NO one quite makes the ordinary seem equally familiar, alien and frightening as easily as Sarah Lotz seems to. In her last novel The Three, simultaneous plane crashes leave behind a single survivor each, sending the world into a frenzy of conspiracies, concerns and paranoia. Each survivor is a child, and Lotz creates some of the creepiest children we’ve read since Stephen King’s Children of the Corn or The Shining. Lotz’ follow up to The Three is Day Four, a novel about a slightly shabby cruise ship that stalls without any satisfying explanation in the middle of the ocean. It’s a claustrophobic, entertaining story that begins towards the end of the cruise when everything starts to fall apart and people begin to be … well, people.
Lotz doesn’t spend more than a sentence about the first three days of the cruise, when everything is running at optimal levels and everyone is happy, going about doing whatever they want: getting drunk, making friends, meeting the on-board psychic for a mass séance. On the fourth day there is a fire in the engine room and soon after, everything that could go wrong, does. The ship loses radio contact completely, and slowly starts to lose power in different ways too — the air conditioning stops working, the sewage system is no longer efficient, people seem to be getting very sick, all other means of contact with the rest of the world appear severed, and a dead woman is found in one of the rooms. The security team, when viewing the video camera footage, may have seen something very mysterious. One of the cleaning crew is certain she’s seen a child in a hallway on a ship where there are no children.
Celine del Ray, the psychic on board the ship, seems to suddenly be a lot more authentic than she did before, even to her assistant, who knows the inside tricks the psychic uses to convince people of her clairvoyance. When the ship’s engines fail, Celine’s abilities appear to reach feverish levels of energy and she begins to know things she really should not, not just about her well-researched and devoted followers but also about the ship’s staff who have so far considered her a charlatan. ‘“I see dead people’, she jokes, but then abruptly tells the ship’s doctor who is battling with his own past, ‘You’ve been a naughty boy, haven’t you? Time to put things right. You’re gonna be tested again, doc. You’re all gonna be tested. Question is, will you pass or won’t you?’” Her “spirit guides” find more than voice via her — they occasionally make an appearance. Or do they?
There are plenty of unexplainable events that take place on the ship — weighted doors that stand ajar, giggling little children that scamper much too fast on all fours, restless spirits and more. But Day Four is not about physical horror — other than the sheer claustrophobia of being on a ship stranded in the middle of nowhere. The horror here is a sharp suggestion, a sudden connection of frightening incidents fuelled by the very stink of humanity marooned on a floating island and left to their own worst-case scenario devices. Lotz lays bare the dark hearts of her characters, giving us people who drop the modicum of civility at the very instance they feel there is a loss of order, giving in to chaos and sometimes even revelling in it.
The staff of the cruise liner is a diverse lot of characters, though most are from various developing countries, and are migrants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds trying to earn money to send back home to support their families. They’ve each got something that they’re running — or hiding — from, whether it be an abusive relationship, a failed career or drug addiction. Their relationships with each other, the power dynamics between them and the cruise passengers, slowly grow fraught as both parties realise that they cannot make sense of what is happening around them. Just as the passengers start to descend into chaos, the ship’s staff attempts their best to control the situation but their own demons soon come out to play as well. Because, of course, everyone on board is ultimately just very human. Well, almost everyone.
It is a rather large cast of characters, with alternating points of view employed in the narrative. But then, this is a very big ship — it would seem like a rather restricted point of view if the narrative was not from wide, varied perspectives. Some of the characters will of course stand out more than others — Celine herself; her assistant Maddie; Xavier, who is trying to expose Celine as a fraud; Althea, the cleaner who finds her secrets are no longer just hers; Devi the security guard who is petrified of making the same mistakes he made before, and Jesse, the ship’s doctor, who is fighting his own addictions as he tries to understand what is going on with his patients.
Day Four is mostly told as a conventional narrative, albeit one from multiple perspectives. Eventually, once we are off the ship, Lotz offers some really great — and stress-inducing — alternate narratives from newspaper reports and top-secret transcripts from interviews conducted by a government agency (assumedly) with some of the ship’s passengers. This is not a direct sequel to Lotz’ last novel but it takes place in the same world and briefly references the crashes of The Three, offering additional scary connections for those who have read both. It’s very easy to pair the two novels together and especially intriguing to do so if one assumes that the villain of both is connected or even the same. Lotz never spoon-feeds this to her readers though, leaving a great deal to the imagination. As with the best horror novel, the more you imagine, the easier it is to be afraid of what she’s suggesting.
Day Four often feels like a modern-day version of J. G. Ballard’s High Rise, except on water and with a more racially diverse lot of characters. It’s a contemporary and astute reading of what people can do to each other and to themselves under high levels of stress, and when cut off from the bounds of a larger society. The cruise liner, like Ballard’s high-rise apartment building, becomes the microcosmic representative of the world we know and are afraid of, except with a potentially supernatural element to it — or not.
By Sarah Lotz
Hodder & Stoughton, UK