Coming Home to Folk Horror: A Review of C. A. Fletcher’s Dead Water
Dead Water. C.A. Fletcher. Redhook, July 19, 2022.
C. A. Fletcher’s Dead Water is the kind of novel that, were it even slightly less confident in its characters, could have easily slipped into the dull tropes of the classic survival story. A remote island community, an ancient curse, a plucky group banding together to make their way through the night—all threaten to deliver a tale as old as time, and as tired. The premise—a watery plague slowly overtaking a small Scottish island—suggests an action-heavy zombie thriller of the kind we’ve seen proliferate over the last decade leading up to (and even throughout) the coronavirus pandemic. Luckily, though, this is not that kind of story.
Instead, it’s the kind of story where atmosphere, setting, and character take center stage. The characters, in particular, stand out: Dead Water’s cast is as intimately sketched as it is refreshingly unique. Instead of a group of ultra-macho survivalists, the most competent figures in the tale are a widowed foreigner who walks with a limp, her wheelchair-enabled niece, and a Deaf gay fisherman. Fletcher’s treatment of his disabled characters never veers into the sentimental, overly-inspirational, or pitying; rather, they feel real, tenderly-fashioned, and honest.
The short chapters shift between the perspectives of many beings on the island, including dogs and ravens, and through their eyes we get a very clear sense of the physical and social landscape of their intimate island community. I found myself with a very clear mental map of the island on which Dead Water takes place. The story starts narrow and only gets narrower, and the clarity of that sense of space situates the characters in a lonely, stark, but nonetheless beautiful environment. The text understands all its inhabitants in their full complexity—information about their pasts is revealed as it grants clarity to their present decisions, and we feel the weight of their histories in every choice they make.
There’s a comfort in the familiarity of genre. When we read that there is only one ferry that takes people to and from the island, we know that something is going to prevent it from returning. When we hear that regularly-scheduled maintenance is to occur on the island’s phone and internet service, we know that when it goes out the service will not be coming back on. And when a strange leather-bound object surfaces in coincidence with some strange disappearances, we know that they’re connected somehow. Dead Water is not interested in the subversion of these expectations—everything plot-wise plays out sort of how you expect it to. Sometimes reading about the exact process by which the cell service is knocked out can feel a little tedious, but the compellingly-rendered characters are enough to keep the momentum up. The question isn’t so much “how will they survive the night” as it is “how will they forgive each other and themselves?”
Dead Water is billed as belonging to the genre of folk horror, a classification it sometimes seems self-conscious about. Interspersed between the chapters that take place in the present day are short, myth-like vignettes describing the centuries-past journey of a Viking out of the desert and back to his northern homeland. These chapters, which are meant to give the backstory of the watery curse, feel out of place juxtaposed with the contemporary world of the rest of the novel. Our present-day characters are never privy to these revelations, so their impact feels muted. I also can’t help but feel uncomfortable with the way these chapters frame Arabic-speaking desert-dwellers as cruel arbiters of a centuries-long curse.
The “folk” part of “folk horror” necessitates this seemingly anachronistic attention to folklore, myth, and historical accuracy. If our contemporary characters were historians, anthropologists, or otherwise connected to the myth, its resonances might feel more prescient. Conversely, though, it’s important that main character Sig is a Scandinavian foreigner, an outsider, to this Scottish land. Sig, a committed realist, carries guilt about the death of her husband with her much more readily than she does an attachment to or interest in Viking lore. Her character arc involves finding her place on the island and in the community, wrestling with the tortured past that keeps her self-isolated.
Fletcher has a history of genre-hopping, and his prowess in the world of children’s literature manifests here in masterfully-depicted teen characters; we also get some really interesting insights into various other island-dwellers, like a recently-incarcerated man who’s violated a restraining order against a former lover, and an older gentleman who struggles with the recent suicide of his wife. Dead Water is paced slowly and deliberately, giving ample time to establish the characters’ lives and patterns of interaction. However, by the end of the novel, most of these other characters fall away in favor of Sig and her own internal conflict. A lot is left unsaid. One gets the impression that the majority of the author’s energy went to introducing a cast of characters and the world they live in, making the disruption of that community by a supernatural force feel cursory.
What Dead Water does well, though, it does really well. While SFF readers might feel frustrated at the rushed pacing of the final chapters and the drag leading up to it, horror fans will enjoy the misty, desolate atmosphere interspersed with moments of genuine fear and stomach-turning gore. There are a couple of jump scares that actually feel effective, a rare feat for a novel. And, while the pacing of the novel as a whole feels uneven, the individual scenes are paced to perfection. I always felt confident picturing each scene, imagining each character, what they’re wearing, the car they’re driving, the house they live in, everything. This attention to detail lends a vivid liveliness to the prose (although a couple words get overused near the end—I started rolling my eyes every time something or someone fell to the ground “untidily”).
Dead Water’s not a game-changer; it’s not deconstructing anything, it’s not pushing the genre in new directions, it’s not introducing new perspectives. What it is doing, though, is painting a very compelling portrait of some very compelling characters in a very compelling setting. It takes up folk horror, a genre that’s seeing a new resurgence in film, and pushes it into a contemporary world that feels current, fresh, and well-populated by interesting people. Ultimately, Dead Water’s main plot works the same way as the folklore that animates it behind the scenes: it’s a story about people finding their way home.
Bren Ram (she/they) is a PhD candidate at Rice University where she studies the intersection of risk and ecology in literature. Her scholarship has appeared or is forthcoming in Arizona Quarterly, Modern Fiction Studies, and the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, and her book reviews can also be found on the eco-themed publication Correspondences. You can find them on Twitter.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The author and editors were not acquainted prior to this review. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. A review copy was arranged by ARB from the publisher.
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