Mermaids and The Deep
It’s an interesting thing what happens, when you tell people that you really like mermaids and mer-folk and writing stories about them. They have a pretty specific idea what your mer-folk look like and therefore what kind of story you’re probably writing about them. Specifically, Disney. If you say “mermaids,” people understand that you probably have some sort of singing Jamaican Lobster around the edges somewhere.
So with that in mind, it’s really interesting what happens when you tell people that 1) you’re writing a ghost story, approaching being a horror story and 2) your mermaids aren’t necessarily friendly beautiful half-women who are wondering what fire is, and why it burns, but might have more in common with the strange and alien things that live in the depths of our oceans. It doesn’t process, and mostly I get an odd look and they wander off.
I don’t care. I love mermaids, and I know exactly when it started: there was a brief sequence in a live-action Peter Pan movie from 2003, starring Jason Isaacs (who is somehow not always Lucius Malfoy??) in which for a brief second, we meet mermaids. They are pale and not friendly-looking at all, strange creatures that do look like, if you fall into the water, they might eat you.
That was all it took. Since 2003, I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time in my head and on paper building my own world of mermaids which had more to do with my abiding love of marine biology than it did with Disney mermaids. I’ve almost never discussed it, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.
I was excited to get to use some of it, in the story Old Bones. Tracing the origins of stories and the things that appear in them is always tricky, isn’t it? It’s such a blurring mash in your head. Here, though, it came from a song by a band called Nightwish, of whom I am a massive fan. The song was called Turn Loose the Mermaids. From the lyrics of the song, I garnered a general notion of mermaids, ghosts, and being exhausted and longing for rest. Impressions like these drift around in the back of my head, where they collect ideas, pulling from my mermaid lore, my general love of ghost stories (both haunting and tragic) and like so, my story began to come together. A story of an old man, made both physical and mental wreckage by his time at sea and the brutality of that life. From there, I had a very clear image of him coming out one night and on the rocky beach by his home, he sees a mermaid dragging herself across the ground and toward a graveyard. A strange, pale creature with long hair – more like seaweed than human hair – and sharp teeth, with too-big eyes. Not a Disney mermaid at all, but definitely a creature of the deep.
Mermaids are brilliant monsters when you start looking at marine biology and working out why things work the way they do underwater, and how a mermaid would exist down there. And personality-wise, they would be drastically alien to us. At least in the beginning. As the story goes, I try to humanize them, because there is nothing more engaging (and scary, sometimes) than humanizing a monster and making them relatable, or suggesting that perhaps the true horror isn’t the strange creature at all, but very human and acceptable elements of our lives: brutal violence, bad memories, old ghosts haunting our sleep and our lives without any spirits around at all.
(Well. Some spirits. Come on. Who can resist putting mermaids and ghosts into the same story? Not this guy.)