"Beneath Cruel Waters" Book Review

Written by Tony Jones

Published by Blackstone Publishing

beneath cruel waters jon bassoff poster large

Written by Jon Bassoff
2022, 303 pages, Fiction
Released on 21st June 2022


Nine novels into a career which began back in 2013, Jon Bassoff continues on his own singular path, which frequently genre-hops and veers into the darkest of places whilst remaining refreshingly unpredictable. I have read most of his fiction and always look forward to discovering what curveballs he comes up with next. He is notoriously hard to pigeonhole and his type of horror is often blended with thriller, mystery or bizarro (and I have a feeling that is just the way he likes it). Of his recent output, I was a massive fan of both The Lantern Man (2020) and the Drive Thru Crematorium (2019), which illustrate the quirky breadth of his fiction. However, if you want something even wackier, then head to Jon’s previous novel Captain Clive’s Dreamworld. It is not by any means my favourite, but one cannot fault its creativity and originality.

Bassoff returns to calmer waters (physically, but certainly not mentally) with his most mainstream novel for some years and, with a bit of luck, this psychological thriller has the potential to be a hit. Beneath Cruel Waters is a very entertaining non-supernatural page-turning thriller which had me on the hook from the striking opening chapter, and I sped through in a couple of days. It is also blessed with a terrific sucker punch and very sneaky ending in which the reader probably thinks they have sussed what is coming before an outstanding final change of direction. This is a very cleverly-constructed book and most readers will enjoy being wrong-footed (like I did), with the most obvious answer not always the correct one, so follow the plot very closely.

I’m not going to contextualise the plot too much as it is very easy to head into spoiler territory by dropping too many hints. At the heart of the novel lies a long unspoken (the worst kind) family clash between a mother and son, which flicks back to when he was a child in the mid-eighties to returning home to Thompsonville, Colorado, for her funeral. Memory is one of the key background themes to the story and how well we remember things from our childhood and the impact repressed memories might have on our adult life. Kansas firefighter Holt Davidson makes the trek home for the first time in over twenty years and for some reason, vaguely unsettled with undiagnosed anxiety, cannot stop rattling the skeletons in his family’s closet.

Beneath Cruel Waters beautifully captures his fraught state of mind, who sees ghosts around every corner and cannot comprehend why his Jesus-loving mother might hang herself at a remote house way off the beaten track. Although he hopes to make peace with her memory, instead he spends the night at his childhood home, rummaging through each room exploring the past and the broken memories it holds. But nostalgic souvenirs are not what he uncovers; shocked, he discovers a gun, a love letter, and a Polaroid photograph of a man lying in his own blood. It is relatively easy to figure out who the dead man is, but it is only one part of a significantly more complex mystery which plays out via the pacey plot.

Holt’s relationship with his teenage sister is one of the great strengths and mysteries of the novel. On one level he remembers his bouncy and loving sister, who at some point takes a mental downturn and is institutionalised (with the ‘why’ being a key part of the novel). However, as a child, he is too small to remember any of the finer details, except that it also impacted his relationship with his mother. All this is intertwined around memory, murky childhood half-recollections, and the idea that the past is never buried and along the way takes in mental illness, domestic violence, and looks at religion in a relatively non-judgmental way. As thrillers go, I would not call this book a twister, as it is not difficult to predict the general direction it is heading; this does not make it any less enthralling or satisfying.

In Beneath Cruel Waters, Bassoff intricately peels back the layers very slowly and drops secrets and details a little at a time so experienced thriller readers can collect clues, bits and pieces of information, and formulate their own theories. As I said earlier, I thought I had cracked it, but still came up short. Ultimately this is a great but extraordinarily bleak read and proves we all have ghosts, especially in our childhood. Various points had me thinking of old haunts and places from my own personal life, where you expect characters from yesteryear to appear from around the corner. If you have never read Jon Bassoff, this is a great place to start, as this is easily one of his most accessible novels to date and then you can start having fun getting lost within his impressive and unique back catalogue.


Overall: 4 Star Rating Cover
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Tony Jones
Staff Reviewer
Such is Tony’s love of books, he has spent well over twenty years working as a school librarian where he is paid to talk to kids about horror. He is a Scotsman in exile who has lived in London for over two decades and credits discovering SE Hinton and Robert Cormier as a 13-year-old for his huge appetite for books. Tony previously spent five years writing The Greatest Scrum That Ever Was, a history book very few people bought. In the past he has written for Horror Novel Reviews and is a regular contributor to The Ginger Nuts of Horror website, often specialising in YA horror.
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