Series number: 19
Number of pages: 117
Release date: May 1994
Tagline: Just when you thought it was safe…
Did I Read It as a Child?: Yes
The Story On the Back
Don’t go in the water! Billy and his sister Sheena are visiting their uncle Dr. Deep on a tiny Caribbean island. It’s the perfect place to go exploring underwater… and Billy’s ready for an adventure. There’s only one rule to remember: stay away from the coral reefs. Still, the reefs are so beautiful. So peaceful. Billy can’t resist. But he’s not alone in the water. Something’s lurking deep below the surface. Something dark and scaly. Something that’s half human, half fish…
The Story On the Pages
Listen, I’m going to come straight out and say it, okay? It’s a mermaid. There was no way it wasn’t going to be a mermaid with the hint that it’s half human, half fish. I’m sure you’d already guessed it yourself. So it’s just out in the open now and you can resist getting your hopes up.
Deep Trouble starts with William Deep Jr. hunting a massive stingray. But he has to abandon the search when he realizes someone has tampered with his oxygen tank! He rushes to the surface of the ocean only to… reveal he’s only twelve and make-believing everything that happens in chapter one.
In reality, William (or Billy has he prefers to be called) is with his sister Sheena and his uncle, who everyone calls Dr. D, on a boat named Cassandra. They’re anchored off Ilandra, an island in the Caribbean Sea that has a large coral reef and a lagoon where Dr. D is studying marine life.
Here’s where the mermaid comes in as Dr. D has been approached by a zoo to find a mermaid.
In the typical fashion of a Goosebumps protagonists, Billy wants to explore the lagoon and find the mermaid himself but is told to stay out of it because the coral is dangerous and the lagoon uncharted. Not even a full chapter passes before he’s been hurt on the poisonous coral and been attacked in the lagoon by a hammerhead shark, because of course he’s not listening!
Good thing for Billy’s non-listening, non-thinking-about-consequences ass that there actually is a mermaid around and she doesn’t have anything better to do than save his life. And, get this, she’s not a scary, freaky looking mermaid! Think Disney’s The Little Mermaid type mermaid. Long blonde hair, looks about twelve years old, whistles, hums, and clicks like a whale, and has a fish tail.
Now, I bet you’re curious how this mermaid fits into the horror, aren’t you?
There’s not a single thing horrifying about the mermaid that Billy helps Dr. D catch. Even though mermaid magic is brought into this narrative, it’s never of any consequence. I think the most magical thing she does is cry underwater, her mermaid tears clearly streaming down her face even though she’s under water.
I questioned Stine himself about this on Twitter and my response was just that many people have asked that question before me.
That’s an answer that says you don’t have an answer! Explain it to us, Stine! We’d honestly very much like to know!
I guess if there’s any horror at all it’s the horror that comes from man’s treatment of the mermaid. Dr. D’s grad student, Alex, betrays the doctor and the two kids by selling the mermaid to someone willing to pay twenty million dollars for her. The mermaid is stolen in the night with Dr. D, Billy, and Sheena left to die.
The three end up getting saved by a swarm of mermaids that came to help their captured friend. They all race off into the night to chase down the men that stole her. It’s heavily implied (at least in my own mind) that the mermaids sink the thieves’ boat to drown and probably eat them.
That’s not an assumption because this is a horror story, that’s an assumption of them being fish and more than likely carnivores.
William “Billy” Deep Jr., like all Goosebumps protagonists, starts with a simple description of himself. He’s got black hair, skinny and knobby knees/elbows, long narrow feet, dark blue eyes, and thick dark eyebrows. Sheena is his younger sister. Physically the same as her older brother but is a know-it-all and has no imagination. Pretty standard for a younger sibling in the world of R.L. Stine.
Dr. D is the adult figure of the tale. A marine biologist with his own boat and slave grad student. He’s a cool adult, as uncles in this universe almost universally are. Problem is, he’s running out of research money. Getting that mermaid will solve his money problems and it kind of clouds his vision. The money will fund science, but he’s got to do something a little unethical to get it. There’s greed in Dr. D. It’s a disillusioning moment for Billy to see his hero not do what’s right and let the mermaid free. A distance is created that’s partially adult greed, partially kids not understanding life experiences, but 100% capitalism’s fault.
Capitalism is also to blame for the main villain of the piece. Alex the grad student. He stabs everyone in the back for twenty million dollars and then turns a blind eye when two kids are trapped in a glass tank and then kicked into the ocean to slowly drown. I think R.L. Stine wanted to place doubts in our minds about Alex right from the get-go because Billy says in his description that “he doesn’t look like a scientist”. A subtle hint about Alex’s coming betrayal or profiling?
Spooks and Scares
It’s a more human element to the spooks and scares of Deep Trouble. The supernatural creature they find isn’t the main villain or even really a threat. Capitalism and greed are the evils of this story. What is the person who paid twenty million dollars for a mermaid going to do with her? Is twenty million enough to help you sleep at night after you let a friend and two kids die? The deviousness of humans is what’s scary here as you ponder what you’d do in such a situation.
Truly, look no further than rich, white men for the most horror!
Unfortunately, the suspense that’s played up isn’t gripping enough to make this a scary Goosebumps tale. It feels too safe. The mermaids could have been played up to great horror effect. The evils their fellow man imparts on them could have been more horrific. Instead it’s more like weird, self-insertion mermaid fantasy.
The ending offers a twist as Billy swims into the lagoon to see if the mermaid has returned. Instead of her blonde head emerging from the water, a horrible, octopus-like sea monster does. It’s the very last line though. The mysteries are done, wrapped up, and solved. A sea monster is just too little, too late.