Sunday, 16 April 2017

Five Creepy Ocean Stories To Shiver Your Timbers

As you know, I've been taking a short break from Imperial Demons over the past couple of weeks to write On A Dark Tide, a short story I've been repeatedly (and probably annoyingly) referring to as the creepy ocean story. It's nearly finished! I reckon I can have it done and dusted over the Easter weekend, and be back to work on Imperial Demons by Tuesday.

My jokey reference to it as a creepy ocean story got me thinking about other creepy ocean stories. It shouldn't be a surprise that I love reading and writing about the sea. UNDERTOW and THE SEA WIFE are both born of that love, although they're very different. On A Dark Tide is more akin to UNDERTOW, inspired by that idea that the deep, vast ocean is concealing a very alien and inhospitable world from us - and that maybe we don't want to uncover it's secrets.

These five books share that theme, and were all incredibly formative reads for me growing up. I make no apologies for three of them being Lovecraft stories. If you want creepy ocean stories, HP Lovecraft is your man. Enjoy!

DAGON was one of the first stories Lovecraft wrote as an adult, back in 1917. Told from the point of view of a morphine addict recounting a horrific experience he had as a merchant marine, it's classic Lovecraft, encapsulated into a short but striking story. Adrift in an unknown region of the ocean, he finds "a slimy expanse of hellish black mire" thrown to the ocean's surface by a volcanic upheaval. Upon exploring the landmass, he discovers an inhumanly large monolith covered in hieroglyphics that suggest a terrifying truth about humanity. As he studies the monolith, an enormous creature emerges from the waters. Insane with fear, the man escapes, but is cursed to madness as fear of the creature consumes him.

This was the first Lovecraft story I ever read! It set me on a long and happy path of trying to make everyone I knew read Lovecraft (only partially succeeding). It's short enough that his sometimes purple prose doesn't grate on you, and leaves enough to the imagination that you can't help being fascinated by his submerged civilisations and cold, distant gods.


On a rather different note, we have TELLING THE SEA by Pauline Fisk. I must have read this dozens of times as a child. It's the story of Nona, who moves with her mother to a coastal village in Wales to escape an abusive partner. Isolated and lonely, Nona deals with her troubles by sharing them with the sea. But as life grows more complicated and no answers seem to be in sight, Nona does more than just talk to the sea...And soon her life is danger as the waters lure her in.

This is a YA book dealing with some heavy topics - domestic abuse and suicide, chiefly. I don't think I truly appreciated as a child how well those topics were addressed, but it's a book that's stayed in my memory my whole life. The setting and Nona's strange, difficult relationships, and her sanctuary in the sea, make this a one-of-a-kind book.


Maybe the ultimate watery horror? In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming, as we all know. Francis Wayland Thurston, our narrator, retells his discovery of notes left by his deceased grand-uncle, which slowly unfold a disturbing tale of sinister cults, dead sailors, and a peculiar bas-relief sculpture that conjures "simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature."

CALL OF CTHULHU, for many people, is the Lovecraft story, and if you don't know any of his other works I can almost guarantee you've heard of Cthulhu somewhere. He was in the Ghostbusters cartoon, for goodness sake! Lovecraft himself thought the story "rather middling," but it's spawned an ongoing mythos that other writers and creators have been tapping into and expanding ever since Lovecraft's time. The idea of a slumbering alien god waiting at the bottom of the ocean is captivating, especially in light of things like the bloop (now explained, sadly) and the elusiveness of animals like the giant squid.


Oh man. If you want your high fantasy ripe with incest, have I got a book for you. Twins Valraven and Pharinet are heirs of a royal family cursed many hundreds of years before. Any woman married to Valraven was destined to become the Sea Wife, a being capable of commanding the vast powers of the sea dragons. Growing up, Val and Pharinet become lovers, and an intricate web of magic and betrayal engulfs them and everyone around them. 

I love this book, but it's definitely not for everyone. The nature of the sea dragons (are they real or just metaphors for the family's magic?) and the complex political intrigue make this an outstanding first book in the series. The rest of the trilogy drifts away from the ocean and the incredibly sinister dragons, sadly.


If I had to pick a favourite Lovecraft story, it would be this one (just edging out AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS). Our narrator, touring across New England, hears tales of ruined, strange Innsmouth, and decides to take a detour to the mysterious town. There unfolds a harrowing saga of malign underwater empires, and an ancient pact between men and monsters. It's part of the Cthulhu Mythos cycle and, yes, it absolutely did influence UNDERTOW, because it's great.

If I had to recommend you one book off this list, it would be this one. It's creepy ocean story personified, and still my go-to audio book when I can't sleep at night. I just love the story so much. For my money, it's better written than THE CALL OF CTHULHU, and tells a more complete tale. Get your creepy ocean story fix now!