by Sarah Lotz
352 pages, Hodder & Stoughton
Review by Pat Black
Ever wondered about those cruise ships? I love the sea, and I love boats, but cruise ships? Not sure. We’ve all heard horror stories. Here’s another one.
Day Four is Sarah Lotz’s loose follow-up to The Three, the kind of airport novel that you shouldn’t read at an airport, far less on a plane. I’d hesitate to call it a sequel as it works perfectly well on its own, but it references the Black Thursday plane crash events of the previous book and, maybe, takes place in the same universe.
Our setting is The Beautiful Dreamer, a liner that loses power and then its bearings in the Caribbean. It seems impossible that a ship could get lost in the modern age, with satellites, wi-fi, mobile phone technology, spotter planes or just plain old compasses, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s something a bit weirder going on in the wider world. Meanwhile, the food starts to run out, the sanitation turns into something out of Clive Barker, and the behaviour of the passengers follows suit, possibly even down to the demons.
As the crisis escalates, we move through the viewpoint of several characters. These include an assistant to a professional psychic, a diligent, dutiful security officer, a cynical cleaner who works hard but is only in it for the money, the ship’s doctor, who has a secret addiction to pethidine, a woman who is one half of a suicide pact, and a lunatic who has killed a fellow passenger. Through their eyes we experience all manner of weirdness as ghosts haunt the reeking lower levels of the ship.
Lotz gives good creepy. First of all, the sole resident of the ship’s morgue won’t stay quiet; then the psychic, a fairly obvious charlatan, seems to develop real powers, knowing things about the people she encounters that can’t be accounted for by cold reading alone. The characters see and hear odd things, but rarely directly – it’s more that maddening corner-of-your-eye syndrome, the sort of apparitions that might cause you to reach for the light switch if you wake up during the night. The ones that have the cheek to linger for a split second, just before you scream.
The sense of escalation and societal breakdown could have turned into pure schlock in many other writers’ hands, but Lotz addresses this chaos in a cannier, more confident way. Although you’ll see order break down and episodes of violence, we never quite engage full atavistic end-of-days mode, with people slaughtering each other. That was a plus point for me. Things get just horrible enough. People form little tribes, with their own territories. But we don’t travel all the way back to the Stone Age. It’d have been so easy to turn this book into a Lord of the Flies-style essay on how savage we all are at heart, but people remain, for the most part, civilised. Ultimately, people want to survive, rather than triumph. During moments of crisis, particularly near the end when the ship’s masters completely relinquish control, people make mistakes rather than become evil (with one or two notable exceptions). There are a couple of fights in the food queue, but at least there’s still a queue.
You are also shown how people would simply muddle through in a situation like that. You’d think, right up until the end: well, things can’t be that bad. Someone would come and help us, if things were that bad. You might even sit there in your cabin, and watch the waves lap against the porthole. Then creep into the room.
Lotz also show us that things are a bit wrong, all over. Those bobbing plastic bags crowding the stricken ship like jellyfish; people throwing themselves into a cult as a substitute for good order and certainty in life; the smug drone of the bleached-out cruise director, chirping away while everything else on board heads for the flusher; it all felt relevant. Day Four is a work of fantasy but – much like The Three - it plays in the same key as what we see in the news.
Something’s just a bit off. Maybe it smells funny. Or perhaps, as my father would tell me, my nose is too close to my own arse.
Or maybe it’s just January. Maybe I need to get away somewhere warm, with a nice beach. But not necessarily on board a ship.
Day Four is an excellent modern horror story.