With 95 percent of the Earth’s oceans still unexplored, it’s not difficult to imagine what kinds of monstrosities are lurking in these unreachable depths. Human nature is to be apprehensive of what we don’t know, so it only makes sense that many people find the fathomless reaches of the ocean disconcerting. The deep-sea horror genre preys on this fear of the unknown, conjuring up all kinds of nightmarish imagery to give you pause the next time you decide to take a dip in the ocean. If the mere thought of the sea and its many uncertainties sends a chill up your spine, this is just the genre for you. Keep reading to find out what some authors have dreamed up to exist under the sea’s rollicking surface.
What is Deep-Sea Horror?
Deep-sea horror, also known as aquatic horror, is a subgenre derived from the thriller and horror genres. These stories also tend to have an element of science fiction, though not always. Whether the monstrous sea creatures frequently featured in these stories are real or engineered, they terrify all the same. These stories often follow similar plot lines: characters go on an expedition to explore the untraversed depths of the ocean, they become stranded out at sea or trapped underwater, and some sort of sea creature tries to kill them. Some, but not all, of these stories, offer commentary on humanity’s relationship with — and effect on — nature, shedding light on our ecological failings. Overall, while the tropes, plot lines, and themes may vary, one aspect of these stories remains constant: the fear invoked by the vastness of the sea and the unknown entities held within it.
The History of Deep-Sea Horror
While not a novel, one of the earliest entries in the deep sea horror genre is H. G. Wells’s short story, The Sea Raiders. Published in 1896, the story tells the tale of human-eating giant squid.
The genre really began to take shape in the late 1900s with the publication of Peter Benchley’s Jaws in 1974, which tells the now-familiar story of a Long Island town terrorized by a great white shark.
Another early iteration of the underwater horror genre came in 1987 when Michael Crichton released Sphere, a psychological thriller science fiction novel in which a crew of scientists, including psychologist Norman Johnson, is sent to investigate an alien artifact at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. After a mysterious entity makes contact with them, the crew members begin dying of giant squid attacks, and the remaining crew has to figure out how to make it back to the surface alive. Essentially a first-contact story, Sphere introduced an alien entity into the landscape of the deep sea — an interesting deviation from the semi-realistic sea creatures that took center stage in other novels of the kind.
Following in the footsteps of Jaws was Steve Alten’s Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, released in 1997. The story follows Navy deep-sea diver Jonas Taylor as he executes a top-secret mission in the Mariana Trench to study nuclear fission as a sustainable energy source; however, during his mission, Jonas notices a gigantic prehistoric shark, referred to as the meg (short for megalodon), and accidentally gets his fellow crew members killed trying to escape the beast. Nobody believes Jonas’s claims about the Meg, and he is subsequently disgraced. Years later, an old friend asks Jonas to help him retrieve a submersible lost in the Mariana Trench, and Jonas agrees, seeing this as an opportunity to prove the Meg’s existence. However, the mission goes south when the Meg begins to ravage the crew, setting Jonas off on a mission to kill the monster.
Like Jaws, Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror eventually reached the silver screen. In 2018, an adaptation of Alten’s novel called The Meg was released starring Jason Statham. Since the first novel’s publication, six sequels have been released as a part of the Meg series, and the latest book in the saga, Meg: Purgatory, is slated to come out in 2024.
Sharks, squids, and octopuses, oh my! When you think of deep-sea horror, you probably think of larger-than-life creatures, such as the great white shark from Jaws or the megalodon from The Meg. Creepy creatures are a hallmark of the deep-sea horror genre. As we’ve seen, these kinds of stories pioneered the genre as we know it today, and many of these terrifying oceanic monsters have even made it to the big screen.
For a more recent example of this trope in action, we can look to Deep Black Sea by David M. Salkin. This novel follows scientist Ted Bell, who is part of a year-long assignment to study the deep sea. Three miles under the surface, Ted enacts his personal mission to prepare humanity for life on Mars by intentionally infecting one of his fellow crew members with a radiation-resistant bacterium, which unleashes an alien creature determined to wipe out the rest of the crew.
If you want to get an understanding of the classic conventions of the deep-sea horror genre, any of the above-mentioned creature horror stories would be a great place to start.
The Sea as Metaphor
While fearsome creatures might be the first thing to come to mind when conjuring up images of deep-sea horror, there are plenty of aquatic horror books that don’t involve any giant sharks, killer squid, or prehistoric sea beasts. Instead, these stories tend to use the sea as a metaphor for societal, interpersonal, and intrapersonal issues. Although these kinds of allegorical stories have been present within the genre for many years now, it seems that an increasing number of authors have been embracing less literal, more philosophical horror elements as of late.
To give an example of an earlier work that took on this approach, we can examine Starfish by Peter Watts, in which a subset of humans adapted for surviving underwater are sent to operate a deep sea power station located off the Juan de Fuca Ridge. These humans, known as Rifters, have been selected not only for their ability to breathe underwater and withstand immense pressure but also because of their resilience in the face of physical and mental hardships — a strength built of past traumas. But something about the undersea environment alters the Rifters, and they find themselves unwilling to reintegrate into society back on land. Here, the deep sea setting is used to interrogate society’s treatment of outcasts and invite empathy for all human beings.
Moving on to a more recent addition to the genre, Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield tells the story of Leah, a marine biologist, and her wife, Miri. Ever since she returned home from a routine submarine expedition gone wrong, Leah hasn’t been the same. Unable to eat or fully communicate, Leah seems to be haunted by whatever she encountered under the water. Miri, meanwhile, is desperate to understand what Leah experienced, fearing she may not be able to stop her wife from slipping away from her. In this book, the ocean’s depths are used to symbolize the hidden depths within us all — our fears, our traumas, our secrets.
If you’re looking for something less action-heavy and more contemplative, these stories are perfect for you.
Often shortened to EcoHorror, ecological horror stories address our anxieties about the natural world, including the environment, animals, weather, and so on. This genre can also be used to critique humanity’s exploitation of nature through fantasies of wildlife enacting their vengeance on the human race. This ecological lens is another facet of the larger genre that seems to have grown more popular in recent years, which may be accounted for by society’s increasing climate consciousness.
One example of EcoHorror within the deep-sea horror genre is The Swarm by Frank Schätzing. This novel tells the story of a group of scientists who are sent out into the middle of the ocean to investigate sentient organisms called yrr, whose goal is to wipe out the human race by turning various sea animals into vicious killers as retaliation for humanity’s destruction of the Earth’s oceans.
An even more recent addition to the ecological deep-sea horror canon is The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler, a thriller about a newly discovered species of octopuses with heightened intelligence, as well as their own language and culture. When humans try to study these creatures and exploit them for the development of humankind, the octopuses fight back.
If you’re interested in ecologically conscious aquatic horror that addresses humanity’s impact on the environment in a nuanced way, these titles are must-reads.
As you can see, the genre has a wide range of narratives to offer — all bone-chilling in their own right. So if you dare, take a deep breath and dive into these deep-sea horror novels. Need more? Check out these books:
- Deep Black Sea by David M. Salkin
- They Came From the Ocean by Boris Bacic
- Sea Sick by Iain Rob Wright
- Devour by Kurt Anderson
- Pressure by Brian Keene
- The Deep by Nick Cutter
- Serpent: A Deep Sea Thriller by Michael Cole
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