Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Popping down to the Med? Be sooo careful!


Well … it’s the height of summer, as if you hadn’t realised, and lots of lucky people are heading off on holiday, or, if not that, are lapping up the lovely sunshine here. So, in keeping with that spirit, I thought that I too would take a break from the self-promotion trail this week, and instead of talking at length about anything I might have coming up, I’d whisk us all down to the Mediterranean, for the third installment of my personal GAZETTEER OF STRANGE AND EERIE PLACES.

Yes, we’re on the mystery hunt again, but this time in the realm of what was once called the ‘Roman Lake’ and all the rugged, sun-kissed lands adjoining it.

In that same spirit of blue sea, blue sky and strange beings lurking just beyond this façade of loveliness, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Mira Grant’s fine novel of oceanic terror, INTO THE DROWNING DEEP.

If you’re only here for the Mira Grant review, scoot down to the lower end of today’s blogpost, where you usually find such things. If, however, you’ve got time for the other stuff too, stick around here for a bit.

The Brasshouse

Before we get on to my latest round-up of strange and scary places, just a quick mention – I only promised not to talk about this kind of stuff AT LENGTH, remember – of a special visit I’ll be making to one of the oldest and most famous pubs in Birmingham, The Brasshouse on Broad Street, at 3pm this coming Sunday. 

This is a ticketed ‘Meet the Author’ event, which has been organised as part of the 35th annual Birmingham Jazz Festival. Now, jazz and thriller-writing don’t always go together, you’ll probably think, but on this occasion they do, as The Brasshouse, one of the main hubs of the festival, figures at the start of my eighth novel, SHADOWS. A young chap enjoys a few bevies there before setting out alone … to meet his fate on the dark, rain-soaked streets of the West Midlands capital.

And now, as promised, let me take you all to a place where it rarely ever rains …

Chilling in the Med

At the commencement of this year, I started a new occasional feature on this blog: My Own Gazetteer of Strange, Eerie Places. It all began last January with a run-down of my top 20 strange and scary places in Britain and Ireland. It drew a lot of response, all of it positive … so much so that later on, in May, I took the obvious next step and ran a second installment, this time looking specifically at Western Europe.

Again, this went down well with readers, who hit the blog hundreds of times and sent me various votes of approval via Facebook, Twitter etc. It’s now my plan, in due course, to go all around the world. But that can’t be done quickly or easily, and I have no written-down schedule as yet, so, you’ll just need to keep on checking in. 

However, it seemed very sensible, given the time of year at present, not to mention the weather, to head next to the Mediterranean.

Once described by David Attenborough as ‘the First Eden’, the Med isn’t just a holiday haven. It sits between Europe, Asia and Africa, and played a truly vital role in the political and cultural development of some of the world’s most significant civilisations, both ancient and modern. Its legends and folklore naturally reflect this; there is probably nowhere else on Earth where such a plethora of strange mythology is so intensively concentrated, or where so much physical evidence of this can still be seen and experienced today.

So, without further ado, please enjoy (and feel free to comment on) ...


Gazetteer of Strange, Eerie Places 3: Mediterranean

1 Capuchin Catacombs, Palermo


Probably one of the most macabre tourist attractions in the whole of the Mediterranean area, the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, in Sicily, contain around 8,000 corpses, some 1,250 on open display, having been preserved by various methods of mummification. It’s often seen by outsiders as a ghoulish spectacle, but modern Sicilians take a pragmatic view, arguing that the Catacombs help them commune with their deceased ancestors the way prayer alone never could, and point to the benefits drawn from scientific analysis of the remains. It all began accidentally, when 16th century monks excavated the Catacombs because their normal burial grounds were full. As the rock was too hard to permit grave digging, the bodies were left on shelves or in niches, and thus required cleaning, dressing and a degree of preservation. Wealthy lay-folk liked the idea of being able to visit their lost relatives, and so paid for the privilege, and thus it began. The last interment was in the 1920s, but the Catacombs are as popular today with tourists as ever. However, it’s a measure of how profane some visitors can be that iron grilles have now been installed to prevent them tampering with and even posing alongside the corpses.

