by Steve Alten
Tor, 367 pages
Review by Pat Black
When I was much younger, I stayed with an uncle who is, by anyone’s estimation, an accomplished, clever and well-read person. I returned to his house one afternoon with a bag from Waterstone’s, and he asked me what I’d bought. One of the books was the original Meg. Feeling like a kid caught reading a comic in class, I passed it to him.
He gazed into the eyes of the gigantic prehistoric shark on the cover, and asked: “What’s it about?”
Nightstalkers is the fifth novel Alten has written about Megalodons, giant great white sharks from prehistory which have somehow survived to the present day for some scientific reason or other. Over the years, he’s dropped more exotic ingredients into the soup, dredging old dinosaur spotters’ guides from his childhood for ever-bigger and nastier aquatic monsters. He’s topped out with a Liopleurodon, acknowledged as the biggest carnivore the world has ever seen, rendered here as a 120ft crocodile with flippers and extremely bad manners.
Alten’s increasingly squamous symphony has seen his nightmare menagerie eat dozens of people as they clash with mankind. Deliciously, they also clash with each other. The previous entry in the series, Hell’s Aquarium, finished with a scrap between the Liopleurodon and Angel, the biggest, baddest Megalodon in the sea. It was terrific, the underwater death-match Ray Harryhausen would have dreamed of.
There’s more of the same in Nightstalkers, as we follow the Lio’s progress towards Antarctica. As ever, the story centres on ace submersible pilot Jonas Taylor and his family. They used to run an aquarium which housed Megalodons, but the creatures escaped thanks to some animal rights saboteurs. The sharks showed their gratitude by eating a few of them. Taylor – beset by legal problems thanks to his assets’ habit of straying off the menu - is offered lots of money to help recapture the creatures, and in order to survive financially he gets involved in the mayhem against his better judgment.
Taylor is part of a plot to recapture Lizzy and Bela, Angel’s children, dreamed up by the ambitious scientist Paul Agricola, the man partly responsible for luring the original Megalodon from the depths (you can read about that in the ebook-only short, Meg: Origins).
In the earlier novels it seemed that focus would switch to Taylor’s daughter, but his son, David, is now the star man of action. David has been left traumatised by his experiences in the previous novel, which might have been better suited to the title A Monster Ate My Girlfriend. His skills as a mini-submarine pilot are required by his Middle Eastern backers to capture the monsters of the deep for a brand new state-of-the-art aquarium in Dubai. The stories of father and son move inexorably towards a collision.
How did the monsters survive? Ach, it’s not really important, but Alten does a commendable job in trying to align hard science with his lovably daft concept. At first the megs are confined to temperate zones in the Mariana Trench, with hydrothermal vents and sea-bed gigantism among both predator and prey allowing the monsters to survive a long way from the surface, and human attention.
Then it turned out there was an entire sea, hidden from view beneath the earth’s crust, where all the giant sea reptiles survived, having evolved gills (does that mean they’re still reptiles, then?). In Nightstalkers, we set our cryptozoological sights on the Antarctic ice shelves – and what might be unleashed as the world heats up and melts them.
The Meg stories have been very careful to outline the technology involved, particularly the zippy mini-subs which leap past snapping gnashers with inches to spare, like that bit in the intro to Stingray. Alten sometimes overdoes the facts, figures and statistics. He’s very keen to tell you how much water a super-tanker or a naval destroyer displaces, how much it weighs, what it’s constructed with, or how it works, in big bites of data. Some people like those details; personally speaking I’m fine with “it was a big boat with guns and some nice boys in dress whites”. There’s no need to blind us with science, but Alten’s done his working and he can show it in the space provided. Many other authors (including this one) probably wouldn’t make that much of an effort.
Other nasties unleashed include packs of ichthyosaurs and the star prize, livyatan melvillei, a prototype sperm whale, but a whole lot bigger with a fang-studded lower jaw on loan from an orca. This is the kid who came into the yard and fluked sand into Moby Dick’s blowhole, and Moby Dick didn’t do sh*t about it. A big part of my enjoyment of this book was the suspicion that the big-ass whale, the two big-ass sharks and the biggest ass of all, the Liopleurodon, were going to butt heads in a sort of prehistoric World Cup. There is a creature feature smackdown at the end, though I shall not go into detail here.
That’s ignoring the plentiful moments of peril and death where various characters either end up in a shark sandwich or escape by the skin of some very pointy teeth. When the attack scenarios are outlined, it’s fun trying to guess who the “redshirts” are going to be. Sometimes they all get out alive; sometimes they all die; but it’s best when one luckless soul draws a short straw. My favourite moment in the series (I think it’s in the third book, Primal Waters) is the part where an old lady and her wheelchair get inhaled by Angel. Nightstalkers is similarly stuffed full of unlucky buggers oblivious to the fact that their name is on the specials board. My favourite part was when a hippyish animal lover who’s into free-diving with great whites tries to feed the… with predictable...
I enjoyed the return of Zachary Wallace, one of the lead characters in Alten’s Nessie misfire, The Loch. Alten has wisely dialled down the Scots dialogue this time, though he still makes the odd error (no-one in Scotland says, “I’m off home for me tea”; it’s “I’m off home for ma tea”. The “me” is an Anglified corruption of “my”, rather than Caledonian). Not that it matters to anyone outside of a country an eighth of the size of Texas, but if you’re going to tackle such a complex demotic, it’s best to get it right.
Wallace’s character introduces an element into this story which blew my mind a wee bit. In a curious way it took me back to Ballard’s The Drowned World, which I was listening to in the car at roughly the same time I was reading Nightstalkers – a bonkers idea which upends the concept of the fictional world you thought you knew.
This idea (which I won’t spoil) doesn’t belong in a straightforward boy-meets-monster affair, but fair play to Alten for trying it out. It seems it’s linked to another novel of his, Vostok, which also features the Nessie-wrangling Scot. The concept made me think of the Genesis device in Star Trek, which may as well have been called Deus ex Machina, but the scientific/philosophical treatise on our perceptions of time and reality was fascinating.
No more of that. Alten now seems very close to a 20-year dream becoming reality; seeing Meg appear on the big screen. At time of writing, Jonas Taylor will be played by Jason Statham in a movie due to come out in 2018. I’m not getting my hopes up, as Meg is notorious for appearing on production slates, then being dumped unceremoniously in the dock. That dreaded phrase, “in development”, has been attached to the title for nearly 20 years. The disappointing performance of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla movie is understood to have torpedoed plans for the original version; Peter Jackson’s good-but-not-great King Kong remake did for another, 10 years ago. At one stage, Jan de Bont was meant to direct; at another, Eli Roth. It remains to be seen whether this film ever gets made – and if it does, whether it angles more towards Jaws or Sharknado. Personally, I would be braced for a title change. But these are exciting times for Megheads.
Alten held back publication of Nightstalkers in order to coincide with a Meg movie which might never come, so I’m glad he decided to just stick it out anyway, six long years after Hell’s Aquarium. And he promises that the story will continue, with Meg: Generations. When it does, I’ll be there.