Daniel Kraus’ Whalefall Is a Pulse-Pounding, Stunning Achievement

Books Reviews Daniel Kraus
Daniel Kraus’ Whalefall Is a Pulse-Pounding, Stunning Achievement

There’s a certain kind of magic that comes from a storyteller laying out a big, bold, easily graspable premise and then promising his audience a version of that premise they’ve never experienced before. I love the ambition of it, the sense of fun that comes with inviting your audience along for a thrill ride that plays with certain instantly recognizable ideas. And in the Biblical sense, Daniel Kraus’ Whalefall is certainly recognizable. It’s the story of a guy getting swallowed by a big fish, something you’ve definitely heard about before whether it’s through the story of Jonah or through the adventures of Pinocchio the Little Wooden Boy. 

More importantly, Kraus is a savvy storyteller who knows that you’ve heard about it before, which means he gets to play with your expectations, and your understanding of the horror that might come with such an encounter in real life, to great effect. The result is one of the year’s best genre novels, a terrifying, invigorating, addictive thrill ride that will leave you gasping for air. 

Heading down the whale’s gullet for this tale is Jay Gardiner, a young diver who heads out into the depths one day in an effort to retrieve the remains of his father, a legendary local figure who committed suicide the year before. Jay’s carrying with him the typical diving gear, a mesh bag to bring back his father’s bones, and a mountain of guilt over not being there for his father’s decline, an absence brought on by years of complicated feelings between the two men. Now, it’s time for Jay to atone and to at least say he tried to bring his father home. 

The ocean, of course, has other plans, and partway through his dive, Jay finds himself caught in a battle between a giant squid and a sperm whale, then shoved down the whale’s throat in the aftermath of the clash between the two behemoths. It’s there that much of the novel’s action takes place, as Jay finds himself coated in a whale’s stomach acid, injured and alone, with an oxygen supply that just keeps ticking down and a memory that won’t stop dredging up his father’s lessons, for good and ill.

Kraus has spent years proving himself one of the most capable horror and suspense writers of his era, so he knows exactly how to ratchet up the tension even after the payoff of the book’s premise sends Jay down into the whale’s innards. Present tense narration, a firm grasp of his central character, and chapter heads that steadily count down the PSI in Jay’s oxygen tank all add to the palpable suspense on every page, but these trappings are not the most impressive thing about Kraus’ achievements here. For that, we have to turn to the thematic and narrative approach he takes to each moment, and the way that Whalefall manages to capture both past and present without ever losing sight of its central conflict.

In the present, as Jay fights against the insides of a sperm whale to see the sun again, Kraus grounds everything his protagonist does in fine-tuned verisimilitude. From the first page, from the first moments we meet Jay, you can tell that Kraus knows his stuff. Everything from the way Jay handles his regulator to the way the whale’s esophagus and stomachs (yes, stomachs, plural) move in response to a living thing inside them is the work of someone who’s done their homework and gone to great pains to make everything tactile and warm and rich with pulsing, dangerous life. And yet, Kraus’ research never spills over and overwhelms the book with too much detail. At its core, this is a character piece, a study of one man facing his own guilt, fear, resentment and pain internally even as an external threat might destroy him. Kraus knows this as well as he knows the parts of a scuba suit, and that makes Whalefall a tremendous exercise in narrative balance.

But the balance doesn’t end there. Inside the whale, every scene is a new experience in fear and pure survival suspense, as Jay encounters problem after problem and chases a new solution each time. Some of these solutions emerge through skill or even blind luck, but others come, without question, from the years he spent with his father, the mythic and complicated Mitt Gardiner. To understand why Jay is here, and why he makes the choices he makes in an effort to prolong his life and complete his mission, we have to understand who Mitt was, how the two men related to one another, and what drove Jay to head out into the depths to seek his father’s bones to begin with. The problem is that kind of understanding threatens to bog down the thriller narrative happening within the whale, to leave the reader stranded in flashback land while all they want to do is get back to the belly of the beast. But Kraus never makes us feel lost, or longing to return to the present, or confused over why these flashbacks are there in the first place. Instead, Whalefall functions as one continuous, constantly writhing narrative organism, a complete and living thing in which every part is essential, every movement is serving the greater whole. It’s a masterful piece of work, and a reminder that Kraus is one of genre fiction’s best living practitioners. 

All of which is a longer way of saying that Whalefall is an absolute triumph, a masterpiece of suspense, emotion, and flat-out terror that’s not just one of the year’s best horror novels, but arguably the best thing Daniel Kraus has ever written. It’s one of this year’s can’t-miss books, and a journey you won’t soon forget.

Whalefall is available now wherever books are sold. 

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.

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