Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Anatomy of a Weird Tale: "Ghost Trap"

Not all zombie narratives are splattery efforts rife with images of decomposition and evisceration.  Some works veer more toward the genre of weird fiction, putting the emphasis on the haunting more than the horrific.  Rick Hautala's "Ghost Trap," as its title immediately suggests, is one such tale.  This is not the familiar story of putrescent masses bringing apocalypse to a metropolitan scene, but rather that of a single--and singularly disquieting--postmortem lingerer.

Readers learn the literal significance of Hautala's title in the opening paragraph: it's lobsterman lingo for a trap that has been broken off its mooring rope by too-stormy seas.  The lost trap sinks down to the ocean floor, where an unfortunately investigative lobster might still crawl inside.  "If more than one lobster ended up in a trap," the third-person narrative voice informs us, "the bigger, stronger one would kill and eat the others, but that only prolonged its captivity until, eventually, it died of starvation" (263).  Such description of desperate yet ultimately hopeless cannibalism also sounds like an apt gloss on zombie existence.

Perhaps what it most noteworthy about the opening of "Ghost Trap" is the sense of suspense it creates.  Skillful as any Maine fisherman, Hautala hooks his audience with the very first line: "Although it was often part of his job, Jeff Stewart hadn't been expecting to find a body today."  From here, though, further discussion of the discovery is held in abeyance for two full pages.  Exposition is sketched in, much of it focusing on Jeff's experiences working as a rescue diver for the U.S. Coast Guard.  The narrative remarks on the strangely animate appearance of recent drowning victims: "Their arms invariably would be raised and extended, like they were reaching for something to cling to, something solid so they could hoist themselves back up to the surface" (164).  If the corpse had yet to be ravaged by carnivorous scavengers, its eyes "would be wide open and staring with an expression of stunned surprise.  It was as if the victim still couldn't believe he or she had actually drowned."  The figuration of the life-like quality of the average drowning victim leads at last to a consideration of the odd state of the dead man Jeff accidentally discovers while searching for ghost traps on his off-day.  Here Hautala's prose presents an uncanny underwater tableau:
The man was sitting with his legs out in front of him, his toes pointing upward.  Jagged black shreds of rubber boots still clung to his feet and lower legs.  His arms were extended and swaying from side to side like thick fronds of kelp moved by the deep-sea currents.  The man's hands were extended, his fingers hooked.  Long yellowed fingernails looking like chipped old porcelain stuck out from the ends of the withered bone-white hands.

Jeff couldn't help but think the man looked like he had been waiting patiently for him...or someone...to come along and find him in the darkness seven fathoms below the surface. (264-265)
The corpse proves all the more disquieting as Jeff continues to scrutinize it.  Along with the tattered clothing, the corroded, barnacle-encrusted cement block chained to the man's waist suggests that this victim has been down here for some time.  Yet the dead man himself seems unnervingly preserved; his head even still possesses the pair of eyes that should have long since been gobbled by fish or crabs.  Though frightened by his find, Jeff briefly surfaces to retrieve a rope so he can mark of the location of the body for later retrieval.  "As he dropped back down into the depths," Hautala writes at scene's end, "his heart felt like a cold, tight fist in his chest" (266)--another fitting image, apropos of a zombie's penetrating clutch.

A still-shaken Jeff is overheard later that evening sharing his story with his drinking buddies at the local watering hole.  Pappy Sullivan--a knowing weirdo who might have wandered out of the pages of H.P. Lovecraft's fiction--approaches Jeff and opines that the mysterious drowned man must be Old Man Crowther (Hautala's choice of surname here perhaps a nod to fellow horror writer Peter Crowther).  Alluding to a "plague" that gripped the seafront community back in the early 70's when Jeff was but a young child (Jeff vaguely recalls hearing talk at the time of "something weird going on in town" [270]), Pappy claims that Crowther represented the last of the infected.  Crowther's subsequent suicide (presumably by drowning, since his empty boat later washed ashore) was actually a noble gesture, an act of self-sacrifice aimed to save the town from further horror.  Pappy's spook story does little to comfort Jeff, who goes to bed that night stuck with the unpleasant mental image of "the dead man--whoever the hell he was--sitting on the ocean floor down there in the pitch darkness" (271).

Despite Pappy's warning that the body should be left right where it is, Jeff and his Coast Guard companions move to retrieve it the following day.  Jeff descends with fellow diver Wes Evans, and for the former, the scene is bathed in ominous atmosphere: "The daylight shimmering above them quickly collapsed, plunging them into a preternatural gloom, which gradually blended into an inky darkness below" (273).  Jeff is filled with a "nameless apprehension" of what he knows is lurking on the ocean floor, and when he encounters the corpse once again, the sight of it strikes him like a portrait in a Gothic mansion: "Jeff was convinced that as he moved, so too the dead man's eyes moved, tracking him with a dull, blank stare" (274).  Ever wary, Jeff also frames the recovery operation in terms reminiscent of a Universal horror movie: "Like a mummy's curse, Jeff thought, some things are best left undisturbed" (275).  Like a belatedly enlightened seeker in a Lovecraft narrative, Jeff frets that he "should have left well enough alone," but now that the authorities have been alerted and the dive undertaken, there's no turning back.

Hautala continues to tantalize readers with suggestions of the corpse's sentience (e.g. Is it just the currents that make the body look like it's straining against its chain?).  The extended scene grows almost unbearably tense before the figurative trap is finally sprung: eyes now clearly moving, the deep-sea zombie suddenly lashes out against an unsuspecting Wes.  Using its talon-like fingernails, it fatally rakes the diver.  As Jeff attempts to intervene, he feels a sting in his left calf, but it's not until he surfaces with Wes's body that he realizes that he, too, has been wounded by the undead Crowther: "Within seconds, the coldness radiated up his leg and into his groin and chest, where it started to squeeze his heart" (278).  This last bit of description brackets perfectly with the story's earlier, foreshadowing line about "a cold, tight fist" in Jeff's chest.

To the others aboard the Coast Guard boat, Jeff's calf laceration appears to be a minor injury, but Jeff is convinced that he has been infected and is now a modern carrier of the old-time plague.  That's why the despondent protagonist plots his own demise in the story's last sentence: "As soon as the boat got back to the dock, he would have to find a cement block and a length of chain and head right back out to sea" (279).  To avoid the temptations of flesh-savaging, Jeff--like Old Man Crowther before him--opts for a conscientious (quasi-)suicide.

"Ghost Trap" perhaps suffers slightly from its inclusion in a zombie-themed anthology (The New Dead).  In such context, readers naturally expect Crowther to come to life in a climax of overt violence.  Whatever Hautala's narrative might lose in ambiguity, however, it makes up for in mordant irony.  Jeff, who has made a career out of recovering drowned bodies, is now set to commit himself to a watery grave.  A man who has hitherto "relished the freedom, the sense of weightlessness and total isolation" (263) that diving provides, will join Crowther in self-imprisoning submersion.  Such turnabout makes for a haunting conclusion to this nautical weird tale, a story that proves there are still fresh waters to be explored in zombie fiction, and reminds us that an eldritch entity from the deep need not be named Cthulhu or Dagon. 

Work Cited

Hautala, Rick.  "Ghost Trap."  The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology.   Ed. Christopher Golden.  New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2010.  263-279.

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