There's literary magic happening in the pages of short fiction. Where else can you quickly be exposed to as many stories, as many new ideas, as many new voices and as much entertainment? That's why I love reading anthologies of short fiction. You get lots of stories by multiple authors all between the same two covers. Anthologies allow me to sneak in some reading time even when life becomes too busy for longer books. It's where I discover new writers whose work I want to seek out, and it's where I am reminded how much I like authors I've already read.
One of my picks for the best reads of March was the anthology The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea edited by Ellen Datlow. It's a terrific collection that offers fifteen original stories about the mysteries of the sea and the unknown dangers and horrors we conveniently forget. Ellen is no stranger to horror fiction and short fiction. She's a multi-award-winning editor who has been editing horror fiction and assembling anthologies for more than thirty years. With The Devil and the Deep, she challenged a group of talented authors to write page-turning dark fiction, a challenge they met head on. I had a chance to ask Ellen and some of the book's contributing authors about the anthology and the genesis of stories they've created just for you…
KIRKUS REVIEWS: Hi Ellen. Why an anthology of stories around the sea?
ELLEN DATLOW: I'm always thinking of broad themes for new anthologies on topics that interest me. And I've never done a water/sea inspired anthology. It's such a rich theme—I encouraged writers to do more than just write about monsters of the seas. I'm very pleased that I even got an inland sea story that takes place on dry land.
KIRKUS REVIEWS: In the introduction, you mention having a carefree fondness for the ocean as a young girl. When did that change?
ELLEN DATLOW: As soon as I saw Jaws. That just killed it for me—it scared me and put me off going into even lakes for a time (although I've never been fond of swimming in lakes because of the mushiness on the bottom. Lakes are for fishing, not swimming. Ugh). Before Jaws, I body-surfed in the ocean and the only time I was afraid was when I reached down (it was shallow) and I thought a crab bit me (it was likely just a jagged shell I touched). I never went deep, even as a child. When I'm on a ship (I've taken a few ocean cruises during my life, and am not wild about them), at some point during the journey, I suddenly have this recognition of how vast the ocean is, how deep. And I'm terrified of being on this relatively small object in the middle of this vastness. The terror doesn't last more than a few minutes. If it did, I'd never step foot on a ship again.
KIRKUS REVIEWS: Can you tell us a little about this anthology came to be?
ELLEN DATLOW: I've been working with Jason Katzman, my Night Shade editor for The Best Horror of the Year series, for several years and it occurred to me that I might be able to interest him in an all original anthology. I'm always thinking of themes I'd like to work on (and spend time with, as when I edit an original anthology I'm going to have to live with that theme for at least a year or two) and periodically trot them out to editors who I think might take an interest. So, I pitched it to Jason and he said yes. Initially, I thought I might use a couple of reprints, but ultimately decided against that.
KIRKUS REVIEWS: What do hope readers will take away when reading The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea?
ELLEN DATLOW: That the sea is scary, and especially that the seas, oceans and large bodies of water are mysterious in a way that inspires writers to create varied and fascinating stories about it.
Here's the table of contents of The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea…
- "Deadwater" by Simon Bestwick
- "Fodder's Jig" by Lee Thomas
- "The Curious Allure of the Sea" by Christopher Golden
- "The Tryal Attract" by Terry Dowling
- "The Whalers Song" by Ray Cluley
- "A Ship of the South Wind" by Bradley Denton
- "What My Mother Left Me" by Alyssa Wong
- "Broken Record" by Stephen Graham Jones
- "Saudade" by Steve Rasnic Tem
- "A Moment Before Breaking" by A.C.Wise
- "Sister, Dearest Sister, Let Me Show to You the Sea" by Seanan McGuire
- "The Deep Sea Swell" by John Langan
- "He Sings of Salt and Wormwood" by Brian Hodge
- "Shit Happens" by Michael Marshall Smith
- "Haunt" by Siobhan Carroll
I also invited the contributing authors to whet your appetite with a behind-the-scenes look at their stories. Here's what they said…
Simon Bestwick's latest work is the novelette Breakwater, published by Tor.com. In addition, he's written novels, chapbooks and short stories. He lives on the Wirral in the North of England, and says he uses far too many semicolons. Simon says, "My story 'Deadwater' is about a strange young woman called Emily Glass, who works in a seaside town, hiding from a mysterious past. When a friend of hers is found drowned, the police assume it's suicide. Emily, for reasons of her own, doesn't agree, and starts to investigate. Like the sea itself, Emily can look harmless enough on the surface—but the depths beneath are another matter.
