When the Imagine Network commissioned a documentary on mermaids, to be filmed from the cruise ship Atargatis, they expected what they had always received before: an assortment of eyewitness reports that proved nothing, some footage that proved even less, and the kind of ratings that only came from peddling imaginary creatures to the masses.
They didn’t expect actual mermaids. They certainly didn’t expect those mermaids to have teeth.
This is the story of the Atargatis, lost at sea with all hands. Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy. Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the bathypelagic zone in the Mariana Trench…and the depths are very good at keeping secrets.
Seanan McGuire’s work under her pseudonym of Mira Grant is characterised by scientific detail, an interest in the scientific process, and zombies. Two of those three characteristics are exhibited in Rolling in the Deep, but the zombies are absent; instead, Grant is plumbing the depths for her monsters, in this case mermaids.
Actually, for anyone familiar with mythology, Grant’s mermaids aren’t as unfamiliar as the blurb suggests; Rolling in the Deep, as the text itself acknowledges, owes something of a debt to the sirens of the Odyssey, in its approach to the monstrous mermaids. It also owes a bit of a debt to the SyFy and History channels and to the found footage model of horror films, in its construction; told as a mix of false documentary voiceover and standard prose storytelling, Grant uses one to set the scene and ramp up the horror while the other tells her story and makes us care about that horror. It’s an effective combination, giving the reader a sense of impending dread without knowing what will happen while also giving us mundanity to contrast with that horror.
Grant continues to impress when the horror first appears, using the techniques of films like Jaws and Alien; having built up a sense of impending doom, she starts to give the reader flashes of the monster, brief and partial glimpses, while the cast of Rolling in the Deep are picked off one by one. It isn’t until the very close of the novel that we get a complete image of one of the monsters, and that is used to excellent effect, emphasising the horrific nature of these sirens, their violence and cruelty. Grant also accomplishes a lot by showing the final massacre of the characters from the points of view of a number of them; their different responses evoke the reality of a diversity of human reactions, and works very effectively to further the horror-agenda that she is pursuing. Unfortunately, it is during this sequence in Rolling in the Deep that Grant makes a misstep; a brief lighthearted moment breaks the tension and, rather than allowing it to come back more strongly, simply seems to be misplaced humour not justified by the amusement of the passage.
The final piece of the novella is its characters. Rolling in the Deep suffers slightly from having characters we have seen before from Grant, simply with different names attached; but at the same time this diverse cast (we have characters of various genders, sexualities, and races, and some disabled characters) works well in the jontext of the novella, especially the friendships between Anna the self-aware presenter and her cameraman Kevin, and between the captain of the cruiseship and her deaf longstanding first mate. Those friendships humanise those characters more than some of the others, although their increased pagetime also helps; while the girls of the Blue Seas mermaid troupe have the potential to be interesting, there is a little too much “tell” in their characterisation, in no small part because they only appear briefly as individuals.
In the end, though, Rolling in the Deep isn’t about character; it’s about making mermaids back into horrifying monsters. That is something Grant can be proud of having done excellently.