This review is a rant, and it’s full of spoilers. You have been warned.
Title: The Cavern
Author: Alister Hodge
When a sinkhole opens up in the Australian outback near the town of Pintalba, it reveals an unexplored cave system. Sam is recruited as a paramedic support by his girlfriend Ellie and her team of cave enthusiasts to explore it before anyone else, but as they descend into the dark, they realise that someone – or something – else is hiding down there, and it’s eager to find them.
A closer look
In typical horror fashion, we start the book with two characters that have nothing to do with our main cast: a couple, Jim and Beth, who paid good money for the chance to explore the cave before anyone else. They reach a subterranean lake and, as Jim sets up their camera, Beth glimpses a child in the water. Her instinct kicks in and she dives into the water to save him. Little does she know, the child is actually a shape-shifting monster and it’s going to eat her and her husband with gusto – and gore.
I can already point out one of the reasons why this novel didn’t work for me. One of the things that scares me the most with such a premise is the idea of the characters – and I with them – not knowing what they are facing. The mystery for me plays a huge part in creating tension and suspense. Is there really a monster stalking them? Is it just their imagination?
In this instance, I already know the answer, and what would have been a nice way to relate to the characters throughout the first part of the novel is turned into just one more bit of information they have to catch up on. But let’s keep going.
We now meet Sam, a paramedic who in theory suffers from claustrophobia (and we’ll get back to that), and his girlfriend Ellie, while they go diving off one coast or another. He’s hit by something in the water and panics, and then blames his claustrophobia for it. Even though he was not in a closed space, and being hit by something in the ocean would scare pretty much everyone. Ever heard of sharks?
Anyway, they talk about this cave system that just popped up and how they will explore it. They also have a team all set up: Max, who is Ellie’s little brother; Frida, who is a biologist specialised in cave systems; and Aaron, who is a jerk but has a lot of money. His only purpose in the story is to literally buy their privilege to enter the cave.
We meet all of them and then, you know, after the gruesome first chapter, you expect the story to go quickly enough: what else is there to do? The town is small and half deserted, and since we already know what lurks in the dark, what’s the point in waiting? The only interesting thing left is to see how the characters will react to the monster in the cave.
So of course it will take almost half of the book to get there.
We follow the guys lingering in the hotel, finding out that the city was famous for its opal mines – all closed now – and that the miners thought something called the “Miner’s Mother” inhabited the caves. They used to leave small offerings at the entrance of the tunnels to favour protection before going to work. Of course all of this is dismissed by them as just folklore. Even though a couple of people have disappeared in the last few days – and we know it was the monster, because we followed the scenes through their points of view.
In the meantime, we follow Max as he helps Mia, the local paramedic, because she currently has no help and someone is prank-calling her all the time.
We find out that the person calling her planned to feed her to the monster, but Sam’s presence ruined her plan. And that’s how we are introduced to two more characters: Karen, who lost her little brother Archie and her father to the Miner’s Mother some forty years earlier, and her mother to suicide a little later; and Trevor, her brother and police officer. They are feeding the monster in the hope that it will go “dormant” again, as it did forty years ago. Their whole evil plan actually revolves around the hope that the Miner’s Mother will eat the group of cave explorers and be satisfied enough to go back to sleep. Even when Trevor seems to find some humanity (or even just common sense) left in him and proposes to seal off all of the entrances to the mines and starve the monster, Karen still thinks that maybe she can leave one open, just one, so that she can go there and ask the monster to show her her little brother’s face.
Because if a monster ate your little brother and used his face as bait to eat other people, of course you’d want to feed it and visit it from time to time, right?
Anyway, we get to the 44% mark according to my ebook, and we finally enter the cave. First of all, I’ll admit I don’t know how these things work, but if you get a paramedic on the group in the eventuality that someone might need help, then why do you start the exploration and leave him up top? If someone is hurt after a couple of hours of exploring the cave and squeezing into the cracks, I don’t see how a paramedic who is not there is going to help. But we don’t have to worry about that, because Aaron is bitten by some little creature literally seconds after setting foot in the cave, so he’s the one who is left up top and Sam joins the group.