2 Poveglia Island, Venice


There are many islands in the Venetian lagoon, several playing host to astonishingly expensive hotels. But one island there where you’d never want to stay is Poveglia. Currently empty, covered with abandoned, overgrown buildings and protected by law – it’s illegal to set foot there without permission – the island is regarded as the most haunted in the world, and its grim history feeds into this. Once inhabited, Poveglia’s small population was driven to the mainland in 1379 to escape from Genoese pirates. But the island did not stay empty. In the 18th century, it was transformed into a colony for plague sufferers, ‘plague’ back then meaning just about any infectious illness – so those with a chance of recovering were incarcerated with those who were certain to die, meaning that they all died. An estimated 100,000 perished on Poveglia, most of their bodies burned, which is why 50% of the island’s soil is now said to be ash. From 1922 until 1968, it housed the mentally ill. Forgotten by their families, they lived in filth and were cruelly mistreated, one deranged doctor said to have performed horrible experiments on them, though this same doctor later threw himself from the bell-tower. His angry ghost is one of countless now said to walk the island. 

3 Cities of the Plain, Holy Land


There is much debate as to where the Cities of the Plain stood because little remains of them now. We only know they existed at all thanks to Biblical references and archaeological surveys on a coastal plain south of the Dead Sea, which have uncovered buried evidence of extensive habitations in the early days of the Ancient World. Those excavations have uncovered something else too: clues that these cities were destroyed abruptly by what looks distinctly like burning. There were five Cities of the Plain: Admah, Zeboim, Bela, Sodom and Gomorrah. You’ll remember that in the Book of Genesis, God was angered by their sinfulness and planned to vanquish them with flame. Abraham begged His mercy, and God agreed to spare the cities if His angels could find 10 good men within. His angels failed, and four of the cities were consumed by fire, only Bela escaping. Modern scholars believe that exploding gases released by seismic activity could have devastated the cities, or that debris from a meteorite impact – there was one around 1,700 BC – may have rained fire from Heaven. The transformation of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt could be explained by the many such eerie objects dotted along the Dead Sea shore.

4 Llers Castle, Catalonia  


Thanks to a violent assault during the Spanish Civil War, all that remains of Llers Castle today is broken walls and mouldering stonework. It is unimpressive even by the standards of other castles in Catalonia, let alone those on the rest of the Spanish peninsula, and yet it boasts an extraordinary past and well deserves its place of honour in the European supernatural pantheon. Vampire legends are uncommon in Spanish culture, and yet Llers Castle stands at the heart of a particularly frightening one, which predates even those from the Balkans. In the mid-12th century, long before the word ‘vampire’ was even in use, Alfonso II of Aragon assigned the warlike Count Arnald Estruc to occupy Llers Castle and use it as his base to root out witches and other pagans. Estruc immediately attacked the local peasants, for which crime, when he died in 1173, he became an undead monster, still holed up in the grim bastion, but from here making nightly forays to suck the blood of local women as well as to seduce and impregnate them, the offspring of which horrific rapes were still-born monstrosities. According to different myths, Estruc was finally killed either by a warrior nun or a Jewish hermit using rituals from the Kabbalah.

Cruces de Malpique, La Palma


Located in the Atlantic Ocean, just off the western Moroccan coast, La Palma is not strictly in the Mediterranean Sea, but as one of the Canary Isles, an official Spanish archipelago, it works for our purposes, which allows us to include one of the eeriest and most fascinating dive sites in the world, the fabled ‘Cruces de Malpique’. At first glance an undersea cemetery some 60 feet down, about seven kilometres off the island’s south shore, the 40 stone crosses still standing erect on a natural lava bed are in actual fact a memorial to the Martyrs of Tazacorte. In 1570, a ship carrying 40 Jesuit missionaries was intercepted by corsairs under the control of the ruthless Jacques Sourie, a Huguenot and affirmed hater of Catholicism. Delighted to have such men in his grasp, Sourie had his crew hack all their arms off and throw them overboard so that they would inevitably drown. In 1742 the murder victims were declared martyrs by Pope Benedict XIV, but it was 1999 before their remains were recovered and the crosses erected where they lay. As an interesting footnote, a silver chalice can still be seen in a church in Tazacorte, which bears the teethmarks of one of the priests who accidentally bit into it while seeing a vision of his fate.

6 The Old City, Rhodes


The medieval quarter of the city of Rhodes on the Island of Rhodes, as built and fortified by the Knights Hospitaller at the time of the Crusades, remains one of the historic jewels of the Eastern Mediterranean. It also boasts one of the best attested-to tales of dragon lore ever recorded in Western Europe and offers a fascinating and convincing explanation not only for this story, but for many others that were similar. In the 1330s, a dragon was terrorising a swampy area of the island, taking both animals and people for its food. The Hospitallers’ Grand Master, Helion de Villeneuve, sent knights and dogs against it, but all were killed. Eventually, he ordered the people and his men simply to avoid the beast. However, one Hospitaller, Dieudonne de Gozon, considered such inaction dishonourable. He thus tracked the horror to a reservoir under the city, fought a furious battle with it, and though wounded, slew it. He cut off its head and presented it to the rejoicing people, who hung it from the entrance gate to the city, where it remained for many centuries. In 1837, a British scientist sketched the hanging skull and presented his drawing to naturalists in London, who proclaimed it the skull of an unusually large crocodile. So goes the tale, and be honest, it’s not at all impossible. 

