From Below by Darcy Coates
Poisoned Pen Press (June 7, 2022)
352 pages; $14.39 paperback, $4.99 ebook
Reviewed by Haley Newlin
No light. No air. No escape.
Darcy Coates’ From Below is hopelessly suffocating in the darkest, most devouring sense. And, god, is it brutally brilliant.
Underwater horror isn’t something I ever would’ve picked for myself. However, many of my favorite book reviewers, authors, and podcast hosts have praised Coates’ terrifying tales. So, when I saw her upcoming release, From Below, I knew I had to get my hands on it.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first Darcy Coates read or how it closed in on me in its creeping claustrophobia. From Below follows a documentary dive team exploring the SS Arcadia — a wrecked ship that hauled cargo and passengers not long after the Titanic. A ghostly sheath surrounds the grim circumstances of the ship’s demise: bizarre distress calls the day before the sinking, contradicting coordinates given, and an eerie message: “They’re in the walls.”
A documentary production company hires Cove and her dive team to film the wreckage and, as much as possible, try to uncover clues about how a supposedly unsinkable ship became an undersea graveyard.
The Arcadia has sat in the dark, starved of life for nearly 100 years. Uninhabitable and hostile as hell.
Coates lays the creaking foundation of this novel with a distorted illusion of rationality. Reason tells us that when a person dies, their body decays, even at sea. But the water that swallowed the Arcadia is so cold, empty of life and even bacteria. Need I say more?
Cue the flashbacks.
Coates conjures an unnerving backstory of death on the Arcadia. One instance, in particular, calls back to the ominous story of The Woman in White.
The ship’s history, alongside the divers’ dimming flashlights, the slight brushes that make the characters think something is touching them, or goggles that nearly double everything in size are enough to make From Below spook any reader, even die-hard horror fans.
The tension in this book is wicked and strategic. Readers feel more out of breath, boxed in, and in the dark with each chapter.
On another note, I did find the characters in From Below somewhat generic. Cove, the group leader, tries to consistently maintain a sense of peace and composure, a total antithesis of the Arcadia. We learn traces of her childhood here and there, but she wasn’t particularly a character I found memorable. I would’ve liked to see “the unhinged captain” trope build in her, along with the tension in the story.
With everything unraveling, consumed by the sea, if the group leader became vulnerable to the seemingly contagious madness of the Arcadia, even if it were due to a personal need to prove herself, the unease would’ve cranked up even more.
I felt similarly with the rest of the cast, besides Vanna, the professional diver brought on for safety purposes. Vanna scrawls disturbing lines of death and terror in her journal, such as:
They want more air, but there’s none to take,
just deep, thick water.
Still, I would’ve liked to see even more about her.
From Below is a gripping and twisted story that takes everything we know about horror but plunges deep into the dark, unforgiving jaws of the ocean.
Darcy Coates is now an auto-buy author for me.