Jul 11

Nonfiction Thrills: Nathaniel Philbrick's Essex Tale

Fiction vs. reality. It doesn't have to be a contest. But for sheer entertainment, fiction has a huge advantage, right out of the gate, over nonfiction. It sets its own rules of time and logic to make events fall into place in ever more precarious and exciting chunks. In fiction built on suspense, the advantage is especially vital. Nonfiction accounts of events, on the other hand, are hamstrung by often less-than-dramatic facts (though it seems many writers are just making up a million little pieces of bullshit to tap the memoir market).

But nonfiction has an ace up its sleeve; it can be real. It can give us real persons that think and feel and bleed and make love. It can illuminate the events that have shaped our world. When the writer succeeds, the investment of the reader can be visceral.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000, Penguin Books) delivers nonfiction at times rousing and at times gut-wrenching. It’s the story of men thrown into impossible, nightmarish conditions, with only a handful of survivors to tell about it.  

Philbrick reveals the story slowly and adroitly, pulling you into the world of Nantucket, the small Massachusetts island town dominating the whaling industry in the early 19th century, its sailors and whalemen among the most daring and accomplished on the planet. The Nantucketers form an insular, anachronistic society, peopled by forthright Quaker pacifists that are filled with bloodlust and greed at the sight of a whale.

Under the unsure hand of twenty-eight-year-old first-time captain, George Pollard, Jr., and his ambitious, driven first mate, Owen Chase, the whaling ship Essex sets sail in 1819 for the far reaches of the Pacific on a planned two-, maybe three-year voyage. Their aim; kill sperm whales for the volume and quality of prized oil the great beasts are unlucky enough to produce.

In the middle of the Pacific, in the middle of a hunt, an unheard-of disaster strikes. An enraged bull attacks the Essex, ramming the ship in the starboard bow, not once but twice. The ship, “stove in by a whale,” topples and sinks, and the crew of twenty escapes into three small whaleboats, with scant food and water, and with thousands of miles of ocean separating them from South America.  But Nantucketers are consummate, resourceful seamen; they jury-rig sails, plot a course and throw themselves resolutely into the impossible.

And so the true horror begins.

The sailors force themselves into a starvation diet, their only chance of completing the long journey. Day after endless day, set upon by sharks, howling storms, and becalmed, brutal heat, living on sips of water and a few ounces of hardtack, the men begin to die. Desperate yet still deliberate, they resort to the last great taboo of civilization: cannibalizing the dead and drawing lots among the living.

This is one nerve-wracking tale and a terrific how-to for writers of nonfiction. Philbrick’s research is exhaustive, yet this is not a stodgy, academic history. He infuses the narrative with compelling scholarship on the privations the men suffered, illuminating the psychology of survival, leadership, social stratification, and the extreme dehydration and starvation, and describes the horrifying results visited upon other victims of these conditions. Forget what you’ve seen in movies; a man nearly dead from thirst is a ghastly sight. Eyes and tongue and lips and face are desiccated almost beyond recognizable humanity, and skin is stretched like parchment over skull and bones. The victims sure as hell don’t look like buff Hollywood actors wheezing through big death scenes, dreaming of Oscar night, their coiffed hairdos aesthetically mussed.

Philbrick hit a home run with this book, and its images haunt you long after you finish reading it. Images such as that of the survivors, little more than living skeletons themselves, clinging jealously to the bones of comrades they’ve eaten; bones from which they still suck marrow; bones they refuse to relinquish to their horrified rescuers.

The Essex nightmare became a sensation in the press and imagination of the 19th century, as familiar then as the Titanic became to the 20th century. Herman Melville was inspired by it to write one of the crowning achievements of American literature, Moby-Dick, yet over the years the Essex slipped into obscurity. Philbrick has done a great service in bringing this incredible story back to life in a riveting book, giving us insight into tragedy and heroism in the heart of the sea. Readers and writers of suspense literature owe him for mastering the form in the language of the real.


Jun 11

Birth of the Biological Thriller: THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU

Berkley Highland Books paperback cover

H.G. Wells, as every schoolboy knows (or should, the little bastards), built the foundation for science fiction as we know it. Less widely acknowledged is the debt owed to Wells by thriller writers, particularly the writers of science thrillers. Moreau’s second novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) forged the ground rules for further genre subsets, the biological thriller and the medical thriller. Superior to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), this short novel has to be the scowling godfather of every novel and movie in which general unpleasantness results from transforming flesh and bone.

