Updated: Feb 23
What do you get if you cross ‘The Blob’ with ‘The Thing’ and throw in a sprinkling of ‘The Abyss’? You get The Black by Paul E Cooley – and its BL00DY BRILLIANT!
The Black series currently consists of four complete stories, all of which are available to listen to on YouTube and as podcasts on Cooley's website ShadoPublications.com. The first three are also available as Audible audiobook, e-book and trade paperback formats.
Setting and Premise of The Black
The series can best be described as a contemporary hard sci-fi horror techno-thriller. Pretty much everything in the series is true to life in the present day, the obvious exception being the titular 'The Black' itself. I have always had a fondness for sci-fi that mixes fiction and fact together, and sets the mundane and the extraordinary side by side. The Black does this perfectly, with the extraordinary nature of The Black organism feeling authentic and grounded by the mundane settings it is encountered in, usually by relatable everyday characters.
NB - Most of these in-universe characters refer to the organism as ‘M2’ due to where it was first located, or simply as ‘The Black’. To avoid confusion between the organism and the titles of the books I will refer to the organism as 'M2-Black.'
The first book in the series, titled simply ‘The Black’, starts out at sea on the offshore oil exploration rig Leaguer, currently located far from land in the South Pacific. The rig and its crew are preparing to begin exploration drilling of the sea bed at the bottom of the recently discovered M2 trench – 32,000 feet straight down!
Leaguer’s crew consists of nearly eighty roughnecks who will do most of the actual drilling, and a tech team, who’s high tech underwater drones discovered the trench in the first place. The trench is suspected to contain as much oil as Saudi Arabia, and so getting to it is a top priority.
In most 'post-Alien' run-of-the-mill sci-fi this is where the greedy ‘company’ will order everyone to do whatever is necessary to obtain *insert resource* as quickly as possible.
Not so here.
Cooley takes a refreshingly realistic take on this – the company (PPE) wants its oil, but it will not take unnecessary risks to get it quickly. It has, after all, just spent upwards of 200 million dollars on the rig, and it isn’t about to risk such a hefty investment by cutting corners. This also avoids the tired old ‘greed and haste causing disaster’ trope. The fate that befalls Leaguer would probably have happened regardless of how slowly and cautiously they went. It could only have been averted by refraining from drilling in the M2 trench completely.
NB - Since it is set on an oil rig, The Black is littered with oil industry terms which you will probably need to look up to know what they refer to, terms such as ‘mud’, ‘drill string’ and ‘spudding’. Think of this as an opportunity for ‘tangential learning’.
Since this is a ‘no-spoiler’ review, I will not go into details about exactly what happens on leaguer, but you can probably guess that it doesn’t end well.
M2-Black itself is a very interesting antagonist. Without giving too much away, it is amorphous and can change from a liquid into a solid and back again at will. This means if it can’t simply batter a door down to get to you, it could poor itself through an air vent instead. In a solid state it can take on any shape it so chooses, although it wouldn’t be able to imitate anything, ‘The Thing’ style, since the organism is always jet black – which is presumably where the title – ‘The Black’ comes from. It can dissolve most – but not all – substances on contact. This includes people who are quickly dissolved in the style of ‘The Blob’.
Similar to The Thing, if ‘M2-Black’ is broken up into separate parts (or droplets in its liquid state), each part will survive independently. This is made all the more horrifying since M2-Black also acts as a pathogen. If a tiny amount comes into contact with a person it will enter via the skin and then steadily grow, eating the unfortunate victim from the inside out. The initial symptoms of this are similar to pneumonia, therefore most people would think the victim was merely ill and send them to the doctor, or the hospital. And when it finally emerges it will not be tiny any more, thus starting a whole new outbreak.
The second book in the series – The Black: Arrival takes place at the same time as The Black, starting at about the same time that ‘M2-Black’ starts devouring (dissolving?) the crew of Leaguer. It concerns the ‘arrival’ of a sample of M2-Black that had been sent from Leaguer to Houston Analytical Laboratories (HAL) for testing - before the crew of Leaguer realised that the oil in the M2 trench wasn’t oil.
