Following up his sensational 2014 debut thriller, The Troop, was never going to be easy for Nick Cutter. But the author shows no lack of ambition in The Deep, another spectacular journey into the extremes of grotesque horror. If anything, the novel might suffer from being too ambitious.
In brief, a strange plague known as “the ’Gets” has swept the globe, debilitating people’s minds to the point that their bodies shut down as well. The only hope for a cure lies at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, eight miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, where a “sentient goo” that might turn out to be a wonder drug has just been found. A three-man scientific crew is working in a lab at the bottom of the trench, but something like underwater cabin fever appears to have set in. So Luke Nelson, the brother of one of the scientists, is sent down to investigate.
The isolated location allows Cutter to hammer with exquisite effectiveness on a number of staple horror themes. In the first place, there is the total darkness at the bottom of the ocean. Without sight, other senses are heightened: strange and scary sounds resonate throughout the lab as the lights start to flicker, and even smells are invoked as descriptors (the “stink of insanity,” the “reek of darkness,” and “the gamey stink of adrenaline”).
The journey to the bottom of the sea is a trip into inner space and the unconscious. An evil force eats into the characters’ heads by way of animated “dream pools,” nightmares come to life, and some Freudian furniture from Luke’s past has to be rearranged. Finally, there is the gnawing sense of claustrophobia. The trillions of tons of water that press in on the lab keep everyone on edge.
The Deep eschews the purely physical horror of The Troop for more psychological and supernatural frights (“ineffable” is a favourite word). This is both good and bad. While not lacking in bloody, gross-out effects, the novel also takes a rather woolly ride through a cluttered narrative. But genre fans should thrill at the book’s imaginative range and page-turning momentum, and not mind the mess.