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Dissecting Mira Grant's Into the Drowning Deep, Part 3

What makes this story scary?
Dissecting Mira Grant's Into the Drowning Deep, Part 3

Mira Grant's Into the Drowning Deep is a horror story because it's about a group of scientists who deliberately seek out the apex predator that will kill them.

Horror, at its core, is a string of bad choices – but when it works, each choice is perfectly justified. The decision to get on the boat, walk away from the wreck, open the attic door, stuff the body in the basement.

We know, in our core, that we could make similar choices in similar situations. When horror works, we see ourselves at our most sinister – and we are, rightfully, horrified.

But Mira Grant's Into the Drowning Deep is a scary story for a different reason.

What the reader knows – and what the writer hides

There are two different kinds of scares, both of which fit neatly into a three-act structure.

The first kind comes at the beginning of the second act, and can be defined as the scare the reader knows is coming. We know that mermaids are going to make their way aboard the Melusine and start eating people alive. This is part of the fun. In fact, when Grant describes a figure, grappling up the side of the deck, that everyone else assumes is human but we totally know is a mermaid, we're thrilled. It's the 100-page mark! Time for face-offs and face-eating!

There's a certain sense of dread, as we turn the pages, but it's a delightful dread. We know exactly where the mermaids are, at this point in the story. The only things we don't know are 1) whose faces are going to be eaten, and 2) how gory the descriptions are likely to be. We're in cahoots, with the author, as all of those humans whom we worried were a little bit like us start making decisions we'd never make. Don't split up! we say, munching on whatever snack we've got next to our book. Don't go into that room! There are, like, ten mermaids in there and they're all going to eat your faces!

And then the bad guy goes into the bad room and his face gets eaten off, and we are delighted.

The second kind of scare comes at the end of the second act – when Grant places a mermaid in a room without telling us beforehand.

This is the first time, in the entire story, when the reader has less information than the omniscient narrator.

This is the first time, in the entire story, when the reader might actually feel fear.

What does this do?

Giving the reader more information than the characters combines anticipation and security in a comforting, easily digestible way. Pulling that information away from the reader removes the security and the comfort. The anticipation resolves to anxiety. The stomach unsettles.

Why does this work?

It's a beautifully executed trick. We think we are gods (like the omniscient narrator), and we are revealed to be human. We're as fallible and edible as anyone else on board, and we are no longer sure of what the characters should do next.

Can I steal it?

We've already discussed the problems that come when you try to apply third person omniscient techniques to a third person limited novel. In THE LARKIN DAY MYSTERIES, we only see what Larkin sees. Any information we get, as readers, is filtered by both her perspective and her understanding.

Which means that I could, as an author, allow Larkin to misunderstand something. This would give the reader more information than Larkin, and could allow them to delightfully anticipate something. However, I can't use this technique too often – because if we're smarter than Larkin, we'll stop reading.

My goal, with every Larkin book, is to write a mystery that the reader solves one page before Larkin does – and according to my small group of first readers, I have hit this goal with every book so far.

Do I want to incorporate additional forms of information management in order to increase the fear factor?

I'm not sure.

It is possible to write horror, after all, without jump scares –

But to understand how that works, we'll have to dissect a different novel.

(You can spend the rest of the week guessing which one it might be.)