The third book of the series, The Black: Outbreak also takes place during the same time frame, starting about the same time that M2-Black starts running (flowing?) amok around Houston Analytical Laboratories. A sickly HAL employee is taken to the local hospital, Ben Taub, for treatment – before anyone at HAL has discovered that the M2-Black sample wasn’t oil. The remainder of the book details the ‘outbreak’ of this M2-Black entity in a densely populated hospital, and the efforts taken to contain it.
The fourth instalment - The Black: Evolution takes place after the conclusion of the first three novels and follows on from them. The authorities, under the command of the rather unsettling Dr Moore, have secured samples of M2-Black and are seeking ways of combating it should they encounter it again.
The Survivors from the first three books have been detained at an undisclosed military location. It appears that Dr Moore is assembling the survivors from all three encounters to form a research and response team – making them offers they cannot refuse to ensure their compliance. This feels like the set up to a final showdown between the few people who encountered M2-Black and lived and a large sample of M2-Black that wishes to ‘become’, or ‘evolve’.
2021 EDIT: Cooley has announced that a fifth, and probably final, instalment in the series is in the works, provisionally titled The Black: Extinction
A Mystery, Inside an Enigma
I am looking forward to seeing what it evolves into. Will it have an actual shape, or will it remain amorphous? Will its abilities remain the same, or will they be different? Will it go 'full-kaiju' and start rampaging and destroying cities whilst dissolving their inhabitants?
I am also keen to find out what M2-Black is. Is it a natural form of earthly life that is simply unknown to science? Could it be a man-made bioweapon gone wrong? Or could it even be an alien entity, perhaps brought to earth in a meteor in a similar vein to 'The Blob?' At the time of writing, we simply do not know, but I am looking forward to finding out - assuming Cooley decides to tell us - he may leave this as an unknown.
The Black has a slow suspenseful start – M2-Black doesn’t make a real appearance for at least an hour into the audio version, but once it does get started it becomes an extremely fast-paced page-turning horror-thriller. Arrival and Outbreak get to the action far more quickly, which is a wise move. By this point, the reader knows about M2-Black and both its capabilities and its weaknesses. These two books only spend enough time scene setting and character building to make the setting and the characters within it feel fleshed out. The degree of this fleshing out is appropriate to the story - characters are fleshed out just enough so that you care about them when they are killed.
No One is Safe
Speaking of which, major characters get killed off fairly regularly. Some might be introduced partway through a story and will survive to the end. Others will get introduced in just as much depth, only to get killed the very next page. Paul E Cooley has clearly made pains to avoid the ‘expendable red-shirted crew-member from Star Trek’ trope, and has gone full Game of Thrones in his willingness to bump off major characters. This works well. M2-Black sees everyone equally – either as an incubator when it is small or as food once it has grown – and so no-one is safe.
Speaking of M2-Black, its depiction is consistent throughout the books, which also helps with the series’ continuity. The rare short chapters where we experience things from M2-Black’s perspective are both enlightening and intriguing. It clearly has some intelligence, but how much exactly is left an open-ended question. This is something else I am eager to discover.
The series thus far feels very grounded. The characters feel authentic and the locations realistic. Setting Outbreak in a real hospital (Ben Taub Hospital in Houston Texas) reinforces this. There are several references to real-world pop culture throughout the series as well, such as Pulp Fiction, Daffy Duck and DooM. These too reinforce the suspension of disbelief.
The Black series is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. The descriptions of the many deaths are suitably graphic, but not excessively so. Bodily functions are also mentioned - when Cooley describes a character being scared $h1tless or pi$$ing themselves in fear - he means it literally. This too helps the characters feel authentic. They are not fearless heroes, nor are they steely-eyed emotionless super-soldiers. They are, for the most part, just regular people who have found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, and must now try to survive in an extreme situation.
From a technical perspective, the audio versions are excellent. Cooley narrates all the audio versions himself and he does a superb job of making each character distinct and instantly recognisable. The audio version also makes good use of sound effects. In particular, reverb is used to indicate a character’s ‘inner voice’. Music is also used to great effect for each video’s intro and outro, which helps maintain the frenetic pace of the books.
Summary and Scores on the Doors
So, would I recommend 'The Black' series to fans of techno-thrillers, horror stories, and contemporary Sci-Fi? Yes absolutely - unless you have just eaten a large meal ;-)