F. G. Cottam
Thomas Dunne Books
Trade Paper, 368 pages, $25.99
Review by Sheila Merritt
The gender of a boat/ship is designated as female. It is described as a “she,” and seduces accordingly. In his novel Dark Echo, author F. G. Cottam plays upon this notion. The title of the book refers to a vessel that thrums with fatal attraction. The magnetism is malevolent; the come-on, cautionary. Temptation tantalizes and torments. Care to sign on for a cruise? If thinking twice, consider the appeal: “It was the lines of her that did it. Even out of the water, she had this sweep of imperious elegance. The timbers of her hull were stained but sound-looking, apparently intact. Her deck, with its brass rail, was a low-sung hymn to grace. She was so beautifully proportioned that, even as a wreck, she seemed somehow poised and dignified.” Cottam barges in on the dream with a nightmare of a narrative. He launches a tale of ghosts, diabolic deals, and historical resonances. His work is a successful blend of horror with history; World War I and Michael Collins combine with ritual sacrifice and murder. The “‘roaring twenties” meld with devil worship. There’s a Dennis Wheatley vibe to the story line, but the writing is much better.
Like the sea craft, so effectively depicted in feminine terms, two women are instrumental in steering the plot. One, a freelance researcher, is digging up information to try to save her lover from evil enslavement. She turns to the writings of a liberated lady from decades past for illumination, and finds a revealing impression of a suspect character: “He is extraordinarily muscular and, in the harsh sunshine, his dark body reminded me with a shudder of the carapace of some large and deadly creature. There is something of the crab or the praying mantis about him.”
The emphasis of characterization, however, is on a father and son relationship. The father, who is wealthy and self indulgent, buys Dark Echo; despite its reputation as being cursed. His son longs for approbation and love; and also feels the tug of the ship’s thrall. Together they embark on a journey that will bring them closer to each other, and nearer to impending doom.
Past and present entwine to combat corruption of souls. There is a tenderness in the interaction of eras; a trying to bridge damage done while attempting to thwart contemporary catastrophe.
The vessel’s hull isn’t hell. The vehicle is merely a terrifying transport for trace terrors. The alluring Dark Echo charters stygian waters, and unveils unholy pacts that traverse time. Writer F. G. Cottam focuses on familial/generational interplay in his novel; never forgetting the important involvement of the pivotal females. His bewitching barge is indeed unforgettable.