A state of the art oil rig is about to begin exploratory drilling. Surveys suggest that far below the ocean surface lies a vast, untapped reservoir of crude oil. This is set to be an immensely successful, fortune-making expedition.
The Black (we’ll dispense with the subtitle – it is a generic creature-feature tagline) starts in the standard way: everything is fine. There are a few small tensions between crew members, but work is progressing according to plan. Then, as they bore the first well, things start to go wrong. Surveys show anomalies, drilling is somehow too easy, the oil produced is almost miraculously clear – at least of the usual contaminants.
Something is stirring in the dark waters.
As all good horror/monster books do, The Black begins slowly – the scene must be established fully in order for the reader to care when it all goes horribly wrong. We are introduced to the two groups of workers – the rough, practical rig workers, and the more laid back specialist team. There are immediate tensions between them, which is an important part of any ensemble cast. The first part of the book is almost entirely focused on the workers and their work – the whole process of drilling is described in detail. Again, that is how it should be – this is one of the few kinds of books where slow starting is better.
The monster is well handled; we only see its edges. It makes a nice change from either the standard “giant shark” or an original concept too lovingly described. So many books/films ruin the tension by revealing the monster in all its rubber-suited, impractical glory. Cooley has a novel monster, but resists the temptation to show it off: everything is much creepier when it is unknown.
The closest parallel to The Black is probably John Carpenter’s The Thing – one of the best made and creepiest horror films ever. I’m not claiming that this book is of the same calibre – The Thing set the bar very high – but there are clear similarities. Both take place on isolated research stations, with a crew consisting mostly of rough-and-ready types. Both teams uncover something that should have probably been left undisturbed. The monsters themselves also have similarities, though I don’t wish to give too much away.
This book is an awful lot better than most monster books. It is a genre that attracts amateurish writing, people who feel that because the plots are formulaic, the writing doesn’t matter. In this genre, execution is everything. The Black is slow-paced, subtle, and detailed; it does almost everything right.
The main thing that it doesn’t do amazingly is the escalation. I don’t mean that the monster doesn’t escalate and become steadily more of a threat – it does that fine. However, the characters don’t always react to this escalation in a way that I find believable. Most of the time, it’s fine, but there are occasional moments where I felt that the reaction should either be far greater, or far lesser. Discovering that a survey of the drill site is thousands of meters out should get more of a response than disparaging remarks about the survey team; a slightly anomalous result shouldn’t panic the experienced scientist immediately.
In addition, the ending was a little short – it’s an action heavy scene, but I’d have liked more of a slow fade to black. The fade is there, but its quite rapid – it left me feeling a little dissatisfied. Its difficult to end horror books: if they clearly defeat the monster, then it stops being scary, if they don’t defeat it clearly, your readers feel let down. The Black almost gets it right – just a little longer would have cinched it.
Those criticisms sound more damning than they are – they are rather minor. They’re the biggest issues I found, and they are an awful lot smaller than most of the common flaws in other such books. The Black is a well-made creature feature – everything hangs together, it builds correctly, it doesn’t just deviate into pointless gore.
It’s worth reading if you like monster books/films. Most of them are terrible, this one isn’t.