After fleeing a Europe outraged over his mysterious, unnamed experiments, Moreau, the brilliant scientist and gifted surgeon, has set up shop on a remote Pacific island. DNA and genetic engineering were completely unknown at the time, so Wells employed the cutting edge science of the day to populate his story with animals modified to emulate humans. Moreau subjects his animals to agonizing weeks under scalpel and saw, vivisecting them in the “House of Pain,” reattaching leg ligaments here, tweaking the spines there, rearranging faces into distortions of humanity. The creatures, which may have once been pigs or dogs or leopards, are molded into hideous bipeds, neither beast nor human, but wretches somewhere in between.

And reshaping animals into more or less humanoid forms is not enough. Restructuring the larynxes, Moreau imbues his animals with the capacity for speech. Finding that all have feeble abilities of reasoning, he proceeds to educate them.

These animals want badly to be human. Moreau is their god, an angry, vengeful one, to be sure, one who wields power via bullwhip, pistol, and threats of the House of Pain. The animals are given laws and morality with one central tenet: act like humans, not animals. The teachings are reinforced in ritual chant:

Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

Not to eat Flesh or Fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

(Fans of 70s early punk will recognize the rejoinder -- “are we not men?”-- from the Devo song “Jocko Homo.” The song is the anthem for the devo philosophy…that we’ve achieved our high point of evolution and it’s a long, bleak slide downhill from here—a devolution. Mark Mothersbaugh was quite the clever songwriter and image-maker).

The chant deifies Moreau, programming the beasts for his own protection. They must emulate and worship him and forsake all that is animal, especially that which is aggressive and, worse yet, carnivorous.

But a leopard can’t change its spots. The creatures are in turmoil, raging against what they were, what they are, and what Moreau insists upon them being. Violence spills bloody and uncontained as they slip their human constraints and revert to their inner beasts.

Or maybe they’re just becoming human.

George Orwell was a fan of Wells, and it’s hard to imagine Animal Farm, his allegory on totalitarianism and the Soviet Union, not being at least partially inspired by Wells’ novel. Pigs walking upright and speaking, writing moral codes and laws for fellow creatures, turning on their human masters, imposing order through force… it’s all there in both novels. Although the novels’ tones and aims are dissimilar, the two are kindred spirits. Whereas Animal Farm is a brilliant modern fable and Moreau is rendered as adventure/horror, both are clear indictments of our moral abdications.

Moreau, brilliant but human, is inhumane toward his creations. His creatures-- stupid, confused, and tormented though they are-- are ultimately his moral superiors. I suspect Wells knew exactly what he was doing when he gave the doctor a name that suggests morality.

Readers and writers of thrillers are hereby commanded to stop sucking up Drink, and, if they haven’t already, to read The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Are we not biotech-thriller fans?

* * *

For a look at H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, click here...


May 11

THE MALTESE FALCON: How Not to Screw Up a Novel

We’ve all seen them, those movie adaptations of our favorite books, movies that turn great works into steamy piles of shit, often unrecognizable from the source material (see: “To Have and Have Not”). But once in a while, a movie based on a novel satisfies the movie-going audience as well as the novel’s loyal fans. Every novelist thinks, damn it, why can’t Hollywood do with my novel, each word of which is spun gold, what director John Huston did so simply, yet so brilliantly, with Dashiell Hammett’s classic novel, The Maltese Falcon?

Cover, Vintage Paperback Edition, 1992.


In 1941, Huston took Hammett’s already lean prose and pared it down to bone and sinew, literally tearing out pages from the 1929 novel and writing a screenplay from what was left. A number of Hammett’s lines of dialogue remained verbatim. Why was Huston so slavishly devoted to the original text? Every producer or director feels some sort of holy compulsion to butcher the work. I suspect Huston, being a first-timer, reined in his ego because he recognized that Hammett's novel and suspense techniques were already sharply cinematic.

The result was that rare, happy marriage of book and movie with which both author and director are thrilled. The movie is widely considered to be the first in the film noir mode, painted in dark, angular shadows and the terse, point-blank speech of the book. The Maltese Falcon, in both print and film, is the very definition of the hardboiled mystery genre, and its jaded hero, Sam Spade, remains the quintessential private eye…cynical, smart, and…well, hardboiled.