'Deadwater' was inspired by something that happened a couple of years ago, on my honeymoon, when we were staying in a town on the Welsh coast. One morning we caught a train to another town a little way up the coast, and passed a car sitting alone in the middle of a field—behind it were the mountains, and ahead of it—on the other side of the train from us—a rocky beach with an outfall pipe extending out into the water. There was something very bleak and desolate about the image of the car, parked there alone like that, and the kind of questions writers ask themselves immediately sprang to mind: where was the driver? Was s/he in the car, and if so, what was s/he waiting for? And if not…where was s/he? The rest of the idea came to me the day we left, when we got talking to a young woman who worked in a cafe at the harbour and found out she knew where we'd been the day before because she basically got to hear about anything and everything that happened in the town! The perfect person to play detectives, I realised, once I decided what had happened to the driver. After that, it was just a case of finding out who my detective really was. As it turned out, she was Emily Glass, and this is what she had to tell me. Maybe I'll talk to her again sometime."
Christopher Golden is the New York Times bestselling, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Ararat and many other novels, including the brand new epic fantasy Blood of The Four, co-authored with Tim Lebbon. Describing his story "The Curious Allure of the Sea," Christopher says "When her father dies aboard his fishing boat and an unusual talisman is discovered on board, a young woman becomes intrigued by the strange symbol upon it. After she has that symbol tattooed onto her skin, she quickly learns that others are drawn to her in ways that quickly become unsettling. I've felt the curious allure of the sea my entire life. I feel it deeply, and have no name for it, nor any real understanding of its power over me. The story grew from there."
Terry Dowling is one of Australia's most acclaimed writers of science fiction, dark fantasy and horror, and whose latest collection is The Night Shop: Tales of the Lonely Hours. His story in The Devil and the Deep is ‘The Tryall Attract’, in which "a man spends a night with a whispering skull in an old house and learns a terrible secret. It was inspired by four things coming together at just the right time: recalling the skull that sat in the window of a local mansion when I was growing up that always fascinated me, and wanting to write a story about such a special skull; a car being torched in this very same street late one night that led me to meet the present owner of the mansion and let me mention the skull that was once in his upper window; learning the name of Australia's first recorded shipwreck, the Tryall, and loving how that particular name looked on the page; and receiving Ellen's invitation to try for a place in her new book."
Ray Cluley is a writer who intends to never live far from the sea, and he writes about it often. His collection, Probably Monsters, is available from ChiZine Publications. His story in The Devil and the Deep is "The Whalers Song," which "tells the story of a Norwegian whaling crew who find themselves facing a strange and disorientating fate when lost at sea. It addresses our impact on the planet to a certain extent, but it also explores the flaws relating to ideas of masculinity. The sea (and what it holds) is used to highlight the pointlessness of such posturing and the futility of clinging to old beliefs. The story began its life as a single image: a black-sand beach patched with snow, part of a small desolate island home only to the wind and the soft wash of the sea. The rest of the story developed out of a few different sources of inspiration. One was the music of Sigur Rós; I absolutely love the haunting quality of their music, particularly in their more melancholy tracks, and often write with one of their albums on in the background. (They inspired much of my story 'Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow' as well, which shares aspects of 'The Whalers Song' regarding mood and setting.) The other key influence was an article I read about whaling, which I hadn't realised was still being practised by a few countries, such as Norway. This inspired my characters—a whaling crew—and provided some of the required factual information. Personally, I don't think there's anything more sublime in nature than the sea. 'The Whalers Song' is an attempt to capture some of that overwhelming sense of awe that is both beautiful and terrifying."
Bradley Denton's novels include Blackburn and Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede. His most recent book is Sergeant Chip and Other Novellas. He had this to say about his contribution: "When Ellen asked if I might write a story for The Devil and the Deep, I wasn't sure I had a sea horror story in me. After all, I grew up in Kansas, and I live in Central Texas. So, I don't have too much salt water coursing through my veins. But then I recalled childhood discoveries of trilobite and brachiopod fossils in the Kansas Flint Hills, evidence of the vast Permian Sea that once covered the Great Plains. That in turn led me to think of the first human beings who lived in that land, millions of years after the sea receded, and of their history and legends. And I considered the improbable lives and adventures of two of their descendants, Joseph James, Jr. and Charles Curtis. Then I remembered a different Plains legend, about a mysterious former sea captain who first appeared in Kansas City in 1846—riding a fantastic contraption propelled by the wind. Finally, I thought of the bloody war that tore the region apart not long after that. And then I had my story: 'A Ship of the South Wind.'"
Stephen Graham Jones has nearly twenty-five books out in the world, most of them—like his most recent, Mapping the Interior—kind of twisted. Stephen has this to say about his story ‘Broken Record’: It's about a "guy [who] washes up on that same desert island from a thousand cartoon panels, and then has to deal with all the things he thought he'd want, were he ever in this situation. This story's me, wishing I'd worded my desert island list better, or known that it would matter. But I sneakily made him very much not me, too: dude's growing a beard, which I'd need a genie to accomplish, not a desert island."
