Ginger Nuts of Horror
It has been said over the years that mankind has learned more about the farthest reaches of Earth’s solar system than the darkest depths of the planet’s oceans. That’s obviously an exaggeration, but an illustrative one nonetheless. A vast majority of this world, which we think of not just as our home but often as our property, remains alien to us. Deep beneath the waves, far from the light of the sun and protected by the crushing pressure of thousands upon thousands of feet, many mysteries remain despite our best attempts to illuminate them.
Thana Niveau knows better than to try shining a light on the subaquatic shadows of Unquiet Waters. Rather, in this collection (or “microcollection” as publisher Black Shuck Books has dubbed it, owing to its slim page-count and four-story lineup), she provides only fleeting glimpses of wet, shiny, strange things, daring our imaginations to envision more. Like the characters in Niveau’s tales, we are denied convenient explanations.
“To Drown the World,” the story which opens Unquiet Waters, introduces us to Evan and Lea, twins who are more different than they are alike. After growing up on Galveston Island, off the polluted coast of Texas, Lea remained at her childhood home while Evan wasted no time relocating inland. While Lea has become a field ecologist, researching climate change and Cambrian Period fossils, Evan is the type of guy who might assume the Cambrian Period is a type of punctuation. Finally, while Lea has always felt entranced by the ocean and its limitless potential, Evan is instead intimidated by what secrets surely hide in its rippling murk.
When Evan is suddenly summoned home by an erratic Lea, he is appalled to find her living in squalor. As she unveils her latest shocking scientific discovery, he is forced to wrestle with how his own abandonment of her might have led to her current mental state. What’s worse, there’s a storm on the horizon, one to make the waters rise and roil, and which threatens to swallow any who linger too close to land’s edge. Tragic and terrifying, “To Drown the World” dips its toes alternately into the pools of eco-horror, psychological horror, weird fiction, and even classic fairy-tales.
The much shorter “The Reflection,” proves less character-driven but even more surreal. A man named Allan wakes up from a dream of drowning only to find himself being pulled down into another kind of undertow, losing hold of his own life as someone else begins living it for him. Though the premise is straightforward enough that the reader immediately knows more or less how the story will play out, “The Reflection” is ultimately a satisfying exercise in ever-increasing dread.
“Raptures of the Deep,” defies any attempts to predict its narrative, with an effectively hypnotic account of two women lost in a vast blue void. Its horrors both starkly realistic and ambiguously mystical, the story sees diving enthusiast Jo taking her lovelorn friend Natalie far beneath the waves to swim with sharks. When the experienced Jo allows herself to become distracted by beautiful whalesong, though, she becomes separated from the novice Natalie.
The panic that sets in is palpable; it’s not hard to imagine how scary it would be to lose your bearings in a place where it’s so easy to forget which end is up and where breathing itself is a short-lived and perilous luxury. That said, what seems at first like a story of real-world danger soon morphs into something more lyrical, more otherworldly. One is left questioning how much of the tale might be the result of oxygen-deprived hallucination and how much might be the work of forces ancient, primal, and mystic. “Raptures of the Deep” is a definite highlight.
The only entry in this collection that shines brighter is the final one, “Where the Water Comes In,” about Tara, a woman obsessed with water in all its aspects. She takes scalding hot baths while simultaneously drinking fresh-brewed seaweed tea, contemplating that the only separation between the water within and the water without is her flesh. As the story goes on, that separation becomes less and less, and it becomes less a matter of flesh and more one of spirit. Awash with sensory details, “Where the Water Comes In” closes the collection on a transcendent note, immersing the reader within Tara’s twisting form so as to fully soak us in Unquiet Waters’ recurring themes of transformation.
At the end of the book, Niveau offers a too-rare treat in the form of author’s notes explaining the inspirations behind the stories. It’s a minor but enjoyable addition, one that only serves to strengthen the relationship between writer and reader.
Although this “microcollection” is short in terms of length, it’s very big in terms of imaginative, emotionally resonant storytelling. Niveau’s writing style manages an ethereal quality without sacrificing simplicity on the altar of purple prose. And while the stories themselves often set sail from familiar shores, the places they ultimately take readers end up being far beyond any map, places where, as the old sailors will tell you, “here there be monsters.”
Monsters, yes, and wonders, too.