The Cavern – Alister Hodge (Review)

When the opal miners heard strange tapping sounds in the tunnels, they thought it was a subterranean creature stalking them. They called it the “miners’ mother” and left offerings of blood to keep it away. Now the mines are closed, the offerings neglected and a long-dormant creature stirs hungrily in the dark.

This is a monster book set in a small Australian ex-mining town. A group of enthusiastic cavers want to explore a previously unknown cavern, and the things inside the cavern want to eat them. The two major things I liked about this book were the setting – Australia is always interesting for horror, with slightly different rules and arrangements to the ones I expect – and the originality of the monster. It’s not a megalodon, or a mutated insect, but an entirely new and unfamiliar species.

Despite what the cover misleadingly suggests, it’s not any kind of arachnid, and it’s not that much larger than a human; the closest parallel would be Alien‘s xenomorph. The miner’s mother is sleek and sinuous, able to slip in and around the cavers, exploiting the confusing geography of the unmapped mine. It’s a good setup – a land-based monster that gets to do all the sneaking and slow build of of a circling shark. Unfortunately, it’s not used to full effect.

For a book not just set in caverns, but named for them, I expected the setting to play a bigger role in the suspense. All the different bits are present – people drop lights, get turned around in the dark, struggle head-first through narrow passages – but as soon as each problem is presented, it’s overcome. You can see the places where the narration could have deepened, really milking the claustrophobia and rising panic, but the detail just isn’t there to carry you along with the characters – sections that should be pages of tense, close-perspective are just a line or two. With a little more focus on the setting and the struggles through it, the narrative would have had much greater impact.

Instead of the detailed tension that the concept is crying out for, The Cavern suffers from an excess of plot. ‘Arrogant cavers get hunted’ is easily enough plot to pin a whole novel on – it’s the core concept of The Descent, for example – but rather than really delving into that narrative, Hodge adds in corrupt police and shady governments and religion and multiple unknown predator species and Vietnam war flashbacks. The end result is a crowded narrative where no single element gets the space to stand on its own.

There is a lot of detail in the violence, oddly standing out against the rough sketch of the other aspects. It’s very wet and organic, with lurid, precise descriptions of exactly which muscle gets a chunk torn out, or how the beast blinds a hapless victim. I’m sure I’ve written about this before, but broad strokes are all that is necessary for gore. You get a greater emotional punch for a character’s death if the description shocks than if it sickens, if you use metaphor rather than the clinical language of a pathologist who is taking far too much joy in his work. Having all the detail poured into the maiming rather than the character experience makes the book feel lopsided, and makes it hard to feel for the characters’ plight.

Two of the reasons that Jaws is such a great monster film are that it doesn’t show the monster for as long as possible, and it focuses on the build-up to an attack, not the act itself. Every monster book or film should have absorbed these lessons. The Cavern was a disappointing to me because it lays so much of the foundation for suspense that never turns up. The cover, the setting, the monster itself all lend themselves to the slow ramping up of tension, the sounds in the darkness that get steadily closer, the sort of book that makes you just a little nervous to climb stairs in the dark. And then it’s just not there – the scenes that should have been chapters are paragraphs, and the loops of convoluted plot wrap round everything to keep dragging you out of the caves and making you focus on mostly irrelevant details.

Ultimately, The Cavern is a bit too bloated and complicated to give its core ideas the space that they deserve. It’s a shame, because the book does a lot of things right, and clearly understands the required genre elements. All of the little pieces that make a great monster book are here, they’re just sketched a too lightly and mired in subplot weeds. I liked the monster, I wanted to engage with the characters and their plight, but the book didn’t pull together with quite enough detail to let me.

Buy it here.

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