Originally published on The Nerd Daily.
When a Scottish businessman’s corpse is dredged from the bogs of the Thames, so begins the unfurling of the seedy underbelly of Victorian London, replete with all the depictions—both trope and true—of murder, corruption, and sexual fetishes that marked the period.
James Miller is dead, his body dumped in the river in an area of London which plays host to no respectable gentlemen and is the stomping ground of prostitutes, thieves, and other no-good types, all strung along the fishy quayside that is bordered in dark, dank water. When Miller’s untimely death is labeled a suicide, his daughter, Catriona, refuses to believe her father would have taken his own life and sets out instead to discover the truth about the true cause of his demise, as well as what he might have been doing in the London slums. Her investigation treks along two diverging and equally unsavory paths: one in which she discovers her father to be perhaps the most revolting of all the no-goods who she crosses on her journey further and further down the staircase of filth and despair of London’s darkest rabbit holes, and the other, which leads her to an even stranger and most ghostly end. Indeed, the story moves from murder mystery to ghost story when Catriona comes face to face with the Darkwater Bride herself, a woman who committed her soul to the murky water if she could live to exact vengeance on the men who’d put her there—men like Catriona’s father.
The narrative itself is somewhat stale and rambling, with a heroine that is often difficult to root for. Catriona spends a significant portion of her narrative trying to convince everyone—perhaps even herself—of her feminism, while her romantic interest (it’s almost unthinkable to imagine romantic interest in a story that bounces between child mutilation, sexual abuse, rape, and bizarre fetishes, but it’s there—as well it should be, as only when confronted with the worst evils of humanity might we crave the comfort of another), rookie detective Culley, mostly bumbles about, torn between his sense of duty to his commanding officer and the siren lure of the young woman he is driven to help. Unfortunately, even poor Culley’s good intentions don’t do him much good in the end. In fact, none of the characters are terribly likeable with the exception of the Darkwater Bride herself, which is a powerful device on its own: We turn our favor away from the innocent, stick our noses up at the obvious antagonists, and, in the end, pledge our loyalty to a woman with a fatal kiss and a drowning vengeance, because of all the darkness in this book, hers is perhaps the most recognizable—the most relatable to our own.
If you can overlook Catriona’s constant whinging and Culley’s cringe-worthy naivety, as well as moments of deep and utter grossness, there is a strangely astute depiction of the contrary nature of sexual empowerment and entrapment lurking between the lines of The Darkwater Bride. From brothel prostitutes and madams to the women who perform in the clubs, to even Catriona and the Darkwater Bride herself, theirs is the story more compelling than that of a hedonistic, repulsive man who meets his worthy end. Instead of a ghostly murder mystery, The Darkwater Bride might be better suited as a tiptoed traipse down the thin line women walk between being predator and prey when they are left with nothing other than their bodies to defend themselves. It’s not a story of death and decay, but one of survival.
At times distasteful and never for the faint at heart, The Darkwater Bride is a bit wobbly, though punctuated by passages of delicate prose so exceedingly beautiful and haunting that it makes a sharp juxtaposition against the rougher parts of the story. What truly elevates the tale, however, is the quality of the production. Dark, gritty, and atmospheric, this Audible production is filled with deviances the likes of which this reviewer hasn’t seen since Karen Moline’s Belladonna (1998). Regardless, the production is simultaneously so disturbing and oddly intriguing that at the end you’ll definitely need a shower, but you’ll listen eagerly for the full six hours before finding the will to pull yourself (somewhat guilty) away from the speaker. It’s horrifying and yet bizarrely invigorating—a story that is as powerful as it is visceral, so that in the end, the reader—like Catriona—might stand defiantly against the darkness and wait in the night like a single white flame against the dark, the very essence of The Darkwater Bride.
Lindy Miller Ryan is an author, editor, and spooky things enthusiast who occasionally makes crafty things and bakes.