7 Canfranc Station, Spain


Canfranc Station in the Spanish Pyrenees has no history of paranormal activity, but it is popular with urban explorers, not least because it is easy to gain access to the isolated yet opulent ruins (it was known as the ‘Titanic of the Mountains’). As such, it regularly features on lists of Europe’s scariest places, even though more Spaniards are said to have visited it in its current decrepit state than they did when it was in use. Its history is boringly mundane, though modern observers are still baffled that so grand a structure was erected to serve what is now felt to have been so small a purpose. The station was opened in 1928 at the Somport railway tunnel, its job not just to provide a customs checkpoint, but to transit passengers and freight from the narrow standard gauge of the French railways to the slightly wider Spanish gauge. At the time this apparently necessitated the construction of a huge depot at the station, plus hotel facilities and even a school. It all ended in 1970, when a train crash destroyed the L'Estanguet bridge on the French side of the tunnel, which was eventually seen as too expensive to repair. A much smaller, more modern facility at nearby Zaragoza-Delicias now performs the same duty. 

8 Knossos, Crete


When you visit Knossos, in Crete, formerly the ceremonial capital of the long-lost Minoan civilisation, it’s difficult to be sure whether you’re seeing an actual antiquity or a modern recreation, as so much of it was ‘restored’ by archaeologist Arthur Evans in the early 20th century. Though undoubtedly a major find, we don’t really know whether this ever was the palace of the legendary King Minos, much less whether its intricate under croft of passages and rooms formed the labyrinth that housed the man-eating Minotaur, but the place is soaked in atmosphere, and it’s easy to imagine it (as many say Evans did). Of all the Greek Islands, Crete does well regarding ancient monsters, boasting not just the Minotaur, but also Talos, the bronze giant remembered by all kids of a certain age from the movie, Jason and the Argonauts. The Minotaur, you may recall, was the bull-headed product of a ghastly liaison between the love-charmed Queen Pasiphae and a white bull, and was later slain by Theseus. Talos, the bronze colossus, was set to guard Crete (not Lemnos, the actual Isle of Bronze) by Minos’s mum, Queen Europa, and was destroyed by Medea, Jason’s lover, when she drugged him and unscrewed the cap on his heel.

9 Vatican City, Rome


If you believe in the supernatural, it would be difficult to imagine that any location as ancient and as politically, culturally, philosophically and, above all, as spiritually significant as the Vatican would NOT be a hive of mysterious and paranormal activity. Ghost stories from the Vatican are legion, though the Catholic Church doesn’t like talking about them. The picture centres on one of the bell-towers of St Peter’s Basilica. It was captured by a tourist, and purports to show the spirit of a suicide victim gearing up to make his/her fatal leap all over again. At the same time, the ghost of Donna Olimpia Pamphili, close confidante to Pope Innocent X, and a woman accused of attempting to steal much papal wealth at the time of his death (1655), is said to haunt its many corridors and courtyards. Other spirits may never have led an earthly life. Famous exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, claimed that demonic entities often seek to infiltrate the holy citadel, while rumours persist that the Vatican’s Secret Archive (which is not so secret these days, as scholars are regularly permitted access) also includes a sinister ‘Black Library’, which keeps many forbidden books under lock and key to prevent them exerting a baleful influence.       

10 Haunted Mansions, Greece


It may surprise some, but mainland Greece boasts many haunted houses, most of their troubles associated with the Nazi occupation during World War Two. For example, the Villa Kazouli Kifisia in Athens, though used today as HQ for an environmental campaign group, is most famous for having been occupied by Gestapo officers between 1941 and 1944, and the many interrogations and murders that occurred there. The cries of the victims are heard even today. Villa Kallergis, also near Athens, is another gloomy abode with a dark past that still resurfaces. This one had a history of violence even before WWII, as the millionaire who built it murdered his wife and children there, before killing himself, but again, once the Germans took over, it became a scene of imprisonment and torture. Now apparently, the empty place resists demolition, workmen having inexplicably died while attempting to knock it down. Most frightening of all is the Kontos Mansion in Thessaly (pictured), which also was born in tragedy, when the Russian ambassador who built it in 1900 lost all four of his children to TB. Its tale of woe continued later when Nazi officials tortured and killed Greek resistance fighters there. Once again, their screams can still be heard.

