Who doesn’t love a good gothic ghost story?
It’s a tried and true formula that supports an almost endless array of plots and narrative threads inside of its creaky framework. Centuries have gone by without any real need to update the basics. Take one spooky old mansion, add a cast of diverse characters, insert a smidge of class commentary, and voila! You can mix and match as you like, of course, but the core remains the same. Even Mike Flanagan’s update of The Haunting of Hill House stayed true to the formula while trying to subvert it.
If it works, it works, right? These kinds of stories are fun, no matter where you set them or what you do with the framework you’re given. And so it is with Alma Katsu’s THE DEEP.
Katsu exchanges the normal mansion of gothic ghost stories for the HMS Titanic, a move that I was cautiously wary of at the outset of the novel. The setting seemed gimmicky and unnecessary at first—why not just any luxury liner? why The Titanic?—but the longer the story continued the more I understood. An air of doom lingers over the whole of the novel, with each passing day spent on board bringing us ever closer to destruction.
The mounting pressure of audience awareness of the historical facts of the tragedy meshes well with Katsu’s slow-burning gothic sensibilities. Ostensibly, we follow the ship maid Annie Hebbley, who’s thrust into a world of class expectation and aristocratic intrigue onboard the ill-fated ship. A series of deaths, the fears of a strange illness, and a rash of burglaries causes a rush of paranoia to spread through the ship as passengers and crew begin to fear—perhaps justly—that the ship has been cursed by a vengeful spirit.
As far as real terror goes, THE DEEP is somewhat tame. What Katsu excels at, however, is the building of tension in the face of the unknown. She’s playing a definite long game in this outing, lulling you into the world under the guise of historical drama while setting the stage for supernatural delights.
Along the way, Katsu does what the best writers of gothic horror do so well. Ghosts and the supernatural are secondary to the human drama. Like in, say, Crimson Peak or even The Haunting of Hill House, it’s the pasts of the characters that provide the real intrigue and even, to some degree, the real horror.
In that regard, Katsu has assembled a diverse cast of characters and character types through which she can explore the tensions of turn-of-the-century classism. The added bonus is that, unlike other haunted mansion tales, there is no escape from The Titanic. No amount of running into the night can save them from whatever may or may not be lurking in the halls and cabins of the ship as it careens towards tragedy.
This, admittedly, may not be enough to satiate the tastes of hardcore horror hounds but for fans of the genre, THE DEEP offers plenty of gothic delights and tension. While it might not be as good as her previous novel, The Hunger, which explored another historical tragedy (The Donner Party) and was nominated for a Stoker, Katsu once again proves how adept she is and blending historical drama with subverted horror tropes to craft a tense work that sings off of its pages.