Book Review: 100 Fathoms Below by Steven L. Kent and Nicholas Kaufmann

“Kent and Kaufmann prove a potent partnership, having clearly done their homework and put a lot of effort into creating an action-packed and exciting page-turner.”

 

One has forged a career as a science fiction author, with the successful Clone Rebellion series of novels, after spending many years writing non-fiction about video games, while the other has had work nominated for both a Bram Stoker Award and Shirley Jackson Award and has had short fiction appear in Black Static and Nightmare Magazine as well as many other venues. Now Steven L. Kent and Nicholas Kaufmann have combined their considerable talents to co-author a supernatural horror tale set on-board an American submarine at the height of the Cold War.

From the beginning of the prologue, where we meet Petty Officer Third Class Warren Stubic on a fateful quest for companionship the night before the USS Roanoke leaves Pearl Harbour, we are thrust to 1983 into the life of the US submariner. Unless one or both of the authors have served time in the US navy, they have gone to great lengths (depths?) to research the factual elements of the story that really help immerse the reader in the environment. Everything from terminology—all of which is painlessly revealed through dialogue or narration without breaking from the story—to the everyday running of a sub, to the description of the layout, is handled with the touch of an expert storyteller. The details, rather than tripping the reader up or taking them out of the scene, helps make the reader at ease, causing us to lower our guard for the horror to come.

The cast of characters are fully realised by the authors, each given their own personalities and giving us reason to root for them. Sometimes they do come across as the stereotypical gung-ho members of the armed forces we’ve seen numerous times in other books and on the screen. But no doubt there is an element of truth to these characteristics, these people probably do exist, and did to a greater degree in 1983 when the US navy was even more male-dominated than it is now. That said, it does make for exciting reading when we see these tough guys in the grip of fear that comes from isolation and darkness.

Barely into their reconnaissance mission, sailors begin exhibiting fever-like symptoms and unusual behaviour. Although the POV shifts with each chapter between any number of the characters, we mostly follow Petty Officer First Class Tim Spicer, a seasoned sailor and popular among his crew-mates, and new transfer Petty Officer Second Class Jerome White, who comes with a checkered past and plenty of baggage. They, along with some others, try to determine the cause of the illness plaguing the Roanoke while trying to dealing with the mysterious acts of vandalism, ranging from smashed lights leaving many areas in darkness to the radio being damaged beyond repair, and attacks on the men by an unknown assailant or assailants.

The story progresses at a steady pace, introducing the environment and the characters before it gains speed like a car racing downhill with no brakes. The injuries suffered by the victims and the disappearance of the dead soon leads us down a well-worn path in the horror genre. But there have been little or no instances of vampires on submarines before. One blurb for the book describes it as a cross between ‘Salem’s Lot and The Hunt for Red October, and it is certainly difficult to argue with such a description. The antagonists are deployed in the same creepy manner as the vampires in the former, while the action aboard the sub is handled like the latter, especially when the Captain reveals the true nature of Roanoke’s mission and they have to deal with mortal enemies as well as the monstrous within.

The mixture of ancient evil and modern military setting is an exciting premise for a story, and the authors take full advantage of it to deliver a gripping tale. The vampires are genuinely disturbing, Kent and Kaufmann doing well to breathe new life into the monster without resorting to the same tired old tropes. And while the setting is unique, in the hands of lesser writers it could have been very limiting. But Kent and Kaufmann prove a potent partnership, having clearly done their homework and put a lot of effort into creating an action-packed and exciting page-turner.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Hardcover: 264 pp
Release Date: 9 October 2018

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