Steve Rasnic Tem's latest collection is Figures Unseen, Selected Stories, out in April from Valancourt Books in paperback, hardcover, eBook, and audiobook. His story in The Devil and the Deep is ‘Saudade’, which "concerns a shy widower's reluctant ocean voyage and the mysterious Latin woman he meets. The story came out of the clash of several disparate notions. First, there's the word itself: 'Saudade' refers to a profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone you love (and here's the kicker), perhaps even someone you've never met. Second was that perspective that one limitation of psychology is that it concerns our reaction to real-world events. But are there internal realities just as significant? Finally, there's my personal response to the ocean. As a child, I hated our regular summer trips to Myrtle Beach. I didn't like the feel of sand between my toes (and even less the feel of it in my underwear). And both the immensity and physics of the ocean never made sense to me. Why didn't it just consume us? It's why I've always lived inland."
A.C. Wise is a Sunburst Award winner and the author of numerous short stories, with two collections published by Lethe Press, and the novella Catfish Lullaby, forthcoming from Broken Eye Books in Summer 2018. Of her contribution to The Devil and the Deep, she says, "My story 'A Moment Before Breaking' is about a young girl traveling with her mother to start a new life in America, and what happens to her when the ship they're on encounters something monstrous beneath the waves. The inspiration for the story started with the image of glowing tattoos designed to keep something trapped inside a person's skin. It also came from the idea of lonely children telling stories in the dark to help them feel less afraid. I wanted my story to feel a bit like a fairy tale, but the scary kind that still has its teeth and claws."
Seanan McGuire is an author of fantasy and science fiction, living and working in the Pacific Northwest. Her latest book, Tricks for Free, is out now. Says Seanan: "My story, 'Sister, Dearest Sister, Let Me Show To You the Sea,' was half-inspired by having my youngest sister at the house for a week, and partially inspired by my love of The Little Mermaid, which is such a bleak and beautiful framework to work with. I wanted to do an inversion of the original story: a girl, a witch, a bargain, and blood in the water. It's about sisters. It's about coming home."
Brian Hodge is one of those people who always has to be making something. His newest novel, out this spring, is The Immaculate Void. Here's how he describes his story ‘He Sings of Salt and Wormwood’: "With the end of his career on the horizon, a pro surfer seeks new thrills by turning to free-diving and discovers sunken anomalies that could explain the strange gifts that the sea seems to have always given his wife." On where the idea came from: "For me, most ideas are a nexus of things I'm exploring or have experienced, that end up linking together. Besides my ongoing interest in the mammalian dive reflex, on a recent vacation on the Oregon coast, I learned about shipworms—mollusks that will bore into wooden hulls and even devour entire shipwrecks—and got to wondering what if they could be collectively prompted to create instead of destroy. Plus, we were staying near an eerie-looking observation platform on the beach that I dubbed 'Neptune's Throne,' which factored in, too."
Michael Marshall Smithis a novelist (Only Forward, Spares, Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence and, writing as Michael Marshall, thrillers including The Straw Men series and The Intruders) and screenwriter (whose work was televised with Mira Sorvino, John Simm and Millie Bobby Brown). Regarding his story ‘Shit Happens’: "This particular 'Shit Happens' the first night of a corporate conference, held on the dry-docked Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. Rick Millerson from the Boston office arrives in town, already a little too well-lubricated after a long plane journey. As he continues to get further into the spirit of the event it becomes clear that something very wrong and really bad is happening. This story came about in the way I like best: a story dropping straight into my head from the clear blue sky. Well, in fact not the sky, as I was standing inside the cramped gent's restroom when it happened (sorry, but you asked), and not the whole story—but the core idea, complete. It's not a very nice idea. Sorry about that, too.”
Siobhan Carroll is a former tall ship sailor and an associate professor of 19th century literature at the University of Delaware. Here's what she says about her story ‘Haunt’, which closes out the anthology: "One day, while conducting research at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, I came across a sailor's account of a slave ship. His account was written to be shared with his crewmates, as a kind of shipboard witnessing to the horrors of the African trade. As I investigated, I learned more about the crucial role sailors had played in the early abolition movement, and about the importance of sailor testimony in exposing the abuses of the slave system. I also learned that, during the 18th century, all the ghost ships in sea legends were slave ships. Supernatural stories served as a way for sailors to talk about things they couldn't talk about openly, and so it makes sense that telling a ghost story became a way to talk about the slave trade. These politics ended up inspiring 'Haunt,' which is about a group of 18th century shipwreck survivors being stalked by a mysterious entity that may—or may not—be the ghost of a slave ship."