11 Lierganes, Cantabria


A curious story comes to us from Northern Spain, and it’s all the stranger because it was recorded by Enlightenment writer, Friar Benito Jerónimo Feijóo, who was more famous for his debunking of myths. In 1674, near Lierganes, a young red-headed man called Francisco de la Vega, who had gone swimming, was washed out to sea and presumed drowned. Five years later, off the coast of Cadiz, an odd creature was captured in a net: a so-called ‘fish man’, apparently human, with a mop of red hair, but with scales and gills. Interrogated by local priests, the creature could only articulate one word: ‘Lierganes’. It was thus escorted north to the distant village and, once there, directed its new guardians to the house of Francisco de la Vega, where the astonished family proclaimed him their missing son. The creature remained with them for the next nine years, compliant but speaking little, always preferring to be nude, and, some felt, very sad. At length, it returned to the sea and was never seen again. Friar Benito’s assurances that the tale is true have bewildered modern scholars, though one physician has postulated that the so-called fish-man was actually a stranger suffering from cretinism and that the family declared him their son as a form of wish-fulfillment.

12 River Acheron, Epirus


According to the ancients, the River Acheron, or ‘River of Pain’, was one of the four rivers of Hell, both Virgil and Dante and later John Milton describing this as the waterway across which Charon would ferry the dead rather than the Styx. Of course, nobody knows whether this is true or not, as no one has ever returned from Hell. However, its namesake on Earth, the River Acheron in Epirus, in Northern Greece, may have a role to play in the emergence of this fearsome legend, as it was here where the terrifying Necromanteion was located. This great temple of necromancy, dedicated to the goddess Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, was also believed to provide a doorway into Hades, and it’s not inconceivable that a tributary of the Acheron flowed down beneath it, thus propagating the myth. As well as hosting elaborate rituals and sacrifices, the Necromanteion also provided pilgrims with an oracle, and it was here, according to Homer, where Odysseus asked questions of the dead. Various archaeological sites are claimed to be the remnants of the Necromanteion, but all are disputed. It was close to the ancient city of Ephyra, however, the relics of which are believed to have been discovered close to the Acheron.

13 Tortured Brides, Malta


Anyone reading this who’s never visited the isle of Malta, I recommend that you put this right forthwith. Culturally vibrant, unfailingly friendly and the beneficiary of glorious year-round weather, Malta is a delight. It’s also a courageous land, having withstood three colossal sieges: by the Moors in 1429, the Ottomans in 1565, and the Axis in 1940/42. For all this violence, Malta’s two most distressing ghost stories relate to domestic strife. In the 1780s, a young lady was imprisoned by an unsuitable suitor in an upper room of the Verdala Palace. Attempting to climb free, she fell to her death. Wearing a blue dress at the time, she is now known as the Blue Lady, her sad phantom often seen in mirrors in the palace, standing on high balconies or even falling, her blue dress billowing in the wind. Another tragic tale tells how in medieval times in the city of Mdina (pictured), a woman called Katrina, in resisting the advances of an amorous knight, accidentally killed him, for which crime she was sentenced to death. Married shortly before she was beheaded, her decapitated form is now said to walk the nighttime streets in her bloodstained bridal gown, approaching the lovelorn and advising them to give up on love and join her in death.

14 Spinalonga, Crete


The island of Spinalonga, in the Gulf of Mirabello, is one of the most beautiful spots on the Cretan coastline. Its turqoise sea, rugged, cypress-clad shoreline, bright sunshine and constant thrum of cicadas render it the quintessential Greek tourist experience. But its history is grim beyond belief. Known locally as Kalydon, the island, which is only swimming distance from the mainland but is rocky and bare, served from 1903 until 1957 as a leper colony. Though treatable since around 1940, leprosy still caused great fear and carried huge social stigma in the early 20th century, and when Spinalonga was in use, Greeks diagnosed with the disease would be deprived of all property, wealth and civil rights, had their identities erased and were confined for life to what was in effect a prison. On arrival at Spinalonga, they would only be admitted through a tunnel known as Dante’s Gate, which in time-honoured tradition was the entrance to Hell. Tales of how well the occupants of the island were treated vary, but medical care was offered along with religious ministry. Even so, it must have seemed a sorrowful exile for the sufferers, who’d effectively become non-persons, forgotten even by their families. The very stones here ache with that pain.  

