The Deep by Nick Cutter
(Simon and Schuster, 2015, 394 pgs)
A disease is spreading with no signs of slowing down. Nicknamed “the ‘Gets,” it causes people to slowly forget everything they know, eventually causing complete catatonia and death. Luke Nelson is a veterinarian called in by the government at a secret location near Guam to descend to an underwater base, eight miles below the Pacific, to retrieve his brother, a famous scientist. There has been an incredible discovery: a strange gelatinous substance, dubbed “ambrosia” has been recovered from the deep sea floor – but the scientists in the base have ceased contact with the surface… The most recent sign of something having gone awry is the return of a corpse in one of the base’s submarines – a scientist covered in half-healed scars and mutilations, seemingly self-inflicted. Accompanied by submarine captain, Alice, or ‘Al,’ Luke descends to the base to uncover what has happened to his brother – all the while plagued by mysterious visions and flashbacks to past traumas…
An intense and bleak horror novel, this novel reminded me at times of Event Horizon crossed with something like The Thing, as humanity and insanity are brought into conflict far away from help. There is a constant unsettling feeling throughout, from the very onset of the novel, where Luke, our protagonist, descends into the unforgiving black void below, to the constant threat of crushing or being rendered apart by the pressures afflicting deep sea submersibles. It is a relentless and cruel environment, devoid of life and light, and wholly alien.
The base itself, named the ‘Trieste,’ is an unwelcoming, cold, dank, and oddly intestinal-like location, complete with tight walkways, constant creaking and moaning from the pressurised metals surrounding it, with next to no light, and locked labs hiding innumerable horrors. Cutter here is a master of helplessness and oppression; where even the simple lack of things becomes stifling. The lack of light, movement, help, agency (after all, Luke is a vet, not a submarine captain, and likely helpless without Alice), and the threat of the surreal unknown, bears down upon the protagonist constantly. He is not unaware of the dangers he is in which makes those threats that much more palpable and inescapable. Too often, a horror protagonist can realise too late that they were foolish to enter ‘the terrible place’ but not so here: Luke knows it is wrong for him to be there from the start. He has no strength to fight back from whatever is plaguing the base which only adds to increase the helplessness throughout.
The deep sea is always a fantastic location for horror – acting much like the hostile environs of space, it is an isolated and cruel place with little chance to escape. Just as it worked in Alien and Event Horizon, deep space horror acts the same as the deep sea here: it has the added danger of making one unable to extricate themselves, trapped within the very thing designed to keep them alive. Just like Event Horizon, madness and the unknown are major themes here. Meanwhile, much like The Thing, this is a base-gone-to-hell narrative, filled with body horror and gore. It is slowly revealed that of the three scientists down in the base, only one has survived with his mind intact – and that itself is dubious as the novel goes on. The fates of the others is slowly revealed with horrifying aplomb…
The animals present in the lab also make for a difficult read for those of us who love our pets – it has to be said! Disturbing scientific experiments conducted on them, both past and present, are depicted here with no fear for gore and surreal hideousness,
and spoilers: a particularly traumatic dog death later into the novel will probably stick with me for weeks… Cutter is not afraid to tug on our heartstrings therefore; the innocent animals, as well as the lost son of Luke and his ruined marriage, for example, only go to make the horror that much more cruel. Luke has suffered above the waves for years – and the suffering here is magnified tenfold below them.
Interestingly, this novel does delve into weird fiction territory too. The ambrosia, with its gelatinous and seemingly intelligent form, creates an alien unease, whilst the traumas of Luke and his brother’s shared childhood, at the hands of a hideous and vicious mother, become relived in Luke’s mind once he enters the base. These latter traumas become waking dreams – plaguing him both in sleep and as he explores the base. The past and the present become bizarrely intermingled. These traumas blend the unknown, the uncanny and weird, with the living and rational. A scientific base, the setting for cold logic and practice, is overcome here with bizarre visions and waking nightmares, of monstrous insectoid horrors, to impossible empty black holes hidden away on walls behind desks, leading to god knows where…
A visceral, gory, body horror filled novel, with plenty of moments of disturbing violence and terror to entertain even the hardened horror fan. It is a bleak novel from page one to the last, and I do not doubt that will split some readers, as will the bizarre final sections. However, if you want to be thoroughly grossed out, and a little bit more creeped out by deep sea fish, then you cannot really go wrong!