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Swimming with the Fishes

I was a long time learning how to swim. It wasn’t that the lake ever did anything to me; the only time I ever came close to drowning was in my imagination. But it was only in my teens, in the backyard pool of the DiMuccio family, that I learned that immersing myself to the crown of my skull, filling my nostrils with water, did not immediately lead me to a watery grave.

That realization mediated the fear. It didn’t do as much for the terror. After all, everybody who’s evolved half a brain knows it in their bones: the water isn’t the worst thing about the ocean. It’s this: the water filled with monsters. They slip through it silently, and swiftly, with terrible purpose.

Just ask Beowulf.

Before he took on the killjoy demon Grendel at King Hrothgar’s mead hall, the hard-bodied Geat had to swim a sea full of ravenous beasts. Fresh from ripping Grendel’s arm out of its socket, he battled Grendel’s mother, a true amphibious horror, in the depths of her underwater lair. Beowulf took it all in stride, at least as the bards tell it. But in the whole history of fantastical creatures from the sea, he is like the redneck uncle who tells you to stop complaining about the walk to school, because when he was a boy, it was a twelve mile hike through solid ice, and he liked it…

On second thought, better not ask Beowulf. The creatures of the sea may not be tougher than Beowulf—but they’re tougher than everyone else who came after.

Take the case of poor Amity Police Chief Martin Brody.

When Jaws was released in 1975, it had the same effect on casual swimmers that The Exorcist did on the devout. There was nothing supernatural about the great white shark with a taste for tourist. But as imagined by author Peter Benchley and realized by director Stephen Spielberg, the big fish called Bruce became an kind of Darwinian demon; a creature honed to its purpose millions of years ago, a predator that ignites instincts to flee deep in our hind brain, and more terrifying than that….

He might just have been a distant relation.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft understood this on a profound if somewhat misguided level. In his novella “Shadows Over Innsmouth,” Lovecraft posited the idea that when humanity’s progenitor flopped out of the ocean and learned to breathe the air, a whole host of its brothers and sisters figured they’d stick to the sea for awhile thank you very much. Naturally, when the stars were right, the Deep Ones as they became known, thought they’d pay us a visit. The result was what is to my mind Lovecraft’s most conventionally terrifying story in his Cthulhu Mythos cycle—a fish-out-of-water story of a prodigal who returns to the corrupt village of Innsmouth, that demonstrates the horrors of what happens when cousins marry cousins—and one of those cousins happens to be a fish.

We came from the sea, says Lovecraft. If we’re not careful about preserving our humanity… we may well go back there.

And if that—the prospect of ending your days tangled in some Russian fisherman’s net along with the tuna and the dolphins—isn’t bad enough… It looks as though God might just be waiting for us there, too.

In his underwater city of R’lyeh, great Cthulhu lies dreaming.

Yeah, Cthulhu’s one tough bastard. A hundred feet tall with a head like an octopus and great big bat wings. You take one look at him and lose your mind. Most of the time, he sleeps underwater, but when those stars align, he’ll rise from the waves to devour the world, and there’s not a damn thing anyone will be able to do about it. Hit him with a rocket, he might explode into a thin green mist, but he’ll reincorporate before you can restart your outboard.

For a self-described atheist, Lovecraft sure liked his gods. Although like may have been the wrong word. He created a pantheon of amoral, alien superbeings that regarded their creation not as beloved worshippers, but at best a buffet. Many of them came from the stars, and depending on who you want to believe, Cthulhu was one of those.

But that was always academic. Cthulhu may have been borne of the heavens, but the ocean was his swaddling. And if he may not have been a template, he was certainly a precursor to that other great beast from the sea, Gojira, the King of Monsters.

Lovecraft’s notion of the horrors undersea has been precursor and inspiration to a lot of work that came after. Stuart Gordon took the Deep Ones on directly with his 2001 film Dagon, providing a reasonably faithful adaptation of The Shadows Over Innsmouth and Lovecraft’s short-short Dagon.

In 2005, Catalan author Albert Sanchez Pinol took the notion of Deep Ones to even creepier depths, with his novel Cold Skin. The undersea creatures in that novel live off the edge of an island near the Antarctic; the nameless protagonist manning a weather station and the lone lighthouse keeper develop a creepy Jules-and-Jim relationship with a young fish-girl. Like the Deep Ones, and for that matter The Creature From The Black Lagoon, it all ends in squicky sex and violence.

The novel is being adapted to film, by David Slade, who last delved into the subject of monsters and permafrost with his adaptation of the arctic vampire graphic novel 30 Days of Night.

It makes sense that he should do so. After all, the venerable Carpathian blood suckers have had more than enough screen time and shelf space these past few decades. Maybe it’s time that more of us started looking a little deeper for our scares… that we all suck in a lung full of air, and take the plunge.

[Not scared enough yet? Terrifying monsters of the deep come from space, as well. – staff]

David Nickle is a Stoker-award-winning author and journalist from Toronto. He blogs at The Devil’s Exercise Yard. His latest book, Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism (pub. ChiZine Publications) is about early 20th century industrial utopianism, eugenics, and a terrible monster. Most of it takes place on dry land, but there is a lake….


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