15 Satanic University, Turin


Let’s get one thing clear: the above image is NOT the Satanic University of Turin. It is the city of Turin itself, which some will argue is itself a hotbed of Satanic lore, though that is surely a moot point. The actual Satanic University is concealed among the great city’s many collegiate structures, because only a select few are allowed admittance. Or so the story goes. It is only one of many rumours that Lucifer and his acolytes pervade this ancient capital of Piedmont. Devilish cults have reputedly made their homes here for centuries. The city itself is one of three believed by occultists to constitute a triangle of dark energy (London and San Francisco being the other two). A physical entrance to Hell is said to be hidden in Turin’s complex sewer network, and many churches in the city have been burgled, their sacred items stolen for use in the Black Mass. The Catholic Church responded in the 1980s, when Cardinal Ballestrero appointed six official exorcists to the city, though others, including his fellow churchmen, liken Satanism’s appeal in Turin to its appeal in California, arguing that both are affluent and that black magic has often been fun for the bored wealthy, who view it as harmless sport. Maybe this is a moot point too. 

16 Varosha, Cyprus


A sad, eerie relic of chaotic 20th century politics, Varosha, the derelict southern quarter of the Cypriot city of Famagusta, is a literal ghost town, and even though it has no paranormal history or supernatural reputation, it so reminds us of Man’s inability to make peace with himself that it can’t help but seem sinister. A bustling holiday resort in the 1960s, one of the party capitals of the Eastern Mediterranean, it boasted white sand beaches, high-rise hotels, nightclubs and classy shopping malls, and played host to the Hollywood jet-set, including the likes of Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Raquel Welch. Now it stands empty and decaying, weeds overrunning everything, as it has done since July 1974, when the Turks invaded Cyprus. That month, facilitated by the British military, the city’s population fled their homes, convinced that a massacre would result when the vying forces met. In due course, the Turks advanced to the so-called Green Line, still the border between the rival factions, and closed off Varosha. They have held it ever since, defying UN Security Council resolutions, keeping it as leverage for future negotiations. At present, the only life there is the sea turtles that nest on its deserted beaches. 

17 Straits of Messina, Sicily


Two of the most terrifying monsters in Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis, were located one at either side of the Straits of Messina and presented mariners of those days with a nightmarish choice, because to pass this place they needed to face one or the other. Scylla was usually the preferred option because she claimed fewer lives, but she was still a fearsome opponent. Once a gorgeous naiad, she was the daughter of Triton and Hecate (though other writers have claimed a more ferocious parentage, Typhon and Echidna), and was poisoned by a rival, which transformed her into a hideous monster with multiple tentacles and heads. Shunned by all, she went to live among the rocks on the north side of the strait, from where she would attack crews on open decks. Meanwhile, the exact form and origin of Charybdis are unknown, but it lurked on the seabed on the opposite side of the strait, sucking down the sea several times a day, wrecking ships in the resulting whirlpools. Both figure prominently in the Greek mythos, most prominently in The Odyssey, and are often seen as metaphorical figures, though whirlpools occur on the south side of the strait and large octopi have been netted on the other side, which might provide explanations of a sort.

18 Where Bad Kids Go, Lebanon


Life in Lebanon was often pretty risky. Long in ferment, with pan-Arabist forces hostile to the pro-western government, it flared into civil war in 1975, 15 years following during which slaughter and destruction were commonplace. If that wasn’t enough, a Lebanese photojournalist, who was a child at the time, has recently been talking online about a weird television show which aired there and was called Where Bad Kids Go. He had no idea where it was broadcast from but recalled that it laid down strict rules about the behaviour expected of children, always ending with a dingy warehouse door, which had been padlocked and from behind which could be heard horrific screams. Across that final image, the words This is Where Bad Kids Go would always be emblazoned. Years later, the journalist was working on a story in Lebanon, when he discovered a gutted building that he recognised. Inside it was that same padlocked door. When he forced the door open, he found a room covered in ancient bloodstains and strewn with children’s bones. Hanging from the ceiling, he claims, was a very old microphone. True, or typical online myth making? One thing is certain, some awful things happened in Lebanon during the 1980s. 

