Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Deadly Deep (1976)

Written by: John Messmann

I'm rewriting the intro to this piece.  I started with a blithering drunken rant (who'd have thought!?) about people who think nothing but "classics" have any kind of merit, and look down their noses intellectually at people who enjoy what they would consider a baser form of entertainment.  It at least half-assedly got the point across, but on reflection did more harm to that point than good, because it seemed to be proving exactly the opposite, coming off as less a swipe at intelligentsia (or more specifically people who really want to think they're intelligentsia by copying all their thoughts and opinions from critically-acclaimed sources), and more, "AAARRRRGH, SMART STUFF SUCKS!"  Not exactly the best way to make that argument.

Now, about those tools who think that only bands that made the Rolling Stone 500 list have any merit, or who think that you're not a rounded, complete, or even good person if you don't read anything but classic fiction literature and philosophers.  Yes, there are people like that.  People who don't just think you're dumb for liking things not considered high art by whatever tribunal of hipster douchebaggery decides these things, but actually think you're not a worthy human being.  I even know one.  I sincerely hope he's drowning in a pool of putrefying AIDS monkey corpses right now.

Addressing classic literature first, sure there are some, like Johnathan Swift or Mark Twain, for example, who still resonate today and gained their status deservedly, because they're brilliant.  A good deal of that stuff, though, was simply  popular fiction of the day that survived by the very merit of being prevalent as the stuff you find on a spinner rack at the grocery store now.  In two hundred years, scholars are going to think Harry Potter and Twilight were works of unbridled genius, because no one will be able to concentrate on anything more than 160 characters long with more than half the words spelled correctly.

As to philosophy and religion, what a waste of time.  At the end of the day it's a bunch of people arguing with each other over whose made up idea is better.  No one has any answers, no one ever will have any answers, nothing can be proven.  You know what can be proven?  History.  Science.  Real, tangible things that can be reproduced in a lab.  If you "deep thinkers" were so damn smart, you'd stop worrying about nihilism and whether we're just shadows on a cave wall or brains in jars responding to electrical stimuli, and pick up a damn microscope.  Because when you say to a scientist, "Prove it!", holy shit, they do!  When you say to a philosopher or a clergyman, "Prove it!", they go, "...uhh...".  Unsatisfying twaddle, arguing in circles, and not worth wasting the most fleeting of thoughts on.

When I go used book shopping, I generally head straight for the horror section, and purchase everything that has a cheesy monster on the cover. Yes, it's not just my movie watching habits that are informed by this love of trash. Pulp horror paperback originals make up a perhaps intellectually unhealthy portion of my reading diet. I make up the deficit with history and paleontology and theoretical physics, though, so my synapses get a chance to stretch.  Point is, I read a lot of crap.  I know what I like, and I like Fritos, not foie gras.  Hell, they're both bad for you anyway, one's just really expensive and likes to pretend it's fancy.

Anyway, this is all leading to the e-mail coupon I got from my local comic shop recently, touting a buy-one-get-one-free deal from their used book section. Considering most of their used books consist of vintage SF stuff (not really my bag), it took me some time to find a couple of items I was interested in. One was a book by Colin Wilson, author of Space Vampires, the novel Lifeforce is based on. I now have three of his books and haven't read any of them yet, which maybe makes me some kind of odd almost-fan I think. The other was the topic of tonight's review, and what has become my new favorite novel, John Messmann's The Deadly Deep. It's so brilliantly awful, so mind-bendingly terrible, that it has moved me to write my first literary review.

It's exceptionally stupid, even by the standards of not only paperback horror novels, which as I say, I have extensive experience of, but specifically 1970's eco-horror novels. It became increasingly popular, especially after Jaws hit it big as the first true summer blockbuster, to make your horror story one of nature striking back against mankind. And Satan bless John Messmann, he saw a way to take it not only one step further, but about fifty. Then after the first couple he tripped over his own feet and lack of writing ability, fell down the stairs, and got a massive concussion and blood on the brain. And instead of going to the hospital, he sat back down at his typewriter and gave this glorious mess to the world.

