OCTOBER SPOOKTACULAR CONTINUES!
a couple years back, i read this author’s horror-spin on the donner party tragedy, The Hunger. i loved her writing, and i thought the way she handled the historical details was excellent, but the horror elements seemed extraneous; they were fine, but they didn’t really contribute much to the story, which is a bit of history horrifically gruesome enough without adding supernatural elements to it. this one, however, is a perfect melding of history and horror, and it’s one of those books you just lose yourself in, blinking up out of bewilderingly when something in the real world startles you, like a bird dive-bombing you or the subway car suddenly going dark. both of which happened to me.
i snatched up this arc the moment i saw it, bewitched by that cover,
and knowing that, even if the horror element didn’t wow me, her writing would be exceptional. going into this, i wasn’t sure what shape that horror element would take; if this was a mermaid/siren situation or ghosties or some sort of sea monster, and i very much liked the not-knowing, so i’m gonna play coy in this review to give other readers the same discovery experience. i do think it’s funny that i specifically referenced the titanic in my review for The Hunger, speaking about the various ways other authors have combined horror and history, and i will only say that this one is NOT a zombie situation.
the story shifts between two historical disasters at sea, tragedies linked by a woman unfortunate enough to have been a passenger on both the titanic in 1912 and its semblable-ship, the britannic in 1914, both of which SPOILER ALERT FOR NAUTICAL HISTORY came to bad ends; one doomed by iceberg, one by naval mines.
there are multiple POVs here, but the main focus is annie hebbley, a young irishwoman who had served as a maid to the wealthy passengers on the titanic’s final voyage. she managed to escape the ship’s sinking, but had no memory of her experiences on the titanic, nor of her life before the catastrophe, and she had been institutionalized in a liverpool asylum ever since. over time, her memories had begun to return, along with an irresistible compulsion to return to the sea. when she receives a letter from her friend violet—who had also served on and survived the titanic—entreating her to join her as a nurse on the titanic’s sister ship, newly repurposed as a floating hospital for the war effort, she does not hesitate. me, i would hesitate. fool me once&etc, but annie is drawn to/by the sea and, once aboard the britannic, she encounters a wounded soldier whose face she remembers very well, indeed.
the action shifts between the titanic and the britannic, with katsu expertly manipulating several layers of cryptic plot-threads throughout, only some of which are supernatural. she does an excellent job prolonging the suspense on all fronts, even though the ending of the titanic storyline is a given, and it is a complex and rewarding read.
annie is the linchpin to the separate storylines, but the story is deliciously wide in scope, following the exploits of several passengers in its dual-ship/time period narrative, spooling out stories of the mostly-doomed, historically significant, passengers. there’s an almost edith whartony dramatic sensibility at work, detailing the lives and problems and secret vices of the wealthy as well as those…less gem-encrusted, providing a sort of—whatever the floating version of ‘upstairs downstairs’ is called—dynamic, rich in intrigue and romance and social envy. and—oh, those boxers…
it was such a perfect book to read for spookymonth—the story is compelling, dramatic, and fairly fast-paced while still being detail-rich, and the horror elements are gracefully woven into a story of grief and guilt and survival and fate and love.
i’m going to risk quoting an overlong passage from the arc because it’s a great example of her writing style: immersive, descriptive, and almost lulling in nature, as annie boards the britannic for the first time, fragile and disoriented by the sudden transition from asylum to the larger world, processing her still-returning memories while being further unsettled by the blurring of the two ships in her mind; the unsettling superimposition of their similarities and differences. and alla that.
She marches up the gangplank. Everyone is in a uniform, without exception, and these are serious uniforms, not the White Star Line livery that she’s used to. The men wear drab olive wool, the nurses in sweeping blue skirts with capes over their shoulders against the chill, faces framed by wimples. Everyone is busy, intent on whatever it is they’ve been set to do. No one pays any attention to her.
Inside, it’s even more different. She finds it hard to imagine this ship was ever like the Titanic, it’s been changed so much, like a woman after childbirth—ragged and pale and vacant.
Inside, it could be any hospital. If you weren’t near a porthole or door, you wouldn’t know you were on a ship. Everything that made the Titanic sparkling and grand has been taken away. There are no deck chairs or card tables, no crystal chandeliers or wicker chaises. It is all antiseptic and uniform. Rows of cots for the patients, cupboards filled with supplies. And everywhere: bustle. Nurses supervise as men are loaded onto stretchers. Orderlies pass by with full stretchers, making their way to ambulances waiting on the dock below, then return with empty stretchers for the next lot. Some patients make their way on foot—arms in slings, heads wrapped, usually escorted by a nurse or orderly. There is as much commotion as on the Titanic’s boarding day. Annie remembers the crush of humanity that had come up the gangplanks that day and instinctively takes a deep breath. So many people, it had felt like she was being swamped by a giant wave. Swamped and sucked under.
But these are no guests, only survivors, each wth a story tucked inside their bandages—wounds, pains, visions of shrapnel, explosions, and terrors she can’t fathom. These are the half dead.
And the bustling staff have signed on to attend to them, to usher them either back to our world or into the one beyond. An altogether different kind of voyage.
phoar, right? a wonderful addition to the world of historical horror, and i’m ready to read what she does next! incidentally, if anyone has a working link to A Twitter ghost, send it my way? i’d like to read it as part of my december short story advent calendar project, but i can’t seem to find it in its entirety, and i mistrust the one place i found that wants me to download some app-thingie because i am the kind of person who would NOT get back on a boat after surviving a watery disaster like the titanic. i do not court calamity.