19 Yaros Prison, Aegean Sea


Most visitors to Greece leave again with nothing but happy memories. For many Northern Europeans, it remains the go-to holiday destination. But Greece, for all its atmospheric ruins, its dancing waiters and sun-soaked beaches, wasn’t always a happy place. Between 1967 and 1974 it was controlled by a military junta who imposed a fascist regime on a par with anything Europe had seen during the 1930s. One symptom of this was Yaros Prison, located on the barest and grimmest of the Cyclades Islands, just southeast of Athens. Known variously as ‘Death Island’ and ‘the Dachau of the Mediterranean’, Yaros primarily housed political prisoners, 22,000 of them in overall total, many of whom had never even stood trial, and treated them with incredible brutality, not just starving and working them to death, but torturing them as well. All that remains now are hollowed-out ruins, though the island is open to the public should the public be able to find a way to get to it. But there are no tourist facilities there, and rumours persist that a legion of ghosts haunts the island. If that doesn’t scare you, stories are rife that that the Greek Navy once bombarded it to try and destroy the evidence, using missiles containing depleted uranium.

20 Realm of Gods and Monsters, the Mediterranean


As the cradle of western culture and the head-water of so many of the world’s great mythologies, the Mediterranean region has spawned countless monstrous and fantastical beings that haunt our imaginations even today. We’ve already mentioned several, but as well as the Minotaur, Talos, Scylla and Charybdis, there is a multitude of others the surface of whose stories we can only scrape even in this final round-up (and even then there are lots that we haven’t got room to mention). Echidna, for example, the mother of all monsters (pictured above in the Bomarzo Monster Park, Italy), half ‘desirable female’ and half ‘speckled snake’, was the wife of the titan, Typhon, thanks to whose attentions she gave birth to all kinds of famous horrors She was a man-eater in every sense, who inhabited a cave on Ischia in the Gulf of Naples.

One of her children was the Hydra, notorious in both Greek and Roman legend as a serpentine monstrosity, which grew two heads for every one that some hapless hero lopped off (pictured topside, in an image unashamedly pinched from Jason and the Argonauts). In the end it took Hercules, the most hardcore Greek adventurer, to finish it. Its home was Lake Lerna in mainland Greece. 

Unconnected to Greek mythology, one of several chaos monsters referenced in the early books of the Bible is Leviathan, (pictured right, as imagined by Ben Erdt) a sea-beast so vast and terrifying that only God would be able to destroy it at the end of days, at which point He would feed its flesh to the faithful. Though Christians later re categorised it as a demon in its own right, in the initial days Leviathan’s abode was the whole Mediterranean Sea, which boiled when it swam.

Back in the world of Greek mythology we find Geryon, another horrific creature – gigantic in stature, three heads, three bodies, six hands, each one bearing a weapon, etc – whose home was the isle of Erythia, off southern Spain. Again, this ferocious entity was slain by Hercules (as depicted left). Then, over in the Southern Med, we have possibly the most feared trio of monsters in all the mythologies of the world: the Gorgon sisters, Stheno, Euryale, and the youngest and only one of them who was mortal, Medusa. Formerly a beautiful priestess in the Temple of Athena in Libya, Medusa was raped on the altar there by Poseidon, which sacrilegious act roused the goddess to fury, but as she couldn’t punish Poseidon, she punished the victim instead, transforming Medusa into the snake-haired harridan we know today. A creature so ghastly that her terrible gaze could literally turn a man to stone. She was beheaded by the hero, Perseus, who only escaped her equally savage sisters with the help of Pegasus. 

This leads us neatly to our final monster of the day, Cetus, a colossal sea-dragon, who at the same time was busy terrorising the coast of ‘Aethiopia’, which in the Ancient Greek world meant all those parts of North Africa not classified as Egypt or Libya. The local potentate, Queen Cassiopeia’s solution was to formally sacrifice her daughter, Andromeda, to the monster, but fortunately, Perseus turned up with Medusa’s head before she could be eaten, and duly turned Cetus into a lump of shapeless, barnacled rock, which today is lost among the countless others than litter the wine-dark sea’s magnificent, sun-drenched coastline (as seen above, though pssst!, that’s actually Hvitsekur in Iceland, which is a massive cheat, though you must admit, it looks good).


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS ... 

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

INTO THE DROWNING DEEP 
by Mira Grant (2017)

When the good ship Atagartis set sail for the Mariana Trench, hopes were high that the team aboard would uncover evidence of mermaids – real ones. And if that didn’t happen, at least the massive TV audience at home would be royally entertained, because the Atagartis had been chartered by global media company, Imagine Entertainment, whose main aim was to film a successful mockumentary in the style of real-life TV ‘hoaxes’ like Mermaids, The Body Found, and Megalodon, The Monster Shark Lives.

