"From Below" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Poisoned Pen Press
Written by Darcy Coates
2022, 352 pages, Fiction
Released on 7th June 2022
Since arriving on the horror scene in 2015, Darcy Coates has written well over twenty novels which include three separate series, two short story collections and fifteen standalone works of fiction. Until I tackled From Below, I had read exactly zero of them. Having a reputation for prolifically writing ‘cosy’ or easy-read ghost stories, which are said to lack a serious fear factor, I had avoided her until this maritime horror tale caught my attention. Being unsure what to expect, I was very surprised to be effortlessly swept away and totally immersed within twenty pages in discovering the fate of the five divers when they located the sunken ship, the SS Arcadia. There is nothing more satisfying than being caught off guard by a work of fiction (or having a preconceived opinion disproved!), as From Below had me gasping for air along with the terrified explorers.
From Below has two story strands and wastes absolutely no time in jumping in at the deep end with the present-day narrative focusing upon a small crew in the Gulf of Bothnia, forty-one miles off the coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea, about to send five divers to investigate the recently-discovered ocean-liner for a television documentary. The second heads back to 1928, eleven days before the sinking of the ship, with a countdown which slowly edges towards the disaster with revelations both startling and unsettling. In historical terms, the SS Arcadia is a great maritime mystery, even though distress calls were logged, the reason for its sinking was never uncovered, with there being no survivors or reasons why it strayed hundreds of miles off course. In the early stages of the novel, I was much more attracted to the current plotline, but as the happenings in 1928 got stranger, weirder and decidedly freaky, I found they balanced each other perfectly and are equally compelling.
This is not an action novel and the numerous swimming and diving scenes are handled beautifully and realistically; never for a moment did I think I was in the midst of a Lara Croft: Tomb Raider adventure! Instead, these sequences are incredibly atmospheric, threatening and hauntingly claustrophobic, with the edginess of the characters soaking and dripping onto the page. One gets the feeling anything could go wrong at any moment and this is jittery stuff which intensifies as the number of dives increases. When this is pitched against the paranoia in the 1928 narrative, the combination is sublime; it is not fast-paced, but neither does it feel slow or overlong. I know zero about diving, but the attention to detail in the underwater swimming sequences comes across as incredibly authentic and as the various oxygen counts drop, I found myself getting jumpy! (For the record, this is the recommended oxygen usage in the book: 25% to get to the wreck, 25% to explore, 25% to get home and 25% for emergencies.) And I guarantee you will need that final 25%!
Another strength of From Below is the engaging range of characters which are presented in the third person, with the narrative focussing on a couple of them. The main five – Cove, Roy, Aiden, Hestie and Vanna – all have different roles and varying degrees of nautical experience. Cove is the expedition leader, Hestie the scientist and Vanna the diving expert who calls the shots when underwater. The tension increases when we realise that a couple of the divers are lacking in experience and may even have an odd skeleton in their closet. The characters bounce off each other and are engaging enough to enhance the plot, especially when things begin to go haywire underwater.
I am not going to say anything about what happens underwater except that it is beautifully restrained and paced over four dives, all of which take considerable page time. Even neater is the fact that it is not at all obvious how the bizarre events of 1928 connect to the present-day events, but the way in which everything comes together is both clever and plausible. The fact that the divers need a certain number of hours of film for the documentary makes things even more riveting, as even after the first dive they have the feeling something is not right, beginning to worry about the true circumstances of the sinking.
The structure and layout of the AA Arcadia are so vividly described, I can still visualise the silent corridors, undisturbed bedrooms and upturned tables. And that’s before we even get to the cryptic messages scrawled on various surfaces. “They’re in the walls.” Yikes! Some of these scenes are outstanding and contribute to a truly memorable and atmospheric horror novel. A one-way ticket to Hell waits for those brave enough to take a trip on the AA Arcadia!
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