious Allure of the Sea - Christopher Golden
A Coastie put a hand on Jenny’s shoulder, trying to prevent her from boarding the Rose, but a cop intervened and the hand vanished. Her heart broke with the force of her gratitude. She had to see for herself. her father had always known the sea would take his life, but he’d always said it gave him life, too, so that would only be fair.
It didn’t feel fair.
This was another treat to read, though it’s not so much creepy as eerie. It plays with the idea of people falling in love with the sea – and the thin line between love and obsession. In line with that, it also tackles what happens when obsession becomes so overpowering as to become inescapable, and what happens to those who are the focus of those obsessions.
But for all of that, this is a story that is more notable for the way it has been crafted than for anything to do with character development or themes. That does not in any way make it any less lovely to read, but it is an illustration of how a writer’s craft can work great wonders for a tale – especially in the short story format. I wish this had been the first story in this anthology; it is precisely the kind of tale that can hook a reader and encourage them to keep on reading.
The Tryal Attract – Terry Dowling
The skull sat on a thin, dark blue cushion atop a waist-high mahogany stand. True to Will’s word about it being “out of view,” it was now set in the north-west corner between the tall, all-points windows, facing me as I entered the modest tower room.
“So no impressionable school kids can see,” Will said good-naturedly.
Given the nature of the sea and the stories told around it, I was not expecting to get a straightforward ghost story, and yet here it is – and told quite well, at that. It’s not a very complicated one, to be sure, but the author has done some rather wonderful things to create tension and suspense so that the urge to keep on reading is almost irresistible. This story, like “The Curious Allure of the Sea”, is more notable for the way it is crafted than for character development, or its inherent themes. Again, that does not make this any less pleasant to read, but it is really more interesting for the way it tells a tale than for the tale itself.
The Whalers Song – Ray Cluley
Osvald had his head turned to a sound he’s caught. The men are quiet with him, trying to hear it themselves. Sebjørn hears only the sea, sweeping down the shore. Raking over rocks.
Osvald shakes his head. “It’s gone,” he says. “The wind,” he says.
But to Sebjørn he does not sound certain.
This was the first truly entertaining story I read in the anthology. It tackles the history of whaling, both past and present, and tangles that up with the concept of whale songs as siren songs to make an immensely intriguing tale that is haunting and evocative. There were decades when humanity all but wiped out several whale species from existence – decades humanity spent murdering a potentially sentient species. What could be the possible consequences of those events? What would happen should that sentient species learn to strike back against its aggressors? It is those questions, along with the evocative beauty of this story’s prose, that I find most enjoyable about this tale. I recommend reading this while listening to recordings of whale songs (sperm whales, specifically), for that added extra layer of otherworldly eeriness.
A Ship of the South Wind – Bradley Denton
“Maybe we’ll be lucky,” Uncle JoJim said. He turned back to squint at the approaching riders again. “Maybe these men won’t be crazy.”
Charley thought that was a strange thing to say, and he was about to ask Uncle JoJim what he meant. But then he too looked back at the riders, and saw that their horses had started to gallop.
“Speak only if they speak to you first,” Uncle JoJim said. “And be polite.”
I am not quite sure where this story was trying to go, except perhaps to tackle the deeply-embedded racism against Native Americans that has plagued the United States since the first white person landed on its shores hundreds of years ago. Read from that perspective it makes for a sufficiently entertaining story, but it does not feel like a good fit for this anthology.
What My Mother Left Me – Alyssa Wong
… I’m monstrous, beautiful.
For the first time in my life, I feel whole.
This is one of the anthology's truly standout stories. I am familiar with the stories of selkies: women who shed their skins to walk about on land, and who are forced to remain on land by fishermen who find their skins and hide them away, forcing the selkie to live with him as his wife. A selkie is a creature of the sea but rendered tame and harmless.
This story reverses that. The selkie in this story does not quietly submit to the men that try to control her; instead, she rebels, she fights back – and finds her way back home, having rediscovered her inner wildness, her inner monster. She leaves the land behind, along with all its familiar comforts, but it is a sacrifice she is willing to pay in exchange for her self-discovery. The selkie refuses to be the victim – even if it means becoming a monster.
