There’s something very familiar to me about living on an island, and about stories set on islands. The first is no surprise. I was born and raised in an island country, and continue to live here. The sea is a backdrop to daily life. I remember conversing with someone once, and he couldn’t understand why schools should teach swimming. He lived in the centre of a continent. Perhaps there weren’t many lakes around him, or many rivers either for that matter. Perhaps he never spent time around water at all, and geography was enough to convince him that swimming wasn’t a necessary skill.
That’s not really a mindset I’ve ever had to encompass. When the ocean is right there, when it’s always around you, swimming is a normal part of life. Of course everyone should have swimming lessons, I thought. It’s sensible practice. It’s sensible because water is dangerous. It is so very easy to drown.
Drowning, in C. A. Fletcher’s Dead Water, isn’t just an everyday threat. It’s temptation as well, and that temptation is in many ways more frightening than the water zombies that will soon result. Sig starts her days freediving. She doesn’t take oxygen, and she doesn’t take a friend. She swims out from the beach to a distant buoy, and then she swims down, swims until her balance changes in the water and it starts to suck her down rather than hold her up. That possibility’s the main attraction: “not just the purity of the practice itself but the end of magical thinking, the death of extraneous thought and a place where the past is finally, mercifully silent. And of course that small escape carries with it the possibility of the larger one” (p. 8).
Each dive is a dare. Sig is a widow, her husband killed several years back in an accident on his way home from work. She’s found a way to blame herself for that, because if she’d just done something different then maybe the flap of that difference’s butterfly wing could have seen him leave earlier or later or not at all. She is the only one who blames herself, and that blame is isolating. She’s become estranged from her in-laws, particularly her newly paralysed orphan niece. She’s estranged from Matt, one of her closest friends, because he can no longer tolerate the carelessness with which she treats her own life. Matt’s a fisherman, and like everyone who makes their living on the water his attitude towards it is pure pragmatism, without the gloss of the romantic. Water, Matt knows, is dangerous. It will kill you and not bat a single oceanic eyelash. It’s not even the freediving. It’s that Sig does it alone, so that there’s no one to help her if she gets into trouble, or if she gives in to the grief that’s inside her, the trouble that’s sinking her down as surely as weights would.
In diving the way that she does, Sig is committing the cardinal sin for island folk. The sea fosters interdependence, and in this small community thirty-five miles off the coast of Scotland, dependence on others is necessity. The weather is sometimes too rough for ferries, and who you live alongside can be the only people, in an emergency, you have to rely on. These communities are interknit, and Sig is not only shutting them out, she is making them—forcing them—to be spectators to her own slow suicide. As if there isn’t the possibility, always, of them having to fish friends and relations out of the water when a storm comes, or a boat goes down. As if they haven’t had to quietly brace themselves against that possibility all along.
It’s no surprise that Matt has had a gutsful of this destructive behaviour, which he calls “deeply selfish bullshit” (p. 24). He can see where it will end up, and not only because he, like his grandmother, has the gift of a somewhat sporadic second sight. Kathleen, having visions of her own, is more concerned with the potential for a wider horror. Something’s coming for the island, she thinks, and it’s coming for everyone who lives on it.
She’s not wrong, but before I get to the water zombies, one more note on Sig. Her isolation, caused by a traumatic and unresolved event in her past, is a microcosm both of the wider threat in general, and the state of many of the characters of Dead Water. For all that I’ve been talking about community bonds in an isolated rural community, one that is both restricted and influenced so heavily by water, Sig’s is a community that is quietly fracturing. There are a lot of characters here, and many of them are increasingly disconnected from the people around them, and suffering from chronic loneliness: the Polish migrant, working all hours at multiple jobs; the woman who’s escaped to the island in order to get away from a criminal ex-partner; the elderly widower who’s turning into a peeping tom; the resentful kid who’s stuck on the island with his dad’s second (and none too happy) family. In one sense it’s inevitable that evil has come to the island, because it’s a place where geographic isolation is blurring into the isolation of the individual. It’s a small place, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and that keeps things together, just enough, until it doesn’t.
It’s no surprise that the water gets them in the end.
