Dead Water by C. A. Fletcher

August 8, 2022


A water-borne blight hits a small community on a remote Scottish island. The residents are a mix of island-born and newcomers seeking a slower life away from the modern world; all have their own secrets, some much darker than others. Some claim the illness may be a case of mass hysteria – or even a long-buried curse – but when ferry service fails and phone towers go down, inconvenience grows into nightmarish ordeal as the outwardly harmonious fabric of the community is irreversibly torn apart.

This week’s review is the deliciously unsettling new horror novel Dead Water by C A Fletcher.

Still broken by a traumatic loss, Sig lives a quiet existence. Shunning human contact whenever possible, she is happy to spend her time alone. Obsessed with free diving, Sig only finds real peace when swimming deeper and deeper below the waves. Dark thoughts swirl around in her mind. Would it be so bad if she just drifted away? Over the course of a weekend, Sig is forced to confront a supernatural force that has been released near her home as well as the inner demons plaguing her increasingly fragile mental state.

In their own way, many of the other inhabitants on the island are just as broken as Sig. There is Walter John, an old man adrift since the death of his wife. Evie, a teenage girl still coming to terms with a life-changing injury. Matt, a fisherman, consumed by grief. There is a raw loneliness in each of the characters that makes them seem that much more fleshed out, more real.  It’s this depth of characterisation that sets Dead Water apart from its contemporaries. We’re not knee-deep in gore here, this novel relies on the mental traumas the characters have to face. I’ve always felt that supernatural and psychological horror make for excellent bedfellows. Watching ordinary people attempting to survive in extraordinary circumstances is riveting. It always promotes introspection. I’m prompted to wonder how would I fare in the same situation?*

There is a bleak existential dread to the narrative that, as an outsider looking in, is difficult to ignore. The author makes the isolation and bleak surroundings of island life feel palpable. In direct counterpoint to that, there is also a sense of claustrophobia within the community. When you live on a tiny island everyone knows one another’s business.

I’ll be honest, when I started reading Dead Water, I thought I was reading a by-the-numbers zombie novel. As the plot unfolds, I realised I was wrong. It turns out there is something far worse than being a shambling brain eater. Being a prisoner in your own body as your existence ebbs away in tiny increments. Knowing that you are disappearing but being entirely unable to stop it. That living death sounds pretty damn horrific if you ask me.

There is a creeping, insidious quality to those affected by the presence in the water. Labelled ‘The Drowned’ they become like the sea itself, slow-moving and calm in one moment and then violently destructive the next.

Each section of the novel begins with a chapter set in the distant past exploring the origins of the curse that has befallen the island and its residents. I liked this additional backstory. It doesn’t quite fill in all the blanks but offers some tantalising hints about the curses’ source.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the other inhabitants of the island. There are a handful of non-human characters who are far more sensible when it comes to dealing with the supernatural**.  I think I’ve learned a valuable lesson here. When the world appears to be falling apart at the seams, look to the animals to show you the way. They are far more sensitive to the parts of the world we’ve forgotten or just don’t understand.

Way back in 2019 I read A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, also by Fletcher,  and I loved it. Dead Water is another masterfully crafted tale. I think folk horror is always most effective when it builds slowly. Fletcher’s narrative is peppered with an air of disquiet. Once the protagonists are cut off from the mainland Fletcher really ramps up the tension with each passing chapter. He perfectly captures that sense of desolate separation that can sometimes accompany island life.

Dead Water is published by Orbit and is available now. Highly recommended.

To partner Dead Water, whilst reading, I suggest listening to the suitably eerie soundtrack to The Essex Serpent by Dustin O’Halloran and Herdís Stefánsdóttir. It has a subtle, otherworldly tone that is an ideal match with the book.

*The answer is, badly.

**They confirmed what I have long suspected. Animals are far cleverer than humans, by quite a considerable amount.



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