After a drunken one-night stand, two strangers awake to discover a surprise astronomical event has left widespread destruction in its wake. But the cosmic lightshow was only part of something much bigger and far more terrifying.
When a set of lost car keys leaves them stranded on an empty stretch of Oregon coast, when their emergency calls go unanswered and inhuman screams echo from the dunes, when the rising tide reaches for their car and unspeakable horrors close in around them, these two self-destructive souls must band together to survive a nightmare of apocalyptic scale.
I struggled with ‘Black Tide’ at the start but it turned out to be a well-structured Can they escape the monsters? end-of-the-world horror story with some moments of high tension. With the right cast, I think ‘Black Tide’ would make a great movie.
After the first twenty per cent of the novel, I wasn’t sure that ‘Black Tide’ was going to be my kind of novel. I was up for a character-driven, two strangers coming together to face down a scary apocalypse story as long as the characters mattered to me. When I met them, neither Beth nor Mike appealed. Beth was a thirty-something woman with an alcohol problem, low self-esteem and a habit of pressing her self-destruct button whenever she is given any responsibility. Mike is forty-something ‘my life is so hollow I want to kill myself – after I’ve drunk a few more $200 bottles of champagne on the deck of my beach house on the Oregon coast‘ rich Hollywood movie producer. Neither of them are people that I had much empathy for, so getting me to care whether they survived the apocalypse was going to be a challenge.
The first half of the book dragged a little. They got drunk. They had sex. They each had weird things happen to them separately in the middle of the night which neither of them decided to share even though it was an extraordinary night with meteors striking nearby. The next morning, Beth carries on drinking as a way of not facing up to the world, Mike is still wondering whether being alive is worth the effort and both of them drive to a beach to see if they can find where the meteors struck. When they get there, they can see that something weird is going on but they make no effort to communicate with the people around them to find out what is going on. At this point, I was happy to nominate both of them for a Darwin Award. It seemed to me that, if anyone was going to survive the coming apocalypse, it shouldn’t be these two no-hopers.
I’d reached halfway through the book and was ready to give up when the pace suddenly changed and I was immersed in a well-structured horror/thriller with scary monsters, a growing body count, lots of blood and an absorbing struggle for survival against the odds.
How did this transformation occur?
Well, firstly we finally got to see the alien monsters and they were original, well-thought-through and truly terrifying. Secondly, the plot tightened, the threat-to-hope ratio was being gradually cranked up until the smallest hope seemed like a relief and the threats seemed likely to be fatal.
Then Beth seemed to undergo a personality transplant after being shot in the head (just a graze) and bitten by one monster and infected by another. I would have expected the Beth I met in the first half of the book to climb into a bottle at this point, let shock take over and wait to die. Instead, she suddenly becomes, competent, brave and capable of deep empathy and sensitivity when dealing with strangers who are in danger. That worked well for the plot but I wondered why I’d had to spend so long watching her demonstrate her long-established habit of self-destruction if she was going to become more than a little kickass under pressure.
Where Beth and Mike had spent the first part of the book being too unimaginative/self-involved to understand or even notice what was going on, they spent the second half of the book coming up with a variety of ingenious plans to get themselves off the beach they were trapped on and analysing the behaviour or the alien monsters to understand their weak points.
K.C. Jones’ masterstroke, the one that did more than anything else to ramp up the tension and play on the emotions was to shift the focus from Beth and Mike finally stay sober long enough to rescue themselves to Beth and Mike and their wounded but brave dog give their all to save a stranded little girl who is cuter, brighter and braver than either of them.
I defy anyone to get through the last scenes on the beach without being emotionally involved and routing for all the good guys to be OK while being far from certain that they will all survive.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Black Tide’. The book is written mostly from the point of view of Beth or Mike in alternating chapters. The audiobook leverages this with two narrators, one for Beth and one for Mike, which I think worked well.