The 1980s was a pivotal time for horror fiction, especially for young adults. As Grady Hendrix wrote in Paperbacks From Hell, this was the decade where “horror hit its stride with a hungry teenage audience.” Dell Publishing’s own part in the prevailing trend included Twilight: Where Darkness Begins, a collection of self-contained books that helped pave the way for Fear Street and other similar series. Multiple authors contributed to Twilight between ’82 and ’87, and Joseph Trainor was one of the few who wrote more than one book. In the first of Trainor’s two offerings, an unrelenting evil rises from a lake and targets a wealthy family.
Watery Grave does something uncommon in the world of YA horror; the story is set in a real place as opposed to a fictional (and creepily named) town. Nevertheless, it is safe to say the following events never happened in Duluth, Minnesota. The story kicks off with 16-year-old Julie Monroe sneaking back into school after cutting class with her two best friends, Cheryl and Debbie Cowan. Truancy is out of character for a student like Julie, but the dean of women is not lenient. While stuck in after-school detention with English teacher Miss Joan Cowan, Cheryl and Debbie’s cousin, something weird and frightening happens to Julie. Sadly for the main character, her terror has only just begun.
In detention, the pages of Julie’s Spanish textbook go blank, with only one word left behind in big red letters: LAVINIA. The mysterious word then turns to blood and bleeds all over Julie. She soon comes to her senses and, like Joan and the other students present, starts to question her state of mind. This sinister daydream reeks of a Freddy Krueger-like boogeyman’s doing, although Watery Grave predates A Nightmare on Elm Street by a year.
She suddenly realized what it was. “Blood!”
There is no readily available information about Joseph Trainor — are they using a pseudonym here, and/or were these Twilight books their only published works? — but it is clear from the writing that the author is at least familiar with Duluth as well as deep diving. As other characters are introduced, Watery Grave becomes a partial tour guide of the port city. Julie and her friends get lost in the fog after shopping in the Miller Hill district, while boyfriend Matt Sinclair goes diving for a sunken ship off the lakeside shore of Park Point. This near constant name dropping of locations is likely appealing to Duluthians, whereas outsiders will be overwhelmed. To help keep it simple, the most significant places are around the lake.
The story’s first victim, Cheryl, somehow drowns on land while inside her own car. The coroner also determines she has been dead for over a month. This is clearly not the case since Cheryl died during Julie’s first encounter with a menacing but handsome man in a peacoat. He rolled in with the ominous fog, then quickly disappeared into the lake. Right now Julie is unsure if the stranger means her harm, or if he had anything to do with Cheryl’s death. Based on the family feud at Cheryl’s wake, though, the current Cowan patriarch knows more than he is letting on. The ghoulish tales Victor Cowan grew up with are turning out to be true.
Julie is the book’s ostensible main character, yet Matt receives a good amount of solo scenes. He works as a diver along with his older brother at the harbor, and one of their paid dives reveals a 300-foot interlake steamship. To his horror, however, the long-lost ship is called Lavinia. Matt originally dismissed Julie’s detention daymare, but too much evidence is piling up. A supposed creature aboard the Lavinia wreck in addition to emerging local lore now makes Julie’s boyfriend a bonafide believer. Further complicating the situation is the fact that the phantom ship went down on June 7, 1884. And when did Matt and his brother spot the Lavinia in the present day? June 7, of course.
A vein pulsed at the wrist in obscene parody of human life.
As it turns out, Lavinia is both the name of a ship and a real person. The Lavinia belonged to an immigrant and skipper, Gregory Nix, whose body was never found after tragedy befell him, his crew, and his steamer in 1884. The reported cause of the accident was a glitch at the lighthouse. Nix was also a rival of Jeremiah Cowan, Cheryl and Debbie’s great-grandfather. As for Lavinia Tate, she was courted by both Jeremiah and Gregory. Once Nix was out of the picture and her family’s business was going under, Lavinia married Cowan despite her feelings. Their marriage was not a happy one, and Lavinia died not too long after giving birth to a daughter, Belle.
Jeremiah Cowan acquired his fortune through lies and dirty pool, and his immortal tormentor refuses to let his descendants off scot free. Unfortunately, the daughters in the Cowan line are the ones being unduly punished; every thirty-three years since June 7, 1884, a daughter is fated to die in this convoluted revenge play. The Cowan curse is a consequence of Jeremiah’s laundry list of offenses, with the least egregious misdeed being the theft of Gregory’s valuable cargo of limestone stored on the sunken Lavinia. The greatest wrongdoing is Jeremiah tampering with Duluth’s lighthouse all those years ago.
Now as a general rule in these kinds of stories, psychic visions are hardly ever random. They happen to someone for a reason. And for Julie, her unearthly insight is really a past life bubbling to the surface; she is the reincarnation of Lavinia Tate. And the man in the peacoat who has been shadowing Julie is none other than Gregory Nix. She mistakenly believes he has no evil intentions toward her or Lavinia because his hatred is pointed at the Cowans. Under the impression she is safe, Julie spends her time protecting the remaining Cowan daughters, Debbie and her cousin Joan. What Julie failed to consider is the possibility of Nix doing everything in his power to keep the one who got away.
The creature’s eyes were jet-black slits, its mouth that of a fish.
Had Joseph Trainor’s book stayed the course and made the antagonist a mere ghost, Watery Grave would have been less memorable. Instead, the story draws from Great Lakes mythology when explaining Gregory Nix’s true form. It is Matt who first comes upon the Manitou Niba Nibais at the museum. This bit of information was shoehorned in, so presumably it was important in the long run. The Manitou Niba Nibais is an Indigenous creature who is likened to mermen and other European water-folk. This alleged God of Lake Superior is said to “whistle up a storm and capsize” any boat that did not offer him a gift. By the end, Trainor has conflated different folktales and mixed up kelpies, nixies (Nix), and Manitou Niba Nibais. This will annoy ardent cryptozoologists and folklorists, but the less informed will welcome the novelty of a killer merman.
When it seems like Watery Grave is fleecing its readers and rehashing the 1980 film The Fog, Trainor throws in a fistful of elements to help singularize the book. Soul transmigration, a supernatural love triangle and, most of all, a water cryptid all keep this novel afloat and never boring. It is no wonder why fans of Twilight: Where Darkness Begins rank this aquatic-horror entry so highly.
There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on at Buried in a Book. This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.