Aran Holder is a science writer, who sees the connections in everything. He even sees beyond his girlfriend Jenny's protestations that nothing is connected, enough that he contacts his friend Emerson Boardman when a bunch of seemingly unrelated stories of marine life attacking humans are reported. Boardman is the Boston director of somethingorother to do with ecology and fish and wildlife and whatever. He hands his job over to Aran almost the moment the writer sets foot in his office, sensing impending doom for his career and the whole of mankind.

Turns out, he's not far from wrong. While the world spirals further out of control every minute, Aran discovers than an old scientist acquaintance of his, Evan Taylor, thought that killer whales were the closest relatives of mankind in the sea, and that they could be genetically engineered to be closer intellectually to humans, just because.

And now the race is on the find a way to stop the super-intelligent killer whales from inciting all other life in the sea to mount a full-frontal assault on all of mankind and wiping our greedy shitbird species off the face of the earth forever.

Now, that in and of itself doesn't sound completely cracked as far as these things go. It's in the execution that this book becomes a true anti-classic. To begin with, it's clear that Messmann believes that what he is saying in this book is extremely important, that not one line is the least bit silly or over the top, and that the only way to convey that importance is to have every character think, say and do everything with the pedal to the metal. There are no moments of quiet reflection, no emotion that's isn't bordering on full-blown hysteria. I never thought characters in a novel could chew scenery, but these do down to the last man, woman and child. Even their internal monologues are practically shouted. This makes for an extremely jarring, and even tiring read. The book is only 222 pages long, but it feels like about twice that because there's just nowhere for the reader to get a foothold if you have to put the book down and come back to it. It's like being screamed at about whales and crabs and pollution by R. Lee Ermey reading from a script by Tommy Wiseau, whose clunky, unnatural dialog is the closest comparison I can think of.

Then there's the several paragraphs that end twice. It's like Messmann handed in a draft, and his editor (although I have a hard time believing there was anyone doing that duty on this particular work of un-art) said, “That's good, but see if you can come up with a different way to describe the closing action of this or that paragraph”, so he did, but then they realized they were coming in well under the page quota and just said, “Fuck it, who's gonna notice?” and stuck both versions in for padding.

Also, for someone writing a book about the ocean, Messmann doesn't seem to have bothered to do even the research available to every elementary school child as to what sea life is like. The identity of the killer whales is a big secret for a good three quarters of the book, all the survivors of the various attacks claiming to have seen dolphins in the vicinity. The reason he gives for this when we finally find out what's really going on, is that killer whales and dolphins look so much alike not even experienced seamen can tell them apart at any distance! Except for the fact that killer whales are a completely different shape and color than dolphins, and are a good four times as big! Never mind experienced seamen, any five year old would be easily able to tell the difference, no matter the distance.

However, I think my absolute favorite example of just how terrible a writer Messmann is lies in the sex scenes. Despite what must be at least ten sex scenes and/or instances of detailed description of a woman's body, the only adjective he can come up with to describe a vagina is “mossy”. Which makes me wonder, is he gay and just doesn't know any better due to lack of experience, or has he been shacking up with someone with a huge aversion to soap and water?

And finally (and yes, this is a spoiler, but trust me, it will not rob you of the ability to enjoy this book one bit), in this week's installment of Written Into A Corner Theater, just as every living thing in the ocean is being driven by these super-intelligent orcas to make one final, unstoppably devastating push to destroy the world of man forever, the problem just goes away and all the animals go back about their business. This happens because the altered genetic material was inserted in the whales by way of a viral shell, and so of course at the critical moment, the whales just get over their genetic alteration like it was a fucking head cold!

This one is really something else, folks. Head to your local used book shop or library today and see about getting a copy. You'll be glad you did.

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