Severed Press, 136 pages, paperback, $9.00
What Peter Benchley did for sharks with 1974’s Jaws, Gabino Iglesias seeks to do for octopi with Hungry Darkness, a tense horror tale wherein an enormous tentacled menace wreaks havoc on divers and fishermen off the coast of Belize. With a relatively short length and terse structure, the Caribbean Sea-based novella is a perfect single-sitting summer read.
Hungry Darkness does an excellent job paying homage to classic deep-sea thrillers, its entertainment value owing equally to the inherent humor in its ridiculous, out-sized monster, as well as the terror of such an evil force lurking in a dark world many find genuinely terrifying even without a flesh-hungry octopode. But Iglesias keeps the reader hooked by introducing a wonderful lineup of victims, government agents, drug traffickers, and would-be heroes, including a sampling of characters slightly reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s desperate Cannery Row gang.
Leading the cavalcade of characters are not one, but two main protagonists who never at any time cross paths: vainglorious filmmaker Nick Ayers, and hapless, perpetually broke tour guide Gabriel Robles.
As the story opens, Ayers and his crew of National Geographic-funded divers are entering the underwater Giant Cave, located near Caye Caulker, a limestone coral island just off the coast of Belize. With cameras in tow, Ayers hopes to be the first man ever to explore the full depths of the cave. Several have attempted before him; none have succeeded. But Ayers has taken precautions to ensure that he has an advantage over those who’ve gone before him. And unfortunately, Ayers unwittingly awakens and releases upon himself and his crew — as well as all those who vacation in and make their money around Caye Caulker — a tremendous, eight-armed monster with an endless appetite for humans.
As the body count amasses, Robles is tasked with the unenviable (but potentially highly profitable) job of taking out the killer cephalopod. Brought into the fold are his acquaintances Martin, a humble fisherman, and Emanuel, a marine biologist who conducts research from his coastal home. Whether intentional or not, the trio hearkens to Doc, Mack, and the Palace Flophouse gang in Steinbeck’s literary odes to Monterey. But unlike those characters, Robles and his small crew must eradicate a monster threatening the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people ignorant to the danger festering just beneath the water’s surface. The future of Belize and perhaps all of Central America is on the line, and it’s in the hands of three ordinary men with limited access to insufficient arms and almost no plan whatsoever.
Clocking in at 136 pages, Hungry Darkness succeeds as a fast-paced burst of blood, guts, and saltwater. A spare word count doesn’t prevent Iglesias from giving life to both memorable characters and a captivating creature — rather, like a classic monster movie, Hungry Darkness is made to be enjoyed in a matter of hours, and it won’t let you go until you reach the end.