New York Times bestselling author Mira Grant returns with a razor-sharp tale of the horrors that lie beneath . . .
Founded by James Golden in 1972, Imagine Entertainment was intended to ‘restore the fun’ to the entertainment industry. Golden – an aspiring media mogul who felt movies and television had become ‘too serious’ – proceeded to make his name producing a string of B‑grade horror movies, latter- day grindhouse films, and remarkably ambitious science fiction epics. Called the King of Schlock by his detractors and Monster Midas by his fans, there was noquestion the name Golden carried substantial weight by 1993, when he announced the establishment of the Imagine Network.
Originally envisioned as a home for Golden’s prodigious backlist, many dismissed the Imagine Network as the final vanity project of an aging man, noting that the Sci‑Fi Channel, launched the previous year, had a larger and more robust stable of original programs. Still, the Imagine Network endured and, by 2008, was providing a reasonable return on Golden’s investment.
The first Imagine ‘mockumentary’ was conceived and scripted by the Imagine Network’s then president, Benjamin Yant. Loch Ness: A Historical Review brought in high ratings, renewed advertiser interest, and strong DVD sales, sparking a wave of similar programming. The Search for the Chupacabra aired in 2009, followed by Expedition Yeti in 2010, The Last Dinosaur in 2012, and Unicorn Road in 2014. It seemed the public’s thirst for cryptozoological fiction thinly veiled as fact was insatiable.
Then came 2015. The filming of Lovely Ladies of the Sea: The True Story of the Mariana Mermaids should have been routine. Imagine filled a ship with scientists, actors, and camera crews, and sent it out into the Pacific Ocean.
Communications were lost on May 17. The ship was found six weeks later, adrift and abandoned.
No bodies have ever been recovered.
—From Monster Midas: An Unauthorized Biography of James Golden by Alexis Bowman, originally published 2018
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People like to pretend that what happened to the Atargatis was a normal maritime disaster: the people on board got too wrapped up in filming their little ‘mockumentary’ and forgot to steer the damn thing. They ran afoul of a storm, or pirates, or some other totally mundane threat, and they all died, and it was very sad, but it’s no reason to be scared of the ocean, or start wondering what else might be out there. The Atargatis was what they call an ‘isolated incident,’ the recovered footage was and is a hoax, and there’s nothing to worry about.
Those people never explain how the camera crews on the Atargatis did their special effects in real time: no amount of prosthetic work in the world could turn a human being into one of the creatures seen swarming the ship during the most violent of the leaked footage.
Those people never explain why, if what happened was weather related, not a single scrap of data supporting that theory has ever been released by either Imagine or the National Weather Service. The loss of the Atargatis was a public relations nightmare for the company: if Imagine had a way of reducing their liability, they would certainly have offered it by now.
Those people never explain a lot of things.
The Atargatis sailed off the map, into a section of the sea that should have been labeled ‘Here be monsters.’ What happened to them there may never be perfectly understood, but this much seems to be clear: the footage was not faked.
Mermaids are real.
—Taken from a forum post made at CryptidChase.net by user BioNerd, originally posted March 2020
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Monterey, California: June 26, 2015
The sky was a deep and perfect blue, as long as Victoria – Vicky to her parents, Vic to her friends, Tory to herself, when she was thinking about the future, where she’d be a scientist and her sister Anne would be her official biographer, documenting all her amazing discoveries for the world to admire – kept her eyes above the horizon. Any lower and the smoke from the wildfires that had ravaged California all summer would appear, tinting the air a poisonous- looking gray. Skies weren’t supposed to look like that. Skies were supposed to be wide and blue and welcoming, like a mirror of the wild and waiting sea.
Tory had been born in the Monterey City Hospital. According to her parents, her first smile had been directed not at her mother, but at the Pacific Ocean. She had learned to swim in safe municipal pools by the age of eighteen months, and been in the ocean – closely supervised – by the time she was three, reveling in the taste of salt water on her lips and the sting of the sea spray in her eyes.
(She’d been grabbed by a riptide when she was seven, yanked away from her parents and pushed twenty yards from shore in the time it took to blink. She didn’t remember the incident when she was awake, but it surfaced often in her dreams: the suddenly hostile water reaching up to grab her and drag her down. Most children would have hated the ocean after something like that, letting well- earned fear keep their feet on the shore. Not Tory. The riptide had just been doing what it was made to do; she was the one who’d been in the wrong place. She had to learn to be in a better place when the next riptide came along.)