Except it’s not really water—or not only water—and as with Sig, it’s history that’s driving it. A long time ago, in a story that’s told in italicised fragments through the book, a warrior killed his enemies and dumped their bodies in wells. He poisoned the water of a far country, of a distant people, and in return he was cursed. That curse, across generations, across geography, has come home to roost. This genesis story is sparsely told, and the connection between the dead water that was and the dead water that is could honestly stand to have been teased out a little more; but Fletcher chooses instead to leave the connections a little loose, a little fluid, and given that the creepiest part of this horror story is the water zombies I can’t honestly blame him. The zombies are more interesting.
Well. I call them zombies. They’re not, or not exactly, but zombies are linked so often to infection, to the transmission of corruption, that it seems the most useful analogue. The water is cursed, and when you live on an island, that’s a lot of cursed water to be dealing with. When I was writing, at the beginning of this review, about how swimming lessons were a means of staving off the threat that comes with the constant presence and potential of drowning? It’s a threat that’s both emphasised and undermined by familiarity. Water is a necessity; we’ll die without it. We’ll die, too, if we get too much of it, and that means that water’s presence in our lives, and in our bodies, has to be very carefully controlled.
In Dead Water, the water is of the dead, inside the dead, and it is entirely uncontrolled. One of the first indications that a person has been infected by the curse is the supernatural shedding of water, as if some sort of internal tap has turned on and then been broken, so that the flow goes on, unabated. Just look at what happens when Graham comes across his wife, Sally, after she’s been infected:
It’s the water welling from those eyes, the water speeding the rivulets on their way. It’s spilling gently out of her mouth too, unending water, water that can’t possibly keep coming, any more than he can push himself backwards through the sofa as she clamps her hands on to his shoulders and clamps her mouth over his rising scream and drowns it. (p. 280)
That’s it for Graham, as the water comes spilling out of his wife’s body and flows into his, into his mouth and lungs and stomach. He chokes on it, suffocates on it, and then the water becomes part of him and the flow reverses, and he’s infected, too, “drowning forever” (p. 280).
It’s not always a very wet kiss that does it, either. Graham’s at home when Sally finds him. Had he been outside, near the water, he might well have become infected in the same way as everyone else who finds themselves cornered close to shoreline. That is, he’d be knocked down and dragged to the sea and forced underwater. He’d join the rest of the drowned there, looking up through the waves, looking for the next victim.
The scary thing about all this drowning is that the drowned may belong to the sea, ultimately, but they don’t have to stay there. Sig, Matt, and a few other surviving characters eventually figure out what’s going on, but that doesn’t save them from being followed by a watery mob. Walking out of the sea, following the sight and sound of the undrowned, the dead waters hunt down the living. They want to drown. They want to infect, and there’s a chase sequence towards the end that is very reminiscent of zombies going after living flesh: “A small crowd of drowned are coming out of the sea and walking straight at the window, eyes dead and hateful, mouths open—some hanging loose, some with teeth gritted, all with water welling out of them” (p. 471). In this case, it’s dead water going for live water, cursed water going after clean, the poisoning of the wells all over again. Yet history is not only the cause of subsequent events; it also grants the ability to learn from them and do better in the future, and Dead Water reiterates this on both individual and supernatural levels.
It’s not just Sig, having to reconcile herself to past loss and learn to start living again, who chooses once more to be part of a community. It’s the water-defiling warrior, trapped in his own undeath, watching over generations as he once tried to cut other generations short. This is an end that is, admittedly, abrupt. I can understand that Fletcher doesn’t wish to belabour the point, but the same story of isolation within the community, and of how that isolation can hurt, is told over and over again within Dead Water. Belabouring is a dead issue at this point, if you’ll excuse the phrasing.
Freediving, for people like Sig, is so insidious because the water is so tempting—and so deadly—that it may not be possible to leave it. But part of freediving, when it doesn’t end in disaster, is coming up: rejoining the world, choosing to live. Because Dead Water ends on so sudden a survival, it doesn’t quite engage with this aspect of that initial imagery. So many members of this community are dead. There is so little available to explain why, or even how. The survivors, few as they are, have been shattered. They still have so many bodies to pull out of the water. This is tragedy that’s hard to recover from, the same kind that can prompt some to seek isolation in the first place. Who’s to say that the waters of the island haven’t been poisoned for the living, in a very real way, albeit a different one to the poisoning which kicked off the whole curse in the first place?
I suspect we’re meant to assume that such a poisoning won’t occur. Given how many coastal communities carry on after mass drowning, that outcome might well be true. Grief, after all, is itself a dark water—but you can learn to swim through it.
Editors: Reviews Department
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department