The sea transforms everything. Nothing that has been touched by it can ever be the same again."
--from "The Figurehead of the Cailleach," by Stephen J. Clark
Egaeus Press, 2018
While my last post covered a book of "strange tales from the sea," they were all tales recovered from yesteryear. A Book of the Sea is also a volume of strange tales, and while there is often more than just a bit of an aura of the traditional about and within these stories, the authors who have contributed to this anthology are some of the best weird fiction writers of the present day. This book is an excellent showcase of their extraordinary talent, not simply as storytellers but also as the perceptive artists these people are.
The description of this book reveals that it is a
"A collection of strange or uncategorizable pieces for which the sea provides the great mystery; stories and poems which explore its pull on the human heart, its alienness, its treachery, its unfathomable vastness, and more than anything, what it makes humans do, be, become."Given human nature, what humans "do, be, become" can cover a very wide range.
|Ships on the Stormy Sea, by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovksy, as found on the endpapers of this volume|
"The sea transforms everything. Nothing that has touched by it can ever be the same again."It is this phrase that kept repeating in my mind as I read -- in his or her own way, each author offers a story of lives that have been transformed in some fashion through their respective connections to the sea.
Divided into four parts, appropriately and respectively entitled "Lingan," "Flotsam," "Jetsam" and "Derelict," each section begins with an illustration and poem that perfectly sets the tone for what's to come. The cover of this book invites the reader to take a look through the keyhole at a ship sailing placidly on the ocean, but don't be fooled -- what lies ahead once you open the cover is anything but tranquility.
In "The Figurehead of the Calleach," for example, a noted art restorer comes to an unmapped cove on the Isle of Scarba where he has been commissioned to restore an old figurehead known as "the Cailleach." Also known as "the veiled one" or the Hag of Winter, the myth of the Cailleach originates with the whirlpool just off the coast known as the Cauldron. As he settles into his work, becomes aware of certain eccentricities of his employer, and discovers more about local legends, he finds himself drawn ever closer to the Cauldron, and not only in his dreams. It is a beautifully-layered tale incorporating landscape, mythology, belief and history; here the ocean is much more than just a vast body of water but rather something that leaves us "yearning to return."
Karim Ghawagi's "The Sorrow of Satan's Book" is also a multi-layered tale set in 1932, which begins as 35-year old film scholar Martin Nexsø who had lost his wife in a boating accident makes his way to the town of Skagen on the northern coast of Jutland. He is there to talk to screenwriter Nikolai Brauer about a fifth, unknown chapter that been "excised" from Dreyer's 1920 film Leaves From Satan's Book, based loosely on Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan, a novel which Nexsø knows all too well. He arrives not only as preparations are being made on the beach for the Midsummer Solstice, but also as Brauer's home has been declared a crime scene because Brauer has been murdered in his own studio. This is no murder mystery, however; things go beyond the weird and eerie beginning in the studio and then with a strange meeting with a group of Midsummer celebrants on the beach, becoming downright hallucinatory. Or perhaps is it just a case of "artist's sickness..."
"Breakwater Lodge" by Michael R. Colangelo is a somewhat cryptic story which follows a famous detective by the name of Cederno who cannot resist a challenging puzzle and has been attracted by the lure of yet another that takes him to a village on the Spanish coast. There he meets a strange woman who becomes his companion in the last leg of his search. At a small stand with children selling seashells, there is one about which he is told is "not for sale to you," a scene that opened my eyes and absolutely hit me to my core. In truth, Cederno is following a lure that has been "set by the ocean, " but what he doesn't realize is that all too often, the point of the lure is "To catch men instead of fish." Here past and present mingle beautifully and hauntingly.
All of the stories in this book are unsettling, haunting and for the most part downright brilliant, but my top-tier favorites include the three mentioned above and a few more: Jonathan Wood's "From whence we came," Colin Insole's "Dancing Boy" Albert Power's dark gothic tale "The Final Flight of Fidelia" and "The Woman From Malta" by George Berguño round out my list.
"If you hope for the appearance of klautermann, mermaids, aquatic goats, pirate-spirits, seaweed-clad sirens, conch-fairies or even brine-tigers, look elsewhere."Thank god for small presses like Egaeus who put out books like this one; it is absolutely gorgeous both inside and out and one I would recommend to any reader of weird/dark fiction.