Off the coast of California, people start going missing. A group of migrants fail to make their rendezvous; a girl is dragged into the water by something on the end of her fishing line. Divers go down, but don’t resurface.
Will Sturman, an alcoholic widowed diver, finds himself involved, joining the investigation into exactly what is happening and how to stop it. Working with a cop and a marine biologist, Sturman comes face to face with the terrors of the deep.
You get the picture. It’s a monster book, and it works as monster books do. Unlikely heroes, daring escapes, lessons about mankind’s place in the ecosystem. There are a lot of similar books, most of which are terrible. Below is one of the more interesting ones.
One thing that immediately sets Below apart from the vast crowd of poorly-written shark books is the choice of monster. This book isn’t about prehistoric sharks or one-eyed crocodiles. It’s about squid. Specifically, Humboldt squid. It’s a different kind of monster to the norm, which is refreshing, and cephalopods are fascinating things. A more original monster goes a long way towards making Below stand out from the competition.
It’s clear that Lockwood has done some research, which is to be applauded. When I looked up the Humboldt squid, I found that many of the details – from diet to migration patterns – were actually correct. Obviously, for the story, the squid are larger and more aggressive than the norm, but that’s an accepted casualty of fiction, and well-explained within the context of the narrative.
With that research comes a lot of social responsibility. Monster books, as a rule, tend to have an ecological message, and Below is no different. However, this is the first book I’ve read that takes the ecological impact of monster books as a central theme. Monster books have an impact – Peter Benchley famously regretted the distrust and fear of sharks sparked by Jaws, and Jaws is arguably a big part of why we kill quite so many sharks – they’re conceptualised as a dangerous enemy., seen as more antagonistic than other animals. Lockwood is absolutely aware of the potential fallout from making squid into a similar adversary, and takes pains to mitigate it.
Initially, it comes across as hypocritical, to have a book about killer squid warn against demonising sea creatures, but Below is consistent in not demonising. Time after time, the reader is reminded that the squid shouldn’t be seen as evil, but as animals acting on instinct, something to adapt around rather than destroy. I don’t imagine that Below will have the same cultural impact as Jaws, but the fact that this idea was considered and explored disposes me very positively towards the author.
Other than the differences mentioned above, Below plays out as you’d expect – building tension as the squid take more victims, become more aggressive. Interpersonal conflict feeds into the larger narrative, and everyone ends up in the water. I’m not knocking the formula – it’s established because it works. It’s competently done here, without gaping holes or inconsistencies.
At points, I felt that Below’s plot skated over certain moments/aspects that could have been more developed. There’s a romantic subplot that moves forward in (mostly off-stage) lurches, jumping from rebuffed seduction to emotional reconnection without much time spent on the change.
My biggest gripe with Below is that Lockwood is rather stingy with information. Characters have significant backstory which is slowly teased out, but it’s too slow. There were points when a revelation should have been made, a sentence that clearly fitted into a certain conversation, but where the revelation was withheld for no particular reason. I don’t mind waiting for key information, and info-dumps are obviously something to avoid, but when the characters seem to be withholding information just to pace the narrative, rather than for personal motivations, it’s gone too far.
In general, this book is competent and clear, in a genre that tends to be filled with poorly-written, unedited schlock. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking with characters or plot. But the author seems aware of the rest of the genre, and it’s good to read something where the author has thought about the wider implications of their work, and done sufficient research to make the whole thing hang together.