Nothing is as it seems in Chris Coppel’s latest horror novel with a twist, Liner. In the prologue, it’s the present day and Morgan McCarthy is working his one Sunday a month at his job at the National Oceanis Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Communications Center. He’s not happy about this, but hey, what’s a guy to do, right? His focus is on the North Atlantic Ocean seabed tectonic sensor arrays: basically looking for anomalies along the seabed like earthquakes and other movement. A previous false alarm that damaged his reputation has him thinking twice when he spots an anomaly in one of the sectors he oversees. But he makes the call and reports it.
Immediately Coppel and Liner bring us back in the past to the early 1960s. David Easton is taking his first and only transatlantic crossing on the luxurious ocean liner, the SS Oceanis. His life has taken a turn for the worst. Recently divorced, David’s ex-wife and her family have left him close to destitute with his reputation as a microbiologist in tatters. His only solution, as he sees it, is to use the last of his money on a first class ticket on board the Oceanis and then at some point in the crossing throw himself overboard, ending his misery. But before all that, he and the rest of the passengers have to deal with some strange events onboard and weird atmospheric conditions on their journey.
David strikes up a friendship and possible romantic interest with Diana Olson, a young debutante whose mother Myra is eager to match up with an appropriate suitor. David is not what she has in mind, so she goes as far as banning her daughter from being near David. Her father Arthur is less pragmatic and indeed takes a liking to David, going so far as to offer help once they’ve reached port. So it looks like David could be on the up-and-up after all. But Liner has other ideas. There is a pandemic on board, one that’s christened “the green plague”. Cruise staff and customers alike are vanishing, and David thinks that the ship’s doctor, Aiken, knows more than he’s letting on.
It doesn’t take long for the malaise to inflict more people on the Oceanis, and soon the ship’s captain, Havelin, enlists David and Diana’s help. From here on, the story gets more weird and paranormal. What struck me at the beginning was how stoic most of the victims of the plague were. They accepted their impending demise with dignity and little fear. The necrosis eats their entire body until nothing but their clothes are left. And the fog that surrounds them has blocked all communication with the outside world. The SS Oceanis is lost and alone, with no help in sight.
Throughout this fast-moving and involving narrative, author Chris Coppel compels us to read on because he has given us an ideal couple to follow around. David and Diana are delightful, but you get the feeling from the start that their relationship is doomed. You want them to survive and flourish once the voyage is over, but Coppel foreshadows his twists and eventual climax with enough expertise that even though the passengers may get a happy ending, it’s not the one we may have hoped for when we began reading.
Who or what is behind these incredible and unbelievable events surrounding the Oceanis? Well, I’m not going to tell you. You will have to read Liner to find out. For a novel with some pretty decent horror overtones, you will also find a sincere amount of pathos, hope, and longing. I loved how it ended, and my heart went out to David and Diana. Their mutual love stayed with me long after the book ended.