At least once a week I ask myself, “What if The Lighthouse was good?” Maiden attempts, but does not quite succeed in answering the question. Although, for a decent portion of the book I was reminded strongly of classic haunted house stories, which are perhaps my favorite subgenre. Think Darcy Coates’ The Carrow Haunt: a cast of varied characters find themselves cooped up in an isolated, dangerous setting that not only serves as a backdrop for the story to play out, but often a character itself.
A cast of varied characters we get…yet, almost all of them feel sharply out of place here. None of these people belong on a dangerous fishing job like this. Yes, it is pointed out to us that “God” has deliberately hired an inexperienced crew, but that, despite some outlandish things that happen later, was a bit beyond what I was willing to suspend my disbelief for. The truth is, this book would have felt far more atmospheric if we were allowed to be really immersed in the dangerous life of a sea fisherman. Because the characters feel out of place, the reader does. And no one in this story spends enough time getting really immersed in the work before more pressing matters take over. In The Haunting of Hill House, for instance, each visitor to the mansion is there for a very specific and fitting reason that pertains to the supernatural quality of the house, and over the course of the novel become extensions of the house themselves. On the flip side, recent release Six Rooms (which I still reviewed favorably) has a cast of characters that just happen to be at the haunted house for innocent, by-chance reasons, and that crucial connection is lost. The same, I feel, applies here.
However, I greatly enjoyed reading about these characters and their interactions together. The tension between them is taut and the dialogue electrically charged, razor sharp. My only wish is that there had been more of it; I was often tense when any two characters began speaking to each other, and preparing for an explosion each time they were all cooped up in the same room.
And with any good haunted h- ship story, there’s a menacing threat looming over these characters, introducing a new set of problems while exacerbating existing ones. The true brilliance in Maiden is that this threat remains largely subtle at first, confined to the background and only increasing in prevalence as the situation on board stretches to a breaking point. I can honestly say this is the first mermaid-themed horror story I have ever read, and they are handled beautifully: a bit creepy, mysterious, cinematic, threatening and enticing all in one.
I never personally feel comfortable speaking on sexual assault in fiction, not only because there is such a sheer number of factors and context involved but because it tends to be at best deeply subjective (and survivors have just as much a right to not speak on it: there are many other people who can speak on it more eloquently than I can). Gerald’s Game, for instance, is not just my favorite King but favorite novel of all time. I rarely recommend it, though, because while I found the sexual assault elements incredibly cathartic, both personally and for the main character, impactful, relevant to the main character and her arc, and handled generally well, I can’t say definitively that it will feel that way to someone else. Outside of that, I tend to view it the same way I view the homophobia that often pops up in King’s older books: with a healthy dose of “Well, it happens,” and if nothing else I don’t suppose I want to read fiction that attempts to erase it or pretend it doesn’t happen. I know that a man with long hair in the early sixties would be called a f*ggot in a small-town truck stop, and I know that sexual assault exists. In both King’s situation and in Maiden’s, the vile acts are coming from characters who are meant to be vilified and not a reflection of the authors’ views.
So while I can’t speak to what led our collaborating authors to feature sexual assault so prominently in the plot of the book, I can offer a note: once would have been enough. We know this character is depraved with everything that happens between his introduction and the first incident. That it continues to persist regardless left me with the impression that less-earned punches were being thrown when some of that razor-sharp dialogue could have been put to use building more tension and subtly revealing more layers to this character’s depravity: what could happen, or what’s being planned, might have been more effective than just repeatedly trying to shock us with it happening repeatedly.
So where does that leave me with this book? I wanted to love it, and I did at first. My notes started off positive, but I became increasingly more dejected as I read. There are some very strong elements here and a lot of promise: I liked the characters and the buildup of tension between them. I don’t think the setting was made as atmospheric as it should have been. I loved every scene involving the mermaid creatures and their escalation as a threat alongside the mounting tension of the human characters. I don’t believe the repetition of violent sexual assault was necessary to make us loathe the story’s main villain. The final result: this was a readable but deeply uneven and at times misguided story, that I did not dislike, but am a long way from loving.