For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to the siren song of the Titanic sinking. I know that’s typical of my fellow Millennials, those who were just the right age in 1997 to be sucked into Titanic movie mania thanks to the twin pulls of over-the-top tragedy and the mischievous grin of Leonardo DiCaprio.
Over the years, however, my fascination with the disaster has evolved. The Titanic has always been a spectacle, so large, well-documented, and entirely preventable as to command attention. But what strikes me now about the ship’s first and final voyage is the way it acts as a microcosm of class politics — and how meaningless those classifications are when confronted by the unyielding hand of nature.
All of this is to say that Alma Katsu’s highly anticipated new novel was catnip to me. With The Deep, Katsu does for the Titanic what she did for the Donner Party in The Hunger: she takes a real-life horror and ratchets up the suspense with a supernatural twist.
The Deep begins in 1916 with Annie Hebbley, a young woman convalescing in a British asylum. Annie has many secrets. There are those that drove her to flee her family’s Northern Ireland for a new life as a White Star Line crew member, and there are those she believes drowned alongside the Titanic.
Essentially in hiding for the past four years, Annie is summoned once more by the outside world via a letter from Violet Jessop, an old friend and fellow Titanic survivor. Violet’s now a nurse aboard the Britannic, a twin to the Titanic that’s been repurposed as a World War I hospital ship. (Students of history will know the Britannic, too, is destined for disaster.) At the urging of her doctor, Annie accepts Violet’s invitation to join her as ship’s crew.
And this, then, is where we start to see the faint outlines of the iceberg toward which Annie is surely careening.
From this point on, The Deep tells its story on parallel tracks, walking with Annie below deck on the Britannic as the war-wounded arrive, while also traipsing through her memories of the ill-fated 1912 voyage.
In those flashbacks, The Deep’s horror transitions from the grim realities of 20th-century warfare to the insidious supernatural presence that stalked the Titanic. You see, even before its tragic sinking, something wasn’t right on this vessel.
Something — or someone — haunted the Titanic. But what it wanted and who it came for were sidelined abruptly by a certain well-known disaster.
In Annie’s memories, an eeriness pervades even the plushest of Titanic cabins, and a mysterious death strikes at the heart of the first-class upper crust. Inexplicably, she, the mild-mannered, low-class servant, is central to all the gossip, speculation, sightings, and seances to come.
The “why” of the matter is something Katsu doles out with delicious deliberation, something that directly connects with Annie’s life on the Britannic.
Could the paranormal elements have been spookier? Yes. If jump scares and dramatically detailed visitations are what you’re looking for, you may find The Deep wanting. Nevertheless, the novel succeeds at startling, aided by the inherent claustrophobia and isolation of its setting. The ghostly presence is here, as is the psychological horror it wreaks. And no amount of money or fame or status can save you from this unfinished business.
Katsu uses a mix of real, invented, and embellished lives to people both the Titanic and Britannic. Thoroughly researched, those real characters serve as reminders about the inevitability of what is to come and, in some cases, speak to that fruitlessness of station and status. John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest man aboard the Titanic, is here in these pages; his family has a central role to play in the haunting, even before he goes down with the ship.
Though the most interesting real-life character may be the aforementioned Violet Jessop, the crew member who indeed did survive both the Titanic and Britannic sinkings, and whose memoir provided inspiration for the novel.
All of the characters feel studiously real, and the historical events are faithfully relayed. That attention to detail helps ground the supernatural elements — makes them as inevitable as everything else to come. You can see the disaster coming, and it’s to Katsu’s credit that you plow forward anyway.