Broken Record – Stephen Graham Jones
Maybe a century ago you could get marooned for months or years or ever, but not in the modern world, right? Not with satellites watching, not with ships crossing back and forth every hour. Not with there not being any more undiscovered islands. Not with Margo looking for him.
Surely she would be.
I was expecting a castaway story in this anthology, and this is almost exactly what I expected – but with no fresh twist to it. To be sure, there is something terrifying about the madness that sets in, about the coils the human mind can spin itself into when a person is alone, how the endless days seem to melt one into the other until it can be hard to tell them apart, but it doesn’t do anything new with the idea of the castaway. The only thing notable about this story is the craft of it: how it describes and portrays the descent into and the repetitive nature of madness, as well as the nature of despair, and how it is the gasoline that keeps the engine of madness running.
Saudade – Steve Rasnic Tem
“… But you may never have even possessed the thing, or the someone, before. The one you yearn for may be a complete fabrication. We Brazilians are passionate, and we are in love with—how do you say?—tragic frames of mind. Saudade is part of our national character. Saudade, I suspect, is why many of these people are here. They hunger for something, someone .What is it that you long for, Lee?”
Trigger warning: suicide
This is more a sad story than a scary one, though I suppose it might be considered scary for someone who fears being alone in his or her old age. Because that’s what this story is about: going through life even though there’s really nothing left to live for, surviving day to day because that’s what one is supposed to do, even if the reasons for doing so are long gone. There is also a reason for that trigger warning because as someone who has struggled with semi-regular bouts of suicidal ideation, this story encouraged some rather black and soothing thoughts while I was reading it – not a combination I recommend for anyone trying to pull himself or herself from the brink.
Still, for those who are not susceptible to such thoughts or are able to curb them, then this is quite a lovely tale, lonely with a darker underbelly.
A Moment Before Breaking – A.C. Wise
A memory, like a blade driven through her skull. Underwater, she lived underwater, and there were things like the thing in the tank, things with needle teeth, hissing at her, hurting her. There are too many people inside her skin. A sob, bigger than a tidal wave, threatens to overwhelm her. Her entire body shakes—a cage, rattled from within.
In troubled times, it is always children who suffer. It doesn’t matter what kind of trouble is in the air; inevitably, it is the children who pay the highest price. And in our current reality of Presidentially-sanctioned “drug wars” and detention centres for “illegals”, children continue to pay a high price for a reality they had no part in creating and most assuredly do not deserve.
That is what this story is about: the price children pay when they are used by adults for their own ends – and the kind of anger that can produce, what kind of havoc that can lead to. It is also a sad, heartbreaking story, about two children who undergo immense suffering but somehow, someway, find comfort and solace in each other. This is another of the standout stories in this anthology, and very much a gem of a tale.
Sister, Dearest Sister, Let Me Show You to the Sea – Seanan McGuire
I am not unlovable. No one is unlovable. Many people say that I’m a good and valuable human being, the sort of person they’d like to have on their team when they need to get something done. I’m not unlovable, I’m not.
Sibling relationships are complicated and intense – mostly because it is almost impossible to escape one’s siblings. Sometimes they can turn out for the better, but sometimes they can turn out terrible.
This story shows just how badly sibling relationships can sour. The horror aspect is interesting of course (unsurprising, given that Seanan McGuire is also Mira Grant), but what is most intriguing about this story is the unreliable nature of the narrator. She protests quite strongly that she is a good person, that she acknowledges she has done her sister wrong and that she has tried to make amends – but since the reader does not hear from the wronged sibling, he or she cannot be sure if what the narrator is saying is actually true. It is up to the reader to decide if the narrator’s actions are appropriate – but even then, there is always that lingering question of doubt, about whether or not the reader’s approval is justified or not, and that can be just as terrifying as what the narrator does to her sister. This is another gem of the anthology and one that I read with relish.
The Deep Sea Swell – John Langan
“Will you stop?” Alan said, rapping the armrest again.
“You and your superstitions.”
“The middle of the ocean is not the place to test them.”
She supposed he had a point.
I have never been on a cruise ship before, but I have been on a yacht a few times in my life, and the cramped quarters below-decks can be quite eerie at night. I can easily imagine multiplying that tenfold for a cruise ship or ferry – and the kinds of nightmares that environment can breed in anyone with a healthy imagination.
