‘Houses Under the Sea’ by Caitlin R. Kiernan
This is another story from Two Worlds and in Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, Volume One by way of Thrillers 2. It’s also the last story I needed to read from Two Worlds. After this, I promise to move on to something a little less obscure and a bit more cheerful. Like our previous Kiernan story, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ became a point of inspiration for a more readily available novel. This story, along with ‘The Road of Pins,’ forms the backbone of Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl. If this review intrigues you, the novel covers similar territory in much the same style.
Like many classic horror stories, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ is framed as a found document. The nameless, genderless, first person narrator is a reporter, ostensibly writing an insider’s account of his or her involvement with a cult calling itself The Open Door of Night and it’s leader, a disgraced academic named Jacova Angevine. Public interest in the cult, and the obvious slipping of the narrator’s sanity, began with the mass suicide of the entire membership. Jacova Angevine led them into the sea, out toward the deep-water canyons of Monterey Bay, to drown themselves.
‘Houses Under the Sea’ consists of eight numbered sections, or scenes. Within theses sections, the narrator is apt to bounce backward and forward from the past to the present in a way that suggests a disordered mind. Despite that impression, this really a tightly crafted piece of writing, revealing just enough in any given scene to build both anticipation and unease. My favorite bit is a scene in which the narrator watches a video cassette of raw footage from a camera mounted on an ROV piloted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) along the bay floor. The narrator has watched this footage a number of times, and is clearly terrified by it. Eventually, the ROV is sideswiped by something unseen and knocked into a deep trench. Miles beneath the sea, far below the depth of human survivability, the malfunctioning camera glimpses what can only be a symbol carved into a giant rock. All of which may sound a bit silly in summary, but when combined with the narrator’s sweaty nail-biting, it comes across as quite sinister.
If you’re seeing shades of H.P. Lovecraft here, you’re not wrong. Other aspects of the story make this connection even more apparent. Kiernan’s genius lies in giving an HPL premise a more modern scientific backdrop and a contemporary seeming cult. Keirnan herself was trained as a vertebrate paleontologist, and she knows how to give her fiction an academic veneer. Other sections of the story discuss popular and scholarly books published about The Open Door of Night as well as hack novels written by Angevine’s father, complete with citation information, and all of them just as fictional as the story itself.
Like a Lovecraft story, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ suggests much more than it reveals. If you prefer definitive endings, let me again suggest The Drowning Girl, which offers more in the way of traditional closure. As for ‘Houses,’ even the fate of its narrator is left open to interpretation. All of its carefully constructed scenes lead the reader toward an unsettling truth, but once that truth has been realized, both narrator and reader are left with nowhere to go. We know too much, and we are out of options. To me at least, this is the very essence of horror.