Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column co-curated by myself and the brilliant Brit Mandelo, and dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
So, did you know March 22nd was designated World Water Day? Till this year, I didn’t.
Were you aware that 2013 marked the 21st time nations have united to celebrate freshwater in all its forms? Before I sat down to work on this column, I wasn’t.
Tunnel vision is a truly terrible thing, but to a greater or lesser extent, I suppose we all suffer from it. If something doesn’t affect us personally, it can seem as if it doesn’t exist. But it does. Droughts, dirty water and the diseases that arise from drinking it, for want of anything better, kill millions of people every year.
To wit, World Water Day exists “as a means of focusing attention on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources,” and to commemorate the occasion this year, The Guardian—in association with the National Lottery-funded Arts Council—set a diverse assortment of authors a deceptively simple task: they were to write water stories.
We’ll be talking about two of the resulting tales today, beginning with “Down to a Sunless Sea” by the great Neil Gaiman.
At approximately 1000 words, it’s a very short short story—shorter even than this column—yet its brevity does not detract from its alarming impact.
“Down to a Sunless Sea” opens on a disquieting denial of the apparent majesty of England’s longest river and largest city:
The Thames is a filthy beast: it winds through London like a snake, or a sea serpent. All the rivers flow into it, the Fleet and the Tyburn and the Neckinger, carrying all the filth and scum and waste, the bodies of cats and dogs and the bones of sheep and pigs down into the brown water of the Thames, which carries them east into the estuary and from there into the North Sea and oblivion.
It is raining in London. The rain washes the dirt into the gutters, and it swells streams into rivers, rivers into powerful things. The rain is a noisy thing, splashing and pattering and rattling the rooftops. If it is clean water as it falls from the skies it only needs to touch London to become dirt, to stir dust and make it mud.
This ghastly give and take serves to set the scene for Gaiman’s tale, giving an impression of austerity—all the while connoting corruption—that the remainder only reinforces.
Soon we’re introduced to a woman who walks the Rothehithe docks, who has for decades haunted the sailors and the sea, for reasons which will become clear.
Here the author shifts into the second person:
You take refuge from the deluge beneath a canvas awning put up by a sailmaker. You believe yourself to be alone under there, at first, for she is statue-still and staring out across the water, even though there is nothing to be seen through the curtain of rain. The far side of the Thames has vanished.
And then she sees you. She sees you and she begins to talk, not to you, oh no, but to the grey water that falls from the grey sky into the grey river.
From this perspective Gaiman addresses us directly, to unsettling effect; a feeling which grows and grows as the story goes on. When the poor woman starts speaking, we are her captive audience—you and I are, rather than some paper-thin protagonist out for a wander along the water.
Her harrowing history then emerges in the form of a miserable monologue:
“There’s ships of ill-omen. Bad ships. They give them a lick of paint after each disaster, and a new name, to fool the unwary.
“Sailors are superstitious. The word gets around. This ship was run aground by its captain, on orders of the owners, to defraud the insurers; and then, all mended and as good as new, it gets taken by pirates; and then it takes shipment of blankets and becomes a plague ship crewed by the dead, and only three men bring it into port in Harwich...
“My son had shipped on a stormcrow ship. It was on the homeward leg of the journey, with him bringing me his wages—for he was too young to have spent them on women and on grog, like his father—that the storm hit.”
I’ll leave you to learn what happens afterwards by reading the story itself—oh, go on... it’ll take you all of two minutes—but be assured that it’s eerie, surreal, and grimly gripping. Gaiman’s initially peculiar use of perspective involves us—implicates us, even—in all that follows, such that I couldn’t look away till “Down to a Sunless Sea” was done... and by then, it had made its mark.
With its monologue and direct address, “Down to a Sunless Sea” adapts aspects of drama (as opposed to prose) to evoke a feeling of unease, and while “Wilderness” gives rise to a similar response in the reader, Sarah Hall—Arthur C. Clarke award-nominated for her under-appreciated 2007 genre novel, The Carhullan Army—goes about her business in a more prosaic way.
The titular wilderness is the countryside of South Africa, into which three friends venture. Well... I say friends, but theirs is not the best of bonds: Becca only met Zachary a few days ago, and though they’re dating, she doesn’t see a future with Joe. Zachary and Joe are old mates, though. This we know because they bicker with one another like lovers.
But what are these three doing wandering the wastes anyway? Well, the trio plan to walk the rusted-over railway tracks of the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, which my Google-fu informs me was the last remaining steam train on the continent before it stopped operating in nought nine.
With its “enormous rock buttresses [and] crescents of sand in the interstices,” the almost scorched earth setting of Hall’s short is inhospitable from the first, meanwhile the railway-based rambling put me in mind of The Body by Stephen King. That being said, the author name-checks It instead:
They walked with heads down, their anoraks crackling. Now and then they spoke about fears and phobias. Heights. Needles. Being shot in the back of the head in the cinema. Clown’s mouths.
– Clown’s mouths?
Joe snorted. He paused a moment on the track, then carried on.
– Don’t you mean, just, clowns? The whole clown entity is considered sinister, Zach.
– I do not, mate, Zachary said. I mean exactly their mouths. Their weird lipsticky mouths.
– Maybe it’s It, Becca called.
Zach leaned out, seaward, and looked around Joe.
– What’s that, hon?
– You know. It. The killer clown film. Bad teeth. Jaundice. Stephen King. Maybe you’re thinking of him.
– Haven’t seen it. I don’t like horror.
Strange how even the spectre of Stephen King can affect one’s expectations. At the outset of “Wilderness,” I hadn’t the foggiest idea what more Hall had in store, but this early exchange led me to believe something wicked was coming.
A dangerous stranger approaching on the path, perhaps?
He was tall and thin, the brilliant, salt-scoured thin of driftwood, nothing left on him but hard knots. He was wearing combat shorts and a navy waistcoat, old military boots strapped up his shins. He was swinging a see-through plastic carrier bag with something dark and smeary inside. They watched him approach then stepped aside to let him pass.
– Howzit, Zach said.
– Oh, fine, fine, the man said. Beauty, yes indeed. I’ve got mine here, thank you.
He shook the bag and the lumpy thing inside chunked about. His eyes were bright without any kind of reason, and slid off everything as soon as making contact. He was gurning a big smile, his teeth brown and cranked apart. As he passed by Becca got a big crackly feeling off him, a whiff of illness, sweat, and something foisty, like wet fur. For a moment he looked like he might stop and deal out some nonsense, but instead he shook the unholy carrier again, muttered, and carried on up the tracks. The dark of the tunnel swallowed him.
Left to her own awful thoughts as the boys banter violently about this and that, Becca’s fears come to the fore, and only when “Wilderness” culminates in a terrifying crawl across a rickety bridge do we realise we’re stuck in her head as well:
The entire edifice was corroding. There were ragged little holes where rust had eaten through the walkway’s metal plates and some of the plates were riven apart so she had to step over airy sections to make the next solid piece. Through the gap between walkway and tracks she saw the tide rolling in, white-crested, fast. The estuary came into focus. Its mad colours and chicaning rivulets. If they were to fall, the water wouldn’t be deep enough to—No. A bad thought.
Aside this single instance, “Wilderness” is rather less of a water story than “Down to a Sunless Sea,” but what it lacks as regards relevance, it makes up for in terms of terror.
Two tip-top tales, then, and we’ve hardly scratched the surface of all the short fiction published by The Guardian to commemorate World Water Day. I’d very much recommend you read the others, also. They’re completely free, and in honour of a truly good cause: namely raising awareness about an ongoing catastrophe that can, unlike so many others, be overcome.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet about books, too!