Spectral Press issues short-run chapbooks on a quarterly schedule, and their latest offering comes courtesy of Alison Littlewood, whose debut novel A Cold Season garnered quite a bit of attention when it appeared earlier this year. Her chapbook, entitled Eyes of Water, is likewise worthy of acclaim — but it’s already sold out from the publisher, so you’ll have to check with a specialty dealer or explore the secondary market if you hope to snag a copy.
Like Michael McBride’s creepy novella “Xibalba” from his collection Quiet, Keeps to Himself (reviewed here), Littlewood’s story is situated on the Yucatan peninsula and features cenotés — deep natural pits or sinkholes that expose the groundwater below — and vast underwater cave systems.
Protagonist Alex receives a tearful call from Kath, the sister of his friend Rick, a diver extraordinaire and general thrill-seeker who has apparently pushed his luck too far and is lying dead in a Mexican morgue. Alex arrives and finds Rick’s body impossibly to identify, due to extreme facial injuries, which the authorities say were caused by strong tides pulling him against the cave walls… but the rest of his body is strangely unblemished. When Alex thinks he sees Rick one night, just beyond the reaches of the campfire light, things start to get really interesting.
Alex is unable to resist the temptation to explore the caves where Rick died, although once he’s entered their depths, he has some second thoughts, to say the least, reflecting on the many people who died there in order to fulfill Mayan superstitions:
“For a moment I thought of sacrifices thrown into the cave, the way they must have watched that same circle of light until they could no longer tread water and sank into the dark. This time, when I caught my breath, it came with a gasp. No. Soon I could swim back to the chair and they would lift me out. I would feel the sun on my face.”
As with McBride’s story, the caves prove to be a suitably creepy setting, especially when Alex re-enters the caves on his own and goes far deeper into the system, leading to an unexpected confrontation and to more thoughts about sacrifices:
“I thought about how we offered ourselves, wondered if, after all, it was some need we had, to throw ourselves before some idea or thing. Maybe, sooner or later, all of us had something or someone waiting to collect. If so, maybe it wasn’t so bad; better than being trapped in the endless dark, unable to go forward, unable to go back.”
Through it all, Littlewood does an excellent job of developing both atmosphere and characters, making Eyes of Water a fast and highly-engaging read. Track down a copy if you can.