Water For Drowning by Ray Cluley is the latest chapbook in the This Is Horror series. It’s a dark and brooding tale that is Cluley’s own interpretation of the mermaid myth – not of our sanitised, cartoonish modern versions but the original fables of doomed love, glass underfoot, and death. It’s told in the first person by Josh, who plays with a local rock band around the south coast - a big fish in a small pond. Josh is, at least at the start of the story, a bit of a cock. One night at one of his gigs, he meets Genna, a girl who seems smitten with his lyrics of water and rebirth as much as with Josh himself. Josh, normally a one-night stand kind of guy, starts to fall for Genna. (This doesn't, however, stop him acting like a bit of a cock.) Genna, meanwhile, has dreams and aspirations far wilder than Josh’s clichéd rock-god ones…
The story crams in as many references to mermaids as it can, from the sublime The Lovesong Of J. Alfred Prufrock to the, uh, not-sublime Tom Hanks film Splash, to the fake mermaid bodies exhibited in Victorian times. (Although there’s no allusion to Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row and it’s lovely mermaids between the windows of the sea.) In doing so, it builds a backdrop of allusion and history behind Josh and Genna’s tentative romance, and the gradual revelation of the depths of Genna’s obsession. And leaves open, too, the interpretation that maybe, just maybe, Genna isn't deluded at all.
Water For Drowning is one of those books where, as you read it, you realise what the author is going to attempt & what risks they are taking and you think – oh god. It’s like watching someone on a high-wire: what if he wobbles? What if he falls? Because don’t let the length fool you, this is an ambitious story, very much more than the sum of its parts. As such the slightest mistake could ruin its hard-won balance. Fortunately Cluley never puts a foot wrong, never falters, and makes crossing the wire look easy. He even does back-flips. It’s a fantastic achievement, a fantastic story that’s among the very best I've read this year.
In addition, the chapbook also includes a bonus story, the award winning Shark! Shark! – probably some of you will have read it in Black Static. It’s a very clever, genuinely funny, and unsettling story, that’s well worth another read. There’s also an interesting introduction to Water For Drowning by the author himself. Whilst I've enjoyed all the This Is Horror chapbook stories to date, they seem to have upped their game in terms of production quality and extra content with this one.
A must read. Preferably after a big plate of fish and chips like I did.