All of this took place in the oceanic sci-fi novella of 2015, Rolling in the Deep, by Mira Grant, aka Seanan McGuire, which went on to see Atagartis fall foul of a horde of genuine sub-aquatic beings, who through sheer hostility alone, seemed a far cry from the sweet-voiced, fish-tailed lovelies of myth and legend.

Now, Into the Drowning Deep, a full-blown sci-fi horror novel (set in our near future), picks up the story, with a new mission getting underway, basically to discover what happened to the last one (the Atagartis having been lost entirely, with all hands).

Keen to get involved is ocean scientist, Victoria ‘Tory’ Stewart, whose older sister, Anne, disappeared along with the original vessel, though she herself doesn’t know what to make of the few messages that made it home, which are mostly incoherent, or the odd snippet of footage, which depicts panicky crewmen and Imagine personnel under attack from some kind of unknown, sea-dwelling species with fins, gills and lots and lots of teeth.

The new ship, the Melusine, is better equipped, with a crew who know what to expect, with chemists, biologists, radar and sonar experts and other technicians, all determined to discover what it is that actually lurks in the deep, and is packed to the brim with TV folk from Imagine who are keen to catch everything on film, and thus create one of the greatest live ‘exploration of the unknown’ documentaries in television history.

As well as Tory Stewart and her research partner, Luis Martines – who both know they’ve only been invited to boost the ratings but are keen to make use of the opportunity – a whole range of oddball characters accompany the expedition.

Theo Blackwell is Imagine’s man on the spot, a textbook company man and official chief organiser of the mission, whose main role is to look after his employers’ interests, even though he once had his own mind, and indeed still carries the injuries that ended his youthful days of eco-warrior rebellion. His ex-wife, Dr Jillian Toth, a renowned marine biologist, is also on board. A spiky individual, her career has to an extent been sidelined as she’s a fervent believer that mermaids exist and has little time for those who don’t, but she still seems to be the one whom those in-the-know nearly always defer to.

Then there’s Olivia Sanderson, a professional YouTube presenter, beautiful and intelligent in equal measure, though inevitably she feels that everyone else regards her as a lightweight and so is here to assert herself as a serious professional and to hopefully make waves in the world of ‘real’ broadcasting.

More respected by far are the three Wilson sisters, the younger two – Holly and Heather – who though profoundly deaf, are an organic chemist and submersible pilot respectively, both at the tops of their respective fields, while their older sister, Hallie, a researcher in her own right, is there mainly to translate for them, as so few other people are able to sign.

Most eccentric of all, Jacques and Michi Abney – a husband and wife big game hunting team – are also on hand, with an arsenal of hi-tech weapons just in case the mer-people turn nasty again. This handsome but menacing twosome present a potentially quite serious problem as there is no certainty that they’ll be easy to control in the event of a confrontation, especially if some kind of ‘diplomatic initiative’ is favoured by the rest of the team. They are deadliness personified, living only for the hunt, unashamedly besotted with each other’s ruthlessness and openly disrespectful of the non-predatory humans around them.

Okay, from this point on, I don’t want to say too much more about the actual synopsis of Into the Drowning Deep for fear that it will give away essential spoilers.

Put it this way, the mission goes ahead, the Melusine soon arriving at the Mariana Trench, and the 40,000ft Challenger Deep in particular, where all manner of scientific surveys are soon under way, every key character playing his/her own vital role, employing a wide range of methods and materials, including a trio of highly-trained dolphins, who as aquanauts can surely not be bettered (at least, that’s what their human masters assume).

But aside from a few stresses and strains among the cast, and one or two malfunctions in the ship’s security kit, everything feels as if it’s going well, is in fact hunky dory. The expedition is so well-equipped and so expertly manned that danger is the last thing on anyone’s minds.

But as you’d expect, it isn’t long before something is stirring down below, something that deeply resents this unwarranted intrusion into its private realm, something that intends to respond with extreme violence. Yes, it seems that all those myths about lovelorn mermaids singing plaintively on sea-begirt rocks, yearning for a life on land and for peaceful interaction with human society, are a long way wide of the mark …

I came at this one very unsure what to expect. I love oceanic horror, even though it’s a sub-genre that can be hit-and-miss, and Mira Grant, aka Seanan McGuire, is an author I’m not too familiar with. However, I needn’t have had too many concerns, because right from the word go, Into the Drowning Deep is an easily accessible, reader-friendly adventure thriller, presented very much in the style of a techno/eco action movie.

