A week on a Pacific Island sounds like a dream holiday. But, in Dead Ground, within the space of a few short days a terrible horror is predicted, begins to happen, then turns the Condal Islands, somewhere near Tonga, Samoa etc, into a full-scale hell.
From very near the beginning of the book, it is obvious that something nasty involving the shark god of the Polynesians is going to happen. The form this nastiness takes is unusual, however. As well as the shark god gaining legs and walking on earth, the hapless inhabitants of the Condals begin to fall prey to a strange sickness, one that gives red eyes, softened bones and 'more teeth than seemed necessary in a human mouth.'
Possibly this is a horror book, although it is equally likely to be classified fantasy. But, whatever it is labelled as, Amies shows that real horror is not, of course, some supernatural monster running amok. Instead, it is what happens to our humanity in the face of terror. Nothing can be more horrific than seeing people you know turn into mad killers, and reacting yourself, helplessly, with instinctive, terrified violence.
Set in 1931, the catalyst for the story is the arrival on the fictitious Condal Islands of a British archaeological expedition, come to open up a mysterious temple. The Condals have a unique attraction for the anthropological so-called scientists of the day: dotted about the islands are unusual statues. These are vaguely reminiscent of the Easter Island heads, but have wide, toothy jaws, little, shark-like eyes and stumpy limbs. Are they meant to represent Kawehe, the shark god? To worship him, to propitiate him, or to protect against him? And how will the legendary 'he who walks between the waves' respond to the opening of the temple?
Our expectation is that the blundering, imperialist outsiders are going to mess up the status quo. Since some of the Europeans are central to the story, we also assume that, at the end, they will save the day. I am happy to say that in many ways, my expectations were overturned.
The Condalese are not, of course, happily and peaceably going about their business until the archaeological expedition butts in. On the contrary, the island paradise has plenty of tensions. The two main religious groups, each with their extremist wings, are bitter rivals. There is an uneasy power balance between the secular chiefs and the priests/magicians, and between the chiefs and the British governor of the islands. The missionary and the governor disapprove of each other, and the governor's toy boy is distanced from his compatriots.
Most of these tensions are distractions, serving mainly to subtly point out that the Condalese are real, rounded people, with irrational friendships or feuds. They are not just shark bait.
My one real problem with the book is the hint that two of the Europeans are reincarnated heroes of the past, come in the hour of the island's need to confront Kawehe as they did long ago in legend. This is a mystical twist which seems to me to be completely unnecessary. The plot could still develop the way it does if these Europeans had no semi-conscious link to the islands. The characters could be driven by circumstance, or desire, or by each other, and still act the way they do without having to feel some sort of mythical imperative.
Here I might be being unfair to the author, for the whole story depends on the expedition barging in and breaking open the old temple. And, at the end, I loved the way my expectations were completely overturned as the Europeans become the ones being manipulated.
Amies also avoids the obvious in his characters. Most of them don't act in the simplistic, black and white way I anticipated. An example is the expedition's leader, Cosima Garton - a well-drawn portrait of a female over-achiever at a time when women weren't supposed to achieve anything at all. At first she comes across as an unsympathetic, even unpleasant, faintly racist, driven pseudo-scientist of the time. However, she redeems herself in the face of danger by behaving in just the way she should according to the other side of her character: honest, rigid, pragmatic. Thus, she remains true to her quest for knowledge and control.
Garton is, however, one of the few people we learn much about. Most of the other characters are not rounded out enough for us to feel for or with them. The central hero, Allan Delmar, seems to have little drive or volition of his own. Instead, he seems blown like a leaf on whatever wind of chance picks him up. The doctor, Duncan Shand, is meant to be a mysterious figure out of nowhere, and so he remains an enigma. But I felt the motivations of others, such as Tolu Marangi the poet/wise man, and his daughter Ata, were not always crystal clear.
In some ways, of course, enigmatic characters suit the unreal world which Dead Ground creates - 'the terrain you can't see'. This, along with its mannered style and its Thirties setting, gives it the feel of a classic ghost or horror story. The descriptions of the Condals are sparse but telling, with a good sense of atmosphere and place. Amies easily transports us to his small, hot, intense, sea-bounded nightmare. A week on a Pacific Island doesn't seem like such a good idea for a holiday after all.
Dead Ground is one of the first books to come from the Big Engine stable. This new small press is publishing original speculative fiction as well as bringing back some classics such as Dave Langford's The Leaky Establishment (reviewed elsewhere on this site). It deserves all our support.
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© Meredith 20 July 2002