Now, let’s talk about Sam for a second. He’s supposedly claustrophobic, and honestly? I feel like the author has no idea of how a phobia works. Sam’s claustrophobia only shows up a little when he’s stuck in a passage, and can’t move neither onward nor backward. He takes a deep breath, focuses, and after ten seconds he’s out and feels great.
This is not a phobia. This is a normal human reaction at the thought of being stuck under thirty meters of solid rock. And his “phobia” is never brought up again, only mentioned almost in passing in another point of the cave, when they have to pass through a narrow tunnel underwater. Once again, Sam is understandably scared, but nothing more. I would honestly be shitting myself at the thought of doing it all again to go back to the surface, but Sam is exhilarated and never spares it a second thought. Good for him, I guess?
Let’s now talk about the monster for a moment. As far as I understand, it has a vaguely human shape, but with talons at the end of her fingers and really sharp teeth. It eats pretty much anything, but of course her favourite prey are humans – probably because they are the only creatures stupid enough to get themselves into the tunnels of their own volition. It also has the ability to assume the appearance of her victims, even though for some reason she can’t hide her talons (?), and of course she can’t talk, but her screams sound like human voices.
Now for the really fun part. We get a couple of sections from her perspective – why not, we already followed at least four people whose only point was to die, let’s add another useless point of view. She thinks about the last few days and literally acknowledges that her hunger and aggression are rising because of a spike in her hormones due to pregnancy. She must have a PhD she never told anyone about. She mentions meters when talking about distances, and creatures that she knows have evolved from her species – not sure how, since her last clutch was exterminated except for one male, but maybe alien forms of life evolve randomly and in a very short amount of time. She also somehow knows that it’s been exactly forty years since her last clutch, and I’m still wondering how a beast that lives in dark tunnels under the earth can understand the concept of year and also figure out how many have passed, when I have a calendar and I barely know what month it is.
So you’d think the monster’s intelligence is at a human level or something very close, but then it mostly acts like an animal every time it comes in contact with our protagonists, so… I’m confused?
Anyway, at this point the only thing left to do is watch as everyone stumbles around to see who makes it alive at the end. You could guess pretty much every single thing that happens from the moment they enter the cave; just imagine everyone doing the stupidest thing possible, and you should be on the right track.
The characters are dull and I couldn’t care less for any of them. The exploring group was made up of idiots who couldn’t read the signs and put two and two together to save their lives. The subplot with Karen and Trevor doesn’t add anything to the story, and it ends in the most anticlimactic way possible. I wasn’t even hoping for the monster to kill them, because even the Miner’s Mother grated on my nerves, and everyone seemed to become stupid when the plot needed it. I just wished the caves would collapse and kill everything and everyone.
The writing style is also a bit repetitive. I reached a point where I thought that if I read once more about “rhythmical arterial spurts”, my eyes would roll so hard that I would see my own brain. Same thing for the word “mate”; I get that the book is set in Australia, but every single person or group that is not mentioned by name is a mate. Girlfriends are mates, friends are mates, colleagues are mates, even comrades during the Vietnam war are referred to as mates. Reading this book, you would think Australian people don’t have any other word to refer to people they know. (Please confirm if you’re reading this from Australia; I’m actually kind of curious now.)
Aside from that, I don’t think the book is scary. It’s gory and very graphic when the creature shows up, but that’s about it. And even though it might be a bit disturbing, especially for more sensitive readers, gore doesn’t really do it for me. I feel like the idea for this story was good, but it would have been ten times scarier if we discovered things together with the main cast. Instead we knew from the start what the monster was and what it could do, and even during the novel we always knew where it was and when to expect it. I feel that took away a lot from the story.
To sum this up: I didn’t love the writing style, with its repetitions and unneeded jumps between different perspectives; I didn’t care for the characters, they were all pretty bland; the monster wasn’t scary; even the spelunking aspect is really not so well executed. It’s easy at times to forget we are supposed to be in a cave. It feels like one of those B-Movies, but it’s not one of those “so bad it’s so good” situations, it’s only… bad. It would have been so much scarier if only the author didn’t feel the need to explain every single detail from every perspective, and instead left some surprises around.
I went into this hoping to find something similar to The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling – which, by the way, is amazing – but I was sorely disappointed. Of course this doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy or love this book; I’m happy for you if you did. It just wasn’t what I was looking for, and I needed to get it off my chest.