Sig is a loner even by the standards of the remote island community she lives on the margins of. Haunted by guilt, she has cut herself off from friends and family. But when an older, darker sin is uncovered by an ignorant visitor, Sig must decide whether she is truly ready to turn her back on her world.
I am helpless in the face of terror on a Scottish isle. Promise me bad weather and a host of other mundane reasons to live cautiously; stir in an unexpected threat of choice (here, billed as ‘a waterborne blight’), and I am here to fear – and cheer – for the remote community that must rise to the occasion. Dead Water delivers all of this, packaged in an intimate story of personal trauma.
My only – slightly amused – side-eye is for whoever wrote the blurb, which suggests a more ambiguous tone to the unfolding drama than is in fact the case. If you’re seeking a creeping horror that may or may not have a supernatural source, this unapologetic Scottish folk horror may not be for you. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a story that charges out of the gate with all the scares, you may find Dead Water too slow for your tastes.
C A Fletcher invests the first half of the book in his cast and location. His all-the-POV approach – unafraid to switch POVs mid-scene – would not usually be to my taste, but he deftly establishes key characters with painful depths, creating an unexpectedly intimate atmosphere in spite of the head-hopping. The approach clearly conveys that this is a book about community, determined to convey the varied threads of island life before they get snipped out (although I admit I did reach saturation; I could have done with a couple fewer points of view in the first phase).
I admired that few of the characters were easy to like, but all were easy to love. Sig is all sharp edges and exposed nerves, a young widow who free dives alone to escape the vicious circle of her own thoughts. Matt the fisherman, her cousin by marriage, is certain she’s trying to kill herself. Their relationship has broken down, a once-close friendship that both desperately need reduced to harsh judgement and sharp words (yet when we see Matt with others, he’s wise and supportive). Evie, her teenage niece, is adjusting to life as an orphan in a wheelchair after a horrific car crash, as fiercely independent as Sig and just as vulnerable. They have so much in common, I couldn’t help but wish that Sig would let her in; but Sig is locked behind emotional walls, unwilling to allow any connections that could lead to her letting someone else down.
The rest of the community spring to vibrant life in small anecdotes: the widower who watches Sig swim, worried he’s becoming a pervert; an abusive ex struggling with anger management; a secret lover of loud music and dancing; a young family riven by resentment; the hard graft to scrabble a living and the loneliness of the ageing population. This is a small community where everyone is entangled, relationships defined by griefs and grudges, kindnesses and trespasses and tolerance.
When things go wrong, it’s in a series of heart-stopping moments that alternate between false alarms, unexpected stomach flips (who knew a dog licking someone could be so chilling), the creeping chill of knowing more than the protagonists (I screamed from the start of Sig’s second free dive), and the almost ludicrous progression of events that lead to the island being cut off.
While I always expected Dead Water to end up in the territory of fantastic horror, that blurb set me up to expect a red herring arc of misinterpretations with possible side-eye for corporate polluters. And yes, it was tempting early on to read an ecological theme into a man digging up something that should have stayed in the ground and unleashing hell on a community he was no part of. In the end, though, Dead Water is all ancient curses and water zombies. If the sudden escalation from mundane drama to supernatural carnage was slightly disconcerting, I thoroughly enjoyed it on its own terms nonetheless.
This is one of those reads that it is far too easy to stay up far too late reading just one more chapter of. I had some minor quibbles with the surprisingly uplifting ending – I felt it should have at least acknowledged the impact the awful events will have on the community – but overall this is a dark rollercoaster I can only recommend to those seeking spooky thrills.
I received an advance copy from the publisher for review.
Content reassurances (“does the dog die?”) – survival spoilers!
It can be assumed that Milly does not survive, but Rex does. The children do not die. Hats off also to CA Fletcher for giving his cast disabilities and not making those the focus of the horror or the cause of any character deaths.