Her big sister, Anne, had watched Tory’s maritime adventures from the safety of the shore, slathered in SPF 120 and clutchingher latest stack of gossip magazines. They’d been so different, even
then. It would have been easy for them to detest each other, to let the gap in their ages and interests become a chasm. Anne had seven years on her baby sister. She could have walked away. Instead, somehow, they’d come out of their barely shared childhood as the best of friends. They had the same parents; they had the same wheat-blonde hair, although Anne’s had started darkening toward brown by the time she turned seventeen, prompting an endless succession of experimental dye jobs and highlighting processes. They both sunburned fast, and freckled even faster. They even had the same eyes, dark blue, like the waters of the Monterey Bay.
That was where the similarities ended. Tory was going to be a marine biologist, was doing a summer internship at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and starting at UC Santa Cruz in the fall on a full scholarship. Anne was a special interest reporter – read ‘talking head for geek news’ – and well on her way to a solid career as a professional media personality.
The last time they’d seen each other in person had been three days prior to the launch of the SS Atargatis, a research vessel heading to the Mariana Trench to look for mermaids.
‘We’re not going to find them,’ Anne had admitted, sitting on the porch next to Tory and throwing bits of bread to the seagulls thronging the yard. ‘Mermaids don’t exist. Everyone at Imagine knows it. But it’s a chance for the scientists they’ve hired to do real research on someone else’s dime, and it’s a great opportunity for me personally.’
‘You really want to be the face of the cryptid mockumentary?’ Tory had asked.
Anne had answered with a shrug. ‘I want to be the face of something. This is as good a place to start as any. I just wish you could come with us. We could use some more camera- ready scientists.’
‘Give me ten years and I’ll come on the anniversary tour.’ Tory had grinned, impish, and leaned over to tug on a lock of her sister’s sunset-red hair. It was a dye job, but it was a good one, years and miles and a lot of money away from the Clairol specials Anne used to do in the downstairs bathroom. ‘I’ll make you look old.’
‘By then, I’ll be so established that they’ll let me,’ Anne had said, and they’d laughed, and the rest of the afternoon had passed the way the good ones always did: too fast to be fair.
Anne had promised to send Tory a video every day. She’d kept that promise from the time the ship launched, sending clips of her smiling face under an endless ocean sky, with scientists and crewmen laboring in the background.
The last clip had come on May seventeenth. In it, Anne had looked . . . harried, unsettled, like she no longer knew quite what to make of things. Tory had watched the short video so many times she could recite it from memory. That didn’t stop her from sitting down on the porch – so empty now, without Anne beside her – and pressing ‘play’ again.
Anne’s face flickered into life on the screen, hair tousled by the wind, eyes haunted. ‘Tory,’ she said, voice tight. ‘Okay, I . . . I’m scared. I don’t know what it is I saw, and I don’t know how it’s possible, but it’s real, Tory, it’s really real. It’s really out there. You’ll understand when you see the footage. Maybe you can . . . maybe you can be the one who figures it out. I love you. I love Mom and Dad. I . . . I hope I’ll be home soon.’ She put her hand over her eyes. She had always done that, ever since she was a little girl, when she didn’t want anyone to see her crying.
‘Turn off the camera, Kevin,’ she said, and Tory whispered the words along with her. ‘I’m done.’
The video ended.
Six weeks had passed since that video’s arrival. There hadn’t been another. Tory had tried to find out what had happened – what could have upset her sister so much, what could have made her stop sending her videos – but she’d gotten nowhere. Contacting Imagine led to a maze of phone trees and receptionists who became less helpful the moment she told them why she was calling. Every day, she sent another wave of e‑mails, looking for information. Every day, she got nothing back.
She was starting to think nothing was all she was ever going to get again.
She was sitting on the porch six weeks and three days later, about to press ‘play’ one more time, when the sound of footsteps caught her attention. She turned. Her mother was in the doorway, white faced and shaking, tears streaking her cheeks.
Tory felt the world turn to ashes around her, like the smoke staining the sky had finally won dominion over all. She staggered to her feet, unable to bear the thought of sitting when she heard the words her mother didn’t yet have the breath to say. Her laptop crashed to the steps, unheeded, unimportant. Nothing was important anymore.
Katherine Stewart put her arms around her surviving daughter and held fast, like she was an anchor, like she could somehow, through her sheer unwillingness to let go, keep this child from the sea.