A marine legend turns terrifyingly real for the scientists and sailors of Mira Grant’s ‘Into the Drowning Deep’

June 18, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 18, 2019

Author’s note: This book review, and particularly the novel excerpt featured herein, concerns a horror story and may not be appropriate for younger or sensitive readers. MEM

The California-born author Seanan McGuire has published, by my count, more than 40 different books, a handful of essays and dozens of short stories — all this before her 42nd birthday. In a somewhat catty assessment, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction sniffs that “[t]he fluent copiousness of McGuire’s talent helps explain the rapid increase of interest in her work; but may also explain its occasional repetitiveness.”

Some 10 of McGuire’s novels appear under the nom de plume Mira Grant, which she adopted for reasons unclear to me. The most recent Grant book is 2017’s Into the Drowning Deep, an entertaining trifle about a research vessel that makes… well, not exactly first contact… with carnivorous human/fish hybrids that normally dwell in the deeps of the Pacific Ocean.

Grant assembles her voyagers aboard the Melusine, a spacious new research vessel that sets sail for the Mariana Trench in August 2022. The ship and expedition have been commissioned by Imagine Entertainment, a media empire with the approximate success and scope of Disney — although its aesthetics are more aligned with those of infamous C-movie studios like Cannon Films and the Asylum.

Melusine follows in the wake of the Atargatis. That ship had been sent to make a mockumentary about mermaids, but it lost contact with the outside world in May 2017. A few weeks later, Atargatis was found drifting and abandoned; notoriously, none of its crew or passengers were ever recovered. The U.S. Navy, which located the ghost ship, leaked a gruesome video suggesting that Atargatis had in fact run across the infamous aquatic cryptids of legend:

The camera swings as the cameraman runs. The deck of the Atargatis lurches in the frame, slick with a grayish mucosal substance. Splashes of shockingly red blood mark the slime. There has been no time for it to dry. There has been no time for anything. The cameraman is out of breath. He stumbles, dropping to one knee. As he does, the camera tilts downward. For a few brief seconds, we are treated to a glimpse of the creature climbing, hand over hand, up the side of the Atargatis:

The face is more simian than human, with a flat “nose” defined by two long slits for nostrils, and a surprisingly sensual mouth brimming with needled teeth. It is a horror of the deep, gray skinned and feminine in the broadest sense of the term, an impression lent by the delicate structure of its bones and the tilt of its wide, liquid eyes. When it blinks, a nictitating membrane precedes the eyelid. It has “hair” of a sort — a writhing mass of glittering, filament-thin strands that cast their bioluminescent light on the hull.

It has no legs. Its lower body is the muscular curl of an eel’s tail, tapering to tattered looking but highly functional fins. This is a creature constructed along brutally efficient lines, designed to survive, whatever the cost. Nature abhors a form that cannot be repeated. Perhaps that’s why the creature has hands, thumbs moving in opposable counterpoint to its three long, slim flingers. The webbing extends to the second knuckle; the fingers extend past that, with four joints in place of the human two. They must be incredibly flexible, those fingers, no matter how fragile they seem.

The creature hisses, showing bloody teeth. Then, in a perfectly human, perfectly chilling voice, it says, “Come on, Kevin, don’t you have the shot yet?” It is the voice of Anne Stewart, Imagine Entertainment news personality. Anne herself is nowhere to be seen. But there is so much blood…

The cameraman staggers to his feet and runs. His camera captures everything in fragmentary pieces as he flees, taking snapshots of an apocalypse. There is a man who has been unzipped from crotch to throat, organs falling onto the deck in a heap; three of the creatures are clustered around the resulting mess, their faces buried in the offal, eating. There is a woman whose arms have been ripped from her shoulders, whose eyes stare into nothingness, glazed over and cold; two more of the creatures are dragging her toward the rail. The cameraman runs. There is a splash behind him. The creatures have returned to the sea with their prey.

Melusine’s main mission is to prove that the Atargatis was lost in a bona fide nautical disaster, and that Imagine hasn’t perpetrated some kind of vicious hoax or sinister insurance scam. The company, represented on ship by an executive named Theo Blackwell, may have a secret agenda as well, although Grant seems to be reserving most of that thread for a possible sequel.

Much of the story is told from the perspective of marine-biologist-in-training Tory Stewart, the younger sister of the missing Anne, and Olivia Sanderson, “geek goddess and current professional face of the Imagine Network” — and, not incidentally, Anne’s professional successor. Another prominent character is notorious marine biologist Jillian Toth, a former radical environmental activist (think Greenpeace) who has polarized the scientific community over the years with her claims that mermaids are real. Other chapters are framed around the experiences of acoustics expert Hallie Wilson and her younger twin sisters, Holly the organic chemist and Heather the submersible pilot.

‘Into the Drowning Deep’ by Mira Grant, a.k.a. Seanan McGuire.

I didn’t find the character beats of Into the Drowning Deep quite as interesting as the author evidently hoped. But when battle is joined between the mostly unsuspecting humans and the carnivorous humanoid underwater dwellers, things grow rather gory. Grant has a few dramatic sequences and unexpected twists, including one big surprise at the climax. Fittingly, given the novelist’s evident proclivities, science and technical know-how play big roles in helping the characters escape a few jams.

Grant posits a near-future world where climate change has had catastrophic consequences — a bit oddly in my mind, considering when the novel was written. Despite the lurid horror story that powers Grant’s tale, the book suggests a few intriguing scientific concepts. One comes to light as Toth considers certain factors that might have affected some key tacks that Homo sapiens took over the course of its evolution. Another comes up when the characters mull the reasons why the mermaids — perhaps more properly labeled sirens, for grounds that are made crystal clear by the book’s conclusion — seem to be tangling with our species in modern times. (Spoiler alert: The depredations we’ve inflicted upon the ocean.)

Overall, Into the Drowning Deep makes for a solid summer read that has pretensions (not always realized) of being something a bit grander. It’s fairly entertaining — although I wouldn’t recommend it if you plan to go diving or take a cruise over any remote parts of the ocean any time in the near future…

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