Bloody Bestiary

A Bloody Bestiary: Blood in the Water

Blood in the Water

by Shane Douglas Keene

deep-sea-anglerfish

I will kiss him and love him and squeeze him and hug him and call him George

Humanity has an… interesting relationship to the world’s oceans. Science teaches us that we originated in the salty depths, and our bodies are about 60% water, the salt percentage therein roughly equivalent to that of seawater. So in a way, we were born in the sea and are made of the sea. It would follow, then, that we have more than a passing interest in the immeasurable deeps, endlessly exploring and mapping and studying in a desire to uncover the ocean’s secrets. And yet, to date, we’ve only explored about 5% of the ocean’s floor. High pressure and abyssal darkness make many parts of the ocean difficult or impossible to explore, and scientists say it is easier to explore space than it is the sea. And here’s an interesting little factoid that seems to back that up: more humans have set foot on the moon than have dove in the Marianas Trench. Which means we don’t really know what the fuck is down there. We only know that the lifeforms we have discovered to date are among the strangest, and often most deadly, creatures on the planet, making for some of the richest and most abundant story fodder in existence. Humankind has plumbed that well, mined that vein endlessly, producing some of our most timeless fictions, poems, and songs, and creating some of the most memorable and abiding monsters in the history of storytelling. Consider the angler fish, black devil of the ocean, with its rows of teeth and bioluminescent lure. And what of the horrific giant squid, a beast that has spawned many a nightmare and more than a few tall tales and stories. These are real fucking monsters to humans, as strange and alien to us as would be visitors from another planet. The waters are teeming with the strangest, most wonderful, and foulest beasts imaginable. Countless species have been found, and there are countless more yet to discover. But you aren’t here for a science class, and I’m not here to teach one.

Squid

Sushi, anyone? Calamari?

Many an imaginative author has had their way with the ocean, making of it what it’s always been, a place of creation, and that’s what I want to talk about here. If I say sea monsters, which one do you think of first? For me, it’s almost certainly Moby Dick nearly every time the subject comes up. Forward in my educational history, but backward in physical time, there are Charybdis and Scylla, mythological sea creatures riffed on thematically and, one assumes, metaphorically in Homer’s The Odyssey. But when it comes to modern fiction, genre and otherwise, what comes to mind? Which beasts of the deep have grabbed your attention and stuck with you over the years? Which ones gave you pause, delight, nightmares, or some combination thereof? Being a major fan of all things monster, creature, or cryptid, many come to mind at the mere mention of the subject and in this visit to The Bestiary, I want to talk about some of them a little bit. The horrorverse is chock full of things that slither, crawl, and clack their way out of the deep and into the dark recesses of the human heart and make you ask the universal question: is it safe to go back in the water yet?

In any conversation on the subject, the beast that almost always comes up first and foremost is, of course, the iconic behemoth that spawned the movie line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Jaws, in addition to being the summer blockbuster that destroyed box-office records and made the world afraid to “go back in the water,” was one of Peter Benchley’s best novels. And if you think the movie was terrifying, the kills vividly bloody and shocking, the tension palpable, it’s only because you haven’t read the book. I mean, sure, the movie is all those things, with disembodied limbs and heads galore, fingers protruding from the sand like hermit crabs, but the novel is ten times all those things, as intense and visceral as a heart transplant without the benefit of anesthesia.

But Jaws, AKA Bruce, isn’t the only monster that’s given readers and moviegoers pause when it comes to dipping their piggies into that blood-salty water ever again. I mean, when I think of the subject, there are some majorly prominent monsters that pop into my tiny ball of gray matter, far from the least of which are the great Brian Keene’s Conqueror Worms. It’s a story, now known to the reading world as Earthworm Gods, in which the apocalypse has arrived in the form of water, and the only refuges left to humanity are mountaintop islands, and even those aren’t very safe from the bus-sized worms his characters must fend off. And no such article or essay would be complete without mention of J.F. Gonzalez’s off-the-chain fucking brutal Clickers novels, two or three of which were penned with the aforementioned Keene that isn’t me. I mean, who doesn’t need images of giant venomous crabs in their heads to help them get to sleep at night? I know I sure do.

And who can forget Frank Shatzing’s The Swarm, in which the oceans themselves become the enemy, their denizens an army and their waters an unstoppable and vengeful force that no man can stand against? It’s a 900-page tome of epic proportions that any monster aficionado would be remiss in not having in their collections and in their brains. It’s also a book that won’t just make you afraid to go in the water, it’ll make you afraid of the fact that oceans exist in the first place. Another guy, one that can make you terrified to go anywhere really, but in this specific case, the ocean, is Hunter Shea, an author whose work I’ve covered more than probably any other author in the time I’ve been doing this. Hunter has contributed countless monsters to the horror genre (more on that in a future entry), including many that come from the deep dark sea. The very first book I ever read by him was called The Montauk Monster, a horrifically graphic tale of never before seen creatures that come out of the sea to terrorize the coastal vacation town of Montauk. In addition to that volume, he’s contributed such works as Megalodon in Paradise, Fury of the Orcas, They Rise, and one that’s near and dear to my heart for reasons, the tale of a landlocked beastie called Loch Ness Revenge.

What other magically delicious sea terrors can I come up with? Hmm, too damn many to mention in one piece, but I damn sure ain’t done pontificating on the subject yet. Let me tell you about a surprising little book I read a while back called Sacculina, by Philip Fracassi. It was surprising to me in that his premise, like all his stories, is so incredibly unique I just didn’t see it coming. He created a type of horror from the deep like you’ve never seen before, a crustacean nightmare that pretty much ensured you’ll never find Shane on a boat in the ocean ever again. And then there’s the ever iconic, somewhat controversial Steve Alten tale, Meg. It sees some conflict in that fans either absolutely love it, or vehemently hate it and there’s no middle ground, unlike the movie, The Meg, which is pretty much universally despised. But in spite of the disagreement, after Benchley’s benchmark creation, The Meg is probably the next in line when it comes to the succession of sea monster royalty. Haters aside, Meg will continue to sell thousands of copies per year, though it’s been more than two decades since its original publication.

Right about now, as I wind down toward the end of this article, avid Lovecraft fans are thinking, “What a fucking poser. Hasn’t even mentioned…”). Well, before you get your panties in a bunch and whip out your torches and pitchforks, here I go. It would be far beyond remiss of me to fail to mention H.P. Lovecraft’s genre-defining creation, Cthulhu. First appearing in the story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” the beastly god imprisoned beneath the sea in the city of R’lyeh, bound, one assumes, by excessive adjectives and stilted dialogue, is the most iconic of all the sea monsters since Leviathan and the Kraken. If, as Charles Caleb Colton says, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” then Lovecraft has been flattered to hell and back several times over. More writers, good and bad, have ventured into his universe than any other in the horror genre, and probably in any genre. The Mythos is a subject you could talk or write about for hours on end and not run out of things to say, but I won’t do that to you. I could go on and on for page after page, regaling–AKA boring the fuck out of–you with thoughts on Cthulhu and other sea monster lore, but I think you get the gist of the thing. When it comes to horror and the ocean, there’s no shortage of cryptids, crawlies, and just downright terrifying real-life creatures in the horrorverse to convince you that, fuck no, it is not safe to go back in the goddamn water.

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