Add to that the unique talents of Sidney Greenstreet, as Kasper Gutman, the “Fat Man,” and Peter Lorre, as the scheming, effete Joel Cairo, and you get a classic.*  Watching Spade use Cairo’s own fist to punch him out never gets old. Great casting indeed, marred only by the rather homely, overacting Mary Astor. Seriously, Mary Astor? Huston couldn’t do better? In his defense, however, she wasn’t the first choice.

Viewpoints being what they were in 1941, the homosexuality of Joel Cairo went unmentioned in film, although Huston sneaked a couple of suggestive lines and scenes past the rat bastard censors of the Hays Office. No matter. Lorre plays the role brilliantly, and his exasperated, nasal outburst hurled at Gutman – “You...you imbecile! You bloated idiot! You stupid fathead, you!”--is priceless.

Hammett’s publisher was also adamantly opposed to anything polite 1929 audiences would think vulgar, and Hammett chafed under that. How could he write believably about the underworld without using the language of the underworld? So he worked around the strictures and sneaked the naughty stuff in. Spade refers to Wilmer, the punk kid with the guns, as “the gunsel.” Hammett’s publisher assumed this was slang for, well, a gun-toting punk. That’s exactly what Hammett hoped would be the assumption, when in reality, “gunsel” was Americanized slang for the Yiddish “gendzel”, which meant “gosling” or “little goose.” The term described a young homosexual man kept by an older man for favors. Gunsel has been incorrectly used to describe a gun punk ever since Hammett pulled the wool over his publisher’s eyes.

The Maltese Falcon remains a treat on page and screen, and to this day provides authors with the unreasonable hope that their work will yet be translated to film, just as they’d written it.

Silly authors.

*Historical footnote! The atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki was named “Fat Man”, after Greenstreet’s character.

Apr 11

EYE OF THE NEEDLE: Ken Follett's Modern Classic

Signet paperback cover

In 1978, Ken Follett hit the big time with Eye of the Needle, a WWII espionage tale that grabs you by the large intestine and slowly pulls it from your body cavity.

With the Allies amassing an invasion force in 1944 Britain, secrecy is paramount. Faber, a deep-cover German superspy (code name: "Die Nadel"--The Needle--for the wicked stiletto he favors) stumbles upon the biggest secret: the invasion force is a fake, a vast array of cardboard and wood planes and tanks, in precise formations, cleverly designed to draw German defense forces away from the Normandy coast and toward Calais. With British intelligence in hot pursuit, Faber desperately flees across Britain and finds himself stranded on a storm-wracked island and entangled with its inhabitants, a bitter wheelchair-bound man and his repressed, lonely wife, Lucy.

This was one of the novels that steered me toward the suspense genre and established Follett as heir apparent (along with Jack Higgins) to Alistair Maclean, who had fallen way, way off his early form by then (sidebar! I remember tossing aside Maclean's River of Death after a few chapters, wondering how in the hell the author who kept me glued to the pages of South by Java Head and The Black Shrike could have managed such a weak effort) .

Follett succeeded Eye of the Needle with another great story, The Man from St. Petersburg (no, it's not about a renegade shuffle-board playing retiree in Florida...it follows a Russian anarchist and assassin who falls in love with the suffragist daughter of an English aristocrat, just before the horrific bloodletting of 1914). This novel, I suspect, would have been huge, if not for its rather dull title.

Follett continued to have success but his later novels, for me, never reached the same heights as Eye of the Needle (although I freely admit to not having read them all).

I award it nineteen stars! *******************

Apr 11

Great Starts: Book Openings that Kill

Thoughts on excellent openings to works of fiction...

Writers of all types struggle and strive to open a piece with the best that they can.  First impressions, and all that.  It's important to hook the reader with a barbed point, in the fleshy part of the mouth if at all possible.  Good openings establish ground rules, tone, pace, and setting.  Great ones become memorable and set the bar very high indeed.  Here are some that are great...

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883.

"Captain Bill Bones," by N.C. Wyeth, 1911

I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:--

‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest—

Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!’

