Ghost Ship Blues
Author: Darcy Coates
Darcy Coates is best known for her haunted house stories . . . but when she steps outside of the ghostly confines of vine choked houses into her more creative works, she truly shines. I discovered Coates through Parasite, a sci-fi horror compilation of interrelated short stories that captured the nature of isolation and the slow dread of a villain that can literally wear your face, as in John Carpenter’s The Thing.
In From Below, that otherworldly aura of isolation and abonnement truly shines. A team of five divers, each in desperate situations, have accepted a dangerous assignment. An old ship has been found, deep in the most forgotten part of the ocean. Experts suspect that it is the S.S. Arcadia, a luxury ship that disappeared after a strange call for help in 1928. Cove, the leader of the expedition, is destined to take four people 300 feet below sea-level to explore and film the ship. They have to get a certain about of film to get paid – and for various reasons they all desperately need the money – so when things go from creepy to dire, they keep making the dive, keep uncovering old and terrible secrets.
From Below starts as it means to go on: subtle and scary. There are two timelines. The here and now as the crew – one of whom is VERY unexperienced and trying to hide it – are making tension inducing dives, slowly realizing that something isn’t quite right about this wreck. Something happened, a long time ago, and the deeper in the ship they go, the stranger the messages on the wall become (they’re in the walls!). And then there are the eerie bodies they find, floating as though they are about to awaken. Meanwhile, in a parallel time long ago, we get snippets of the Arcadia’s slow descent into fear and insanity, behind-the-scenes explanations for what literally created a ghost ship. It’s not pretty, and it is far from over.
This is a long, very long story. In book form, its over 400 pages and in Audible format, it’s over 12 hours. This gives it time to grow the characters, especially Aiden (my favorite), the inept diver whose desire to prove himself nearly costs everyone everything, and Vanna, the dive instructor with a truly creepy diary and a heartbreaking backstory. It also gives Coates the time to create a perilous underwater atmosphere,
with all the creepy details and paranoia inducing scenes that will strobe through readers minds on repeat: now you see it, now you don’t. The problem? Four hundred odd pages gives the author enough time to do all this – create all this perfection – and decrease its effectiveness with pure repetition. The characters return to the ship four times, and while the logic for why they do so is (mostly) there, I found myself starting to detach just as events went from spooky to horrifying.
Slight spoiler here – those ship bound dead aren’t quite as dead as they first appear. Or perhaps I should say, they are just a bit undead. At first, this is just the right amount of spooky combined with nerve wracking get-out-of-there thrills. But then it keeps going on, endless near misses among increasingly more “awake” dead until it loses uniqueness. My mind started to wonder. . . . oh, they are split up and all about to die . . . again. Ok, yep, scary, but been there. I felt bad for this inattention, because the quality and story line is there, but apparently there is too much of a good thing. Less would have been more effective, more memorable, more horrific.
Nevertheless, From Below is still a solid offering with a, dare I say it, haunting focus. Coates excels when she steps away from her creepy mansion motif and goes somewhere utterly bizarre and forbidden, be it to the outermost posts of an isolated space station or the depths of the ocean. The “why” behind the Arcadia’s secrets makes a weird kind of sense, the characters are strong, and the conclusion is a “good” ending to a bad situation. If only there had been a bit more editing – more excising to keep the drama tight – then this would have been among Coates’ best works. Still, From Below is worth a read for both horror and Coates fans.
– Frances Carden
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