Manuscript vs Myth: Into the Drowning Deep
“In the picture the creature – the mermaid – was facing away from the camera, pulling itself along the Atargatis desk with clawed hands. Its tail was broad and flat, more like an eel’s than a dolphin’s, and while the substance growing from its scalp could have been for hair under the right light, it was clearly something… else.”
The lovely ladies of the sea (or mermaids to use the common phrase) have appeared in myths and legends around the world, for centuries. While the debate about the ‘realness’ of mermaids is still occasionally disputed – with some arguing that the vastness of the ocean makes it impossible for mermaids to be definitively disproven – most have accepted that mermaids are not real, and the creature has firmly settled into myth and fiction. In her 2017 novel Into the Drowning Deep, horror and sci-fi author Mira Grant takes a step away from the fantastical, to explore what a real-life mermaid would look like, and what would be the scientific reason behind their human appearance and enchanting voices.
The novel explores the journey of the Melusine, a crew of scientists heading on a journey to the Mariana Trench to find out if there could be mermaids lurking in the deepest depths of the sea. The journey is funded by Imagine, a documentary channel known for their ‘mockumentaries’ and their pseudo-scientific attempts to prove the existence of various cryptids. The journey also has a twist – almost a decade earlier, Imagine sent a different crew on the same voyage. No one returned. The only clue was video footage found on the ship… footage of terrifying mermaids attacking and devouring everyone on board. The unlucky ship, the Atargatis, was found days after their last distress signal, drifting empty in the ocean.
The name of the ship is certainly appropriate for a mermaid hunting expedition, and even one that ends in tragedy. Atargatis is said to be the first mermaid to appear in known myth, and her story was one of death and tragedy as well. Atargatis was a goddess in ancient Assyria, appearing in mythology as far back as 700BC. She was a goddess of fertility and water, who unluckily fell in love with a mortal shepherd. Accidentally killing her lover, she was unable to deal with the guilt – drowning herself in a lake in the hope that she would come back as a fish, as a punishment for her sins. Her beauty was so great that it could not be contained to a piscine form, and she found herself resurrected instead as a beautiful woman, with a human torso and face, and the lower body of a scaled fish.
While this may be the earliest story about mermaids, it is far from the only one, and legends of tempting fish-women appear in legends around the globe. In Chinese myth, a creature called the Lingyu is said to have the face of a human and the body of a fish. Later myths describe a similar creature called the jiaoren who live in the Southern Seas of China and whose tears become pearls. The Greek Sirens are temptresses whose supernatural songs were capable of enchanting sailors, luring them closer until the hapless men dashed themselves and their ships on the rocks. Earlier depictions of these Siren give them more birdlike attributes, although as mermaid myths became more popular, their enchanting voices and sea-home led to the creatures being conflated with the mermaids that we know today.
While the myths are different across the world, there are certain attributes that often appear – mermaids are beautiful, and they frequently have enchanting voices. Modern depictions of mermaids (such as the famous ‘Little Mermaid’) depict them as kind or friendly beings, who fall in love with humans and choose to take human form in order to remain with their love (or, alternatively, turn their love into a merman and have them join them in the sea). Earlier myths of the creature, however, show them as ambivalent as best, and sinister at worst. Many legends of these ladies describe them enchanting and drowning sailors, sometimes as a form of sustenance, sometimes for fun and sometimes as a form of vengeance – the mermaids in these myths said to be the spirits of drowned or jilted women.
It is these earlier myths that Mira Grant draws on to create the chilling and man-eating mermaids of ‘Into the Drowning Deep.’ Rather than looking for a supernatural explanation for these creatures, however, Grant looks for a natural one, exploring the scientific reasons that a creature might evolve to look like a beautiful human woman. Generally, a creature might evolve as a mimic for two reasons, one as a form of defence, and two, as a lure. And, as Grant says, “Why would anything lure sailors, if not as a form of sustenance?”
Unlike many mermaid myths, where the attributes of the mer are largely mammalian, the mermaids in Grant’s novel are instead fish who developed human attributes in order to tempt their prey, much like an angler fish waves a bioluminescent light in order to draw fish closer to its mouth. While the mermaids in the novel are not fully humanoid, they are similar enough that sailors who caught only a glimpse of something in the waves, could easily mistake them for beautiful women. This is similar to one possible explanation behind mermaid myths – that sailors caught glimpses of seals, dolphins and manatees in the waves and made the same mistake. Behind their humanish faces, Grant’s mermaids hide a terrifying mouthful of bristling teeth and, once the hapless scientists and sailors draw closer, the mermaids pounce.
Many mermaid myths speak of the mermaids having enchanting voices – either because of the stunning beauty of their songs, or because the songs are literally enchanting, able to steal the wits of a man and draw them into the water to drown. The scientists on The Melusine, and on the earlier doomed Atargatis, are surprised to learn that the mermaids – despite their inhuman appearance – are able to speak the human tongue. They later realise that the mermaids are merely mimicking sounds that they hear. The mermaids are able to learn and remember important sounds (such as songs) which they use to trick sailors closer, or lead sailors to believe there is a woman in danger in the water. This is not that uncommon in the real world, particularly within intelligent species. Orca have been said to be able to mimic some human words, and many birds (parrots, crows, starlings and more) are able to learn and use many human words. Like these animals, however, exactly how much the mermaids actually understand of what they mimic is unknown, and between the teeth, and the claws, the scientists don’t have much of a chance to try and teach the mermaids English (though an attempt at American sign language is made).
The sea has always been deadly to humans, more so centuries ago before the invention of steel ships. The risk of being lost at sea would have been a constant fear for sailors and their families, and the concept of mermaids would have tied into that. Whether they seduced the men, or drowned them, mermaid myths would have offered an explanation for why they never came home. Mira Grant’s mermaids do the same. Much like these ancient sailor’s wives, the crew of the Melusine were looking for a reason that their loved ones did not return. And they found one. They found mermaids.