Three Things: Deep Sea Edition

the wonder and desolation of the deep

Three Things: Deep Sea Edition

Some days after school, I'd head down to the beach. I live in England, for context. It's not a 'bikinis at the ready' kind of scenario that I imagine you would have if you lived in Australia. It was more of a 'wrap up warm, even in July, lest you catch a chill' kind of vibe.

I'd go to decompress. Go home, drop off my bag, and head out again. We lived about ten minutes away from the beach at the time, in a quiet little village where nothing much happened. The closer I got to the sea, the sandier the paths became, until eventually, my school shoes sank into it completely. Sometimes I'd go with friends, but I'd most often be alone.

Many times in my life I've gone out to look at it, to sit in front of undulating waves and think, or not think at all. Something about the vast, unfathomable ocean makes me feel calm. As though what I'm actually worrying about doesn't matter. Time will smooth out all of our problems, in the same way a jagged piece of glass is rendered soft with the waves.

I find the presence of the sea really important. Having a chronic nerve pain condition means I can't get down to the beach as often as I'd like, but I find it quite reassuring to know it's there. I think I'd miss it if I had to live further inland. I like the steadying presence of something mysterious and deep and ancient. It reminds me that we're transient beings. It's a good thing, to know that.

📖 Book: Our Wives Under the Sea, Julia Armfield (2022)

But the depths of the ocean are actually terrifying to contemplate. What the hell is down there? What beauty and horrors lurk in the darkness, hidden from view? What would it be like to be lost under there? To sink under the water and descend further than humans are meant to go?

That's what happens to Leah, a deep-sea researcher, in the stunning novel Our Wives Under the Sea. Leah and her coworkers are lost at the bottom of the ocean when a three-week submarine expedition goes wrong. When they eventually reemerge months later, Leah is different, somehow. Like part of her is still there, lingering on the ocean floor. Her wife, Miri, is left to deal with the aftermath.

The chapters alternate between Leah, as she recalls what happens as her team slowly succumb to the madness of being isolated in the depths, and Miri, as she takes care of Leah and reflects on their relationship so far.

I knew this would be a kind of slow-creeping, unsettling horror story: not jumpy, perhaps, but just unnerving like a shadow looming in the distance under the sea. What I didn't realise is that it's also a gorgeous, and incredibly sad, love story. As Leah deteriorates, Miri fights to save them both.

'I remember the way she looked at me, the open surge of her gaze, like I was something she'd invented, brought to life by the power of electricity and set down there, in the last of the light.'

It's a story about the terrors of the ocean, yes, but also about the depths of love and how far you'll go to honour the person you care about. And I think anyone who has loved someone with depression will feel a deep connection here: the absolute helplessness of being physically near someone, but knowing that they are still, somehow, out of reach.

It's gorgeous. Beautiful writing. Less about the plot, more about the feeling: just the kind of book I love to get lost in.

🎮 Game: Iron Lung, David Szymanski (2022)

Iron Lung is one of those indie games that everyone was talking about at the time, and it's had a bit of a resurgence thanks to the upcoming movie written, directed, produced by, and starring Markiplier.

I've played a few of these lo-poly, PSX-style games over the past couple of years: Paratopic, Boreal Tenebrae, Perfect Vermin, and How Fish Is Made. Obviously being a '90s child, I love that style, because it feels familiar and nostalgic. It also lends itself really well to horror (I like this article by Anthony Wright about this PSX-style horror resurgence, you should check it out).

Iron Lung is made in the same style. You're confined, in a tiny little submarine, in an ocean of blood. Something happened to humanity: The Quiet Rapture, they call it, which caused everything in the universe to disappear. No stars, no habitable planets, nothing. The only surviving humans are those on space stations or starships.

You play a convict, sent to investigate the moon AT-5, to dive into that strange ocean of blood and figure out if there's anything worth finding down there. In exchange for your work, you are promised freedom, but it quickly becomes apparent that this might not be the case.

To steer the Iron Lung, you must use navigational equipment, but you can't really see a lot: you're essentially feeling your way in the dark, trying not to bump into anything. You can take photographs using the submarine camera. Those moments between taking a photograph and looking at it are quite terrifying.

Iron Lung is definitely worth a play, if you haven't already. It's short, suffocating, and it has a lot to say in a short space of time.

🎶 Album: Total Life Forever, Foals (2010)

I'm always on a mission to find music to write to. There are certain albums that I physically can't listen to because I find them way too distracting. But there are others that give me a bit of an emotional oomph to my writing without completely overtaking it.

I put on the first Life is Strange playlist recently, because why not, and the song Spanish Sahara by Foals came on. I forgot how much I love that song. So I flipped to the album it comes from, Total Life Forever. And I started listening to the lyrics:

Black rocks and shoreline sand
Still that summer I cannot bare
And I wipe the sand of my arms
The Spanish Sahara, the place that you'd wanna
Leave the horror here

That's from Spanish Sahara. And then:

Top of the world, bottom of the ocean
Top of the world, bottom of the ocean
They built you up and broke you down again
So now you hope to beat the surf in - black gold

That's from Black Gold. And then:

I promised you on an ocean of
Mother of pearl, gold, and indigo
Cut through the waves, I watched you swim away
I'll never love you more than today

Look. This might seem tenous but genuinely, I am finding that everything I consume in some way seems to have a weird link to the sea right now. Maybe it's because I'm thinking about it, that I'm noticing it? Maybe I'm only just thinking about how many people gain some kind of inspiration from the ocean? Maybe it's because my pain is causing me to stay locked inside when part of me really wants to just run into the waves?

Whatever it is, it's a good album. Moody and lovely to write with. I forgot about it, and I'm glad I remembered it again.

One more bonus thing: I've been reading a book, Treasury of Folklore: Seas & Rivers. It's a nice little treasury of stories, and I'm particularly enjoying the idea of selkies, beautiful human-seal hybrids living around the islands of Orkney and Shetland. Locals suspected selkies were behind a spate of female disappearances; women used to paint crosses on the breasts of their daughters to try and ward off the deeply seductive power of the selkies.

It is said you can summon a selkie lover by running to the high tide, shedding seven tears into the sea, and then waiting for your perfect selkie life partner to appear.

'But be warned: sadness follows many who take a selkie as their life partner, as most will yearn for the waves until their days are done.'

Imagine. Longing for a shapeshifter who only occasionally appears, under the moonlight in the high tide.

Interestingly, on the north coast of Scotland, there's a small landmark known as the Selkie's Grave. The story goes that a fisherman found a baby girl, abandoned on the beach and wrapped in a sealskin to keep her warm. They took the girl in, only to find, as she grew up, that she had strange powers, that she saw things other people couldn't see. When the girl grew up, she died in childbirth. And now, there's this little hollow stone, decorated with shells and seaweed, in memory of her. It's said that the stone never dries out, even during a drought: you can dip your hand in and find water there no matter what, and some people believe if you put your foot in it and make a wish, it will come true.

I kind of want to go and find that grave myself, one day. Maybe I will.

Let me know what you're watching/playing/reading/listening to. Next week: a review of Space for the Unbound, the game that made me cry quite a bit.