It is that eeriness and the claustrophobic environs of the lower decks that the author uses to excellent effect in this story, enhancing it with tales of strange tides and lost civilisations: a delicious Lovecraftian thread that I am surprised did not appear in more stories in this anthology, given the nature of many of the Elder Gods in the Cthulhu mythos, to say nothing of Cthulhu himself. As a fan of Lovecraftian fiction, this story has whetted my appetite for more of this author’s work, and I really have to see about acquiring some more of his stories to read at another time.
He Sings of Salt and Wormwood – Brian Hodge
The deeper he sank, the more the pressure became like the slow tightening of a fist that would never relax. It had taken some reframing of the changes it made, seeing them as comforting rather than distressing. This is what happens down here. This is normal, another version of normal. No big deal, just the mammalian dive reflex: shifts of physiology so distinct, so foreign out of the water, so automatic in it, they could recalibrate a lifetime of thinking after a dive or two. Maybe we really do belong here.
Speaking of “Lovecraftian”, this is the other story in the anthology that has a distinct feel of that particular subgenre of horror. It has more or less the same nods to it as “The Deep Sea Swell” – hints of a lost civilisation, strange behaviour, and artefacts connected to the sea – but plays with them in an entirely different manner.
This story is also a meditation on whether or not humans belong in the sea at all, whether we ought to keep pushing into it or whether we ought to just stay on land where we belong. Even better, the main character is Hawaiian and a surfer-turned-free diver: a person, therefore, with a deep and intimate relationship with and connection to the sea. This combination of elements makes for an entertaining story – and the reveal in the climax will probably have readers looking askance at driftwood for a good long while.
Shit Happens – Michael Marshall Smith
There was a sudden and very loud growling sound, evidently from the guy’s guts. Then a splashing noise.
I mean, holy cow. One of the worst stenches I’d ever experienced. Maybe the worst. There’s that saying about how your own farts never smell as bad as other people’s, but seriously. This was bad.
I think everyone is susceptible to a little prurient humour every now and then, and this story certainly fits that bill if the reader is in the mood for such tales. I don’t think there is anything deeper to this story than pure entertainment, especially since it’s not all that scary and appears to have been written to poke fun at the trouble (gastrointestinal or otherwise) people can get into when they are on a cruise ship or at a conference. As pure entertainment, though, it functions exceptionally well, and readers who have had similar experiences to the narrator will likely find themselves smirking and nodding along – if bad and/or embarrassing memories don’t catch up to them first.
Haunt – Siobhan Carroll
The wind died. The sun stood overhead, vertical and bloody. Still the Minerva did not sink.
Swift’s throat was beginning to ache with thirst. He fumbled for a still-damp corner of his whiter. Tilting it to his mouth, he succeeded in squeezing free a drop or two.
“This is how it starts,” the Gunner said, watching him. … “When we are driven to drink salt water, that’s when the destruction comes.”
The oceans of the world are a mass grave – and many of those who died there, especially in the Atlantic, did so because they were forced to cross the sea against their will, enslaved to masters who cared nothing for their well-being except where it would turn a profit. While this is a ghost story, and can be scary because of that supernatural element, what is even more terrifying is what lies at the heart of it all: the atrocities committed during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The events portrayed in this story are largely historically accurate – and that, I think, is the true horror: that humans were able to perpetrate these atrocities on other humans. This story is an excellent way to close out the anthology, and more than makes up for the first one in the anthology with its depth and richness.
Overall, The Devil and The Deep is an eminently readable anthology of short stories, even though not all the stories are as interesting or enjoyable as they could be. Still, the gems that are in here, like “What My Mother Left Me”, “A Moment Before Breaking”, “Sister, Dearest Sister, Let Me Show You to the Sea”, “The Deep Sea Swell”, “He Sings of Salt and Wormwood”, and “Haunt” balance out the other stories that do not quite shine as brightly as I or other readers might like them to. Many of the authors in this anthology have also been published previously, and quite a few have written longer works like novellas and novels, so if the reader finds he or she enjoys the work of a particular author in this anthology, then he or she will likely have luck finding longer works by said author to enjoy.