This is how it will be when you drown. – Dead in the Water by Nancy Holder
If you ever come across a copy of Nancy Holder’s Dead in the Water, published in 1995 and winner of the Bram Stoker Award, pick it up and read the first chapter. It contains phenomenal, graphic description of drowning far from the romantic auspices of classical literature.
When Holder writes “You turn around to see your friends again. And they’re farther away than you thought they’d be. A lot farther,” it’s evocative of Stevie Smith’s 1957 poem “Not Waving But Drowning.” The choice of second person POV lends the chapter it’s power, effectively removing away the narrative screen between the reader and the action. It’s not some random unnamed character who’s drowning. It’s you.
Unfortunately, the rest of the novel never comes close to evoking that emotional punch.
It’s a great setup: A group of castaways are picked up by a luxury cruise ship when their own doomed freighter sinks on its way to Hawaii. Unsubtly named The Pandora, the ship and its eye-patched captain are not what they seem. Could it be they are on a ship where all the evils of the world are percolating below its shimmering, mirage-like exterior?
Like the ship itself, the novel is an incoherent jumble of dreams, hallucinations, images, graphic violence, and characters perpetually feeling sorry for themselves. Throw in Lorelei the water spirit, excessive quoting from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and an insidious fog (because when is fog ever benign?) and the novel ends up more confusing than compelling, verbose but hardly visionary.
- Reading Pet Peeve Alert: Lazy uses of classical myths to evoke (incorrectly) an association. Pandora was a woman whose curiosity caused her to accidentally unleash evil on the world. I don’t see how that corresponds with a murderous ghost-captain who sinks ships and enslaves the souls of the drowned in service to him. For a correct usage of this myth, please refer to The Girl with all the Gifts.
- Reading Pet Peeve Alert Part II: Throwing in pedophilia to grant a character automatic “evil” status. The character was nasty enough; I don’t get why we need to read about that. It’s repellent.
- Lady cop alert! How quaint that the blurb on the back of the book has to point out that the novel contains a “female cop packing a .38″ Emphasis mine. I know that may cause some readers to quake in their trousers, but don’t worry, she has a dickish, misogynist partner to balance out her offensive possession of ovaries. Who of course she’s in love with. It’s like The Wolfen on a boat!