Okay, I hear one criticism that’s been levelled at it: namely that it takes a little time to get going. Well, the first third of the narrative is pretty well all given over to character development, and there is an entire host of these individuals to get our teeth into, but I’m not sure that’s entirely to the book’s detriment. At no stage, even during these early chapters, does Mira Grant renege on her main duty as a horror author, which is to keep reminding us that the deep sea – the Challenger Deep in particular – is a dark and terrible place, inimical to human survival, and that an awful force is latent there, just waiting to explode upwards at the first provocation. This message is so thoroughly rammed home that you basically can’t wait for the action to commence, speaking of which, when things do start to move – not just on board the ship, but underneath it as well – the author delivers superbly.

Hair-raising chills abound, alternating with enough gore and violence to satisfy even the most hardcore of the genre’s addicts, while memories are stirred of many excellent ‘isolated scientists’ horror movies past, everything from Leviathan to Alien to The Thing.

But of course, no amount of action means a damn thing if you don’t care about the personalities involved, and here I maybe have one or two slight qualms.

I should say to begin with that Into the Drowning Deep is a female-led novel; all the best parts are hogged by women, while the men, for the most part, are secondary characters, if not unmemorable walk-ons. But that’s not a criticism. In fact, it’s quite welcome, as it corrects an imbalance that we’ve had in action/fantasy fiction for years. But ... and here’s the rub, several of these lead individuals are a little less than heroic, often behaving illogically and regularly displaying anger, resentment and a general brattishness rather than courage and wisdom, which seems to me to defeat the object of the exercise.

Jillian Toth and the Wilson twins are good examples, the former permanently angry that other academics won’t buy into her theories about mermaids (which in real life surely wouldn’t be difficult to understand) and thus coming over as an abrasive, self-righteous bully, while the Wilson twins are constantly frustrated that those with full hearing don’t understand what it’s like to be deaf – though my response to that would be ‘how could they’?

All this said, I’m not sure these are major issues, as eventually all the characters – most of whom, Tory in particular, are well-drawn and believable (though I could have done without the ‘male stripper’ security staff, which felt very odd) – end up thrown together and fighting for their lives against a previously unknown and apparently unstoppable foe.

Perhaps inevitably, Into the Drowning Deep is filled with science. You can’t really avoid that when you’re concerned with lifeforms that originated below the Hadean zone and you either want to get down to them or bring them up to you. As such, we’re exposed to all kinds of modern-day techo-speak – not just involving the necessary gadgetry, but chemistry, biology, oceanography etc – while the Melusine itself is a floating battle-platform of state-of-the-art sea-scanning apparatus. Personally, I’ve no idea how accurate or authentic it all is. I’m certain that Mira Grant will have done a considerable amount of research, but one particular scene – in which a mermaid is subjected to an autopsy – is very convincing indeed, organ after organ being laid out for us, and explained in so much authoritative detail that you really believe this is what it would take for a gilled, fish-tailed humanoid to exist in the deepest tracts of the ocean.

As well as the science, we also have dollops of philosophy, the author taking time off from the narrative to discuss such current issues as equality, gender diversity, global warming, pollution, ocean dumping, and so on. I must admit to feeling that some of these occasions interrupted the flow of the plot. There would certainly be room in a book like Into the Drowning Deep for such important ponderings, but perhaps a little bit less time could have been dedicated to it – the overall message is there anyway about our brutal disregard for the natural environment and the disastrous consequences that might follow.

But none of this stopped me enjoying the novel.

I was fortunate enough to read Into the Drowning Deep while sailing the Caribbean, so the endless, sun-kissed blue of the world’s most gorgeous seascape made the perfect backdrop against which to thoroughly enjoy this suspenseful and intelligent maritime adventure, which explores one of the oldest nautical mysteries known to mankind, turning it on its head maybe, but also making it live, breathe and terrify.

Into the Drowning Deep is a great piece of sci-fi/horror, and Mira Grant an author I’ll definitely seek out again.

As always at the end of one my book reviews, I’m now going pre-empt the inevitable (I hope so, at least) TV or movie adaptation, and nominate my own cast. Only a bit of fun, of course. Who’d listen to me, after all?

Tory Stewart – Angélica Celaya
Luis Martines – Gael Garcia Bernal
Theo Blackwell – Neil Patrick Harris
Dr Jillian Toth – Jennifer Garner
Olivia Sanderson – Sarah Hyland
Holly Wilson/Heather Wilson – Cara Delevingne
Hallie Wilson – Poppy Delevingne

No comments:

Post a Comment