With that opening, Stevenson accomplishes two whopping good things.  First, he establishes the pace, atmosphere, and foreboding that permeates the novel. And he does so by describing, in exact, spare language, the old captain, a sea-dog who will be dead by the end of the third chapter.

The second thing, which he couldn’t have realized at the moment of writing, was the creation of the popular, romantic image of the pirate that defines what we believe to this day. Captain Jack Sparrow? A pretty Disney twist on Stevenson’s drunken, murderous captain.

How does Stevenson manage this? Lesser writers might go on and on about a character’s minutest traits…their fleshy ears, their baggy pants, their inch-long nose-hairs. Who cares? If they don’t define the character, what difference do fleshy ears make (unless you’re writing a character with exceptional hearing)?  The first sentence runs for sixty-four words, yet stabs and jabs like a series of knife-cuts. Stevenson gives us a snapshot of “black, broken nails” that says it all.

This is craftsmanship at its finest.

If you must split hairs, that paragraph is technically not the opening of the novel. It’s actually the second paragraph, but it electrifies the story and gets it going. Good luck suing Mr. Stevenson over it.

* * *

Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, by William Least Heat Moon, 1982.

Cover of Fawcett Crest edition

Beware thoughts that come in the night. They aren’t turned properly; they come in askew, free of sense and restriction, deriving from the most remote of sources. Take the idea of February 17, a day of canceled expectations, the day I learned my job teaching English was finished because of declining enrollment at the college, the day I called my wife from whom I’d been separated for nine months to give her the news, the day she let slip about her “friend”—Rick or Dick or Chick. Something like that.

Yeah, I know, Blue Highways is not fiction.  It's Least Heat Moon's marvelous travelogue of his looping trip around America, taking only the backroads (the highways drawn in blue on old roadmaps).  But this opening would be terrific for a novel.  The author exploits something we've all experienced, those late-night good ideas that sneak in as we try to get to sleep when our minds are taking tired, crazy turns, ideas that maybe aren't so good by light of day.  The paragraph outlines the turmoil that has just smacked him in the face.  As it turns out, that bad idea turned into a bestselling book.

In four sentences, he summarizes his life to that point, and you understand completely his compulsion to escape it and hit the open road.

* * *

The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, 1898.

Cover of Bantam Classic Edition, 2003.

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most, terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to ours as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

H.G. Wells penned one of the all-time great openings with this. He describes the human race as full of hubris, diddling about our “little affairs” with “infinite complacency,” confident and assured. Downright arrogant. Then comes the ominous hook: don’t look now, but there are things out there that don’t give a rat’s ass how important we believe ourselves to be. I’ve yet to come across a more succinct, yet more unsettling, description of alien life than “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic.” If I ever write six words together equal to those six, I’m retiring immediately.

After the slow buildup comes the topper: “And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.” From that moment, the reader has a sense of dread and knowing.

Wells, of course, entertained greatly, but also imbued his early novels with layered meanings. He wrote The War of the Worlds in part out of anger at the British genocide of Tasmania, in which a vastly superior technological society wiped out an indigenous people. Wells was saying to his countrymen, “Hey, assholes, imagine if you were on the receiving end.”

* * *

Darker Than Amber, by John D. MacDonald, 1966.

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.

Cover of Fawcett Gold Medal edition

Zounds!  Florida mystery writer MacDonald knew his medium, his market, and his manuscript length.  Darker Than Amber, the seventh novel of his Travis McGee series, ran only 184 pages in paperback.  MacDonald knew he couldn't fiddle around, and had to get to the meat of things right away.  This opening is a prime example.  The next few sentences clarify a bit...McGee and his hairy economist friend, Meyer, are night fishing under a bridge in the Florida Keys, when a young woman, her feet wired to a chunk of concrete, is thrown from a passing car above into the channel.  Neither you nor McGee have time to think.  You just dive right in.

Mar 11

What I Write (and Why)

Give me a story that plunges ahead with breathing, breakable characters, and a setting indispensable from the tale. Take those characters, stick them in that setting, and throw the kitchen sink at them. An exploding kitchen sink with rusty, razor edges for shrapnel.

That’s thriller territory.

BRIGANDS KEY was released upon an unsuspecting public in July, 2012. Others are underway and will (fingers crossed) follow Brigands Key shortly into publication.  Zip to "My Novels" for info.