In between researching cultural changes in Persia due to the Arab Conquest of the Sassanian Empire, drowning in ordinary coursework, editing TLOB, and writing Astral Tide, I have managed to find some time to read for pleasure! My latest book of choice was Thomas James Brown’s debut horror novel, Hell’s Water. The novel follows the exploits of a group of (mostly alcoholic) university students and housemates in Southampton, UK; of particular interest are cricketer Nick Roach and the “main” character (by “main” I mean most of the story is told from his point of view) Adam Houldey. These two experience something terrible when something is slipped into Nick’s drink, and together try to work to beat whatever is going on, with varying degrees of success throughout the book.
The novel did an absolutely wonderful job of creating a rich setting, complete with characters, organizations, places, and common activities. It should be said here that I have touched alcohol once in my life, when I was very young (my father had decided to let me sip his beer), and I have never tasted the stuff since. As such, I can not speak to the validity of the experiences of the housemates in the novel, but it certainly seemed realistic, and I was drawn into them despite my strong aversion to alcohol.
Due to my very different experiences with university life (different country, different habits), it was at first difficult for me to get to know and like the characters, let alone understand them (Mr. Brown’s dialogue is very natural and flowing, exactly like you would hear it spoken, but again my background made it very strange to me). If you’re a partying englishman (or woman), I am sure that it would be extremely accessibly to you, however.
Once I got past those barriers – the foreign culture and realistic dialogue – I found myself thoroughly enjoying the way the narrative flowed. The story is about alcoholism and daemons, and many times I felt as if I was staring out at the world as though possessed – sometimes by a daemon, and sometimes by alcohol (or at least what I would imagine alcohol does to you). The book was very fast-paced, despite nothing truly “horrifying” happening until about two-thirds of the way into the book – but when it did happen, ir really was horrifying.
I must confess that when I started the book, I was skeptical about it, due to my unfamiliarity with alcohol, the club and party scene, and indeed many of the types of people Mr. Brown discusses. However, over the course of reading the book, I feel like I came to know that community better, thus expanding my knowledge of it. The true strength of this novel lies not just in the storytelling – with a slow, dramatic build-up to a terrifying climax – but also in the creation of a real, living, breathing world that I could dive into. Mr Brown examined several social issues over the course of the novel as well, in addition to looking at the effects of death on an individual. It was fascinating to read about how Adam reacted to the deaths of various people.
One thing that was both very effective and at the same time mildly frustrating was the gradual revelation of something that happened at the beginning of the novel – remembering the events of a drunken night out. It was very creative and I spent the entire novel wanting to know what had happened – as was doubtless the intention – but at the same time, the constant repetition of nearly identical passages, with more and more story tacked onto it, became… well, repetitive, and I found myself skimming those parts of the story. The tactic was very effective, however, and I was satisfied with the final revelation.
The one thing I wished that there was more of was an explanation of what exactly happened. As it was, what had been going on throughout the novel was explained – but very briefly and at the very end, making the book back-heavy. This is not in any way a problem (I am guilty of writing that way myself, and so long as it’s done well – as it is in this case – it can be extremely satisfying), but I feel like more could have been said about what happened, and the events before the novel expanded upon. That being said, however, the ending did surprise me a fair bit; all of my suspicions had been extremely misplaced! I applaud Mr. Brown for managing that. It rarely happens to me.
All in all, Hell’s Water is well worth the read. I had purchased the book because Mr. Brown is an independent author like myself, and I enjoy reading and supporting independently published authors. However, I had never in the past been a fan of this kind of horror; I myself subscribe to the Lovecraftian tradition, and Hell’s Water is a far cry from that. However, despite all of the odds stacked against it, I got through the book as quickly as my studies would allow, thoroughly enjoyed it, and found it extremely difficult to put down (not to mention the ending leaves you unsure as to whether or not the problem was solved – my favorite kind!). The references to Christian theology in particular were striking, and the Christian imagery and final revelations were probably my favorite part of the whole experience.
So then, in summary, Hell’s Water was well-written, well-developed, fast-paced, terrifying story that I think anyone who likes horror will love. Go out and read it!