Sunday, February 12, 2017

Great Sea Stories - Part I

Great Sea Stories (Part I)

Any author who puts sailors on a ship and sets them out to sea in a fictional tale enters a special realm.  Tales of nautical lore require story lines that include science and technology, horrors and passions.  In a story where characters ride the waves, the rules of story telling change because the reader, even if they are unaware of it, expects strange and epic events to occur.

Sailor Skull Artwork by David Cook of Los Angeles
A good sea yarn should include at least one colossal disaster, a shipmate or two gone psycho, a monster up from the briny depths or at the very least, a hot romance between a sailor and a dark-eyed beauty in the tropics.  The ocean is such a large canvas on which to paint fact or fiction, nautical writing must be larger than the hum-drum life lived on dry land.  The books of fiction on this list are some of the best I've read.  Please add your favorites in the comments below.

Thirty Terrifying Tales of the Deep.

Sea Cursed

Edited by T. Liam McDonald, Stefan Dziemianowicz and Martin H. Greenberg

Sea Cursed oozes with weird stories involving disasters, denizens and other spooky events about sailors and ships.  Sea Cursed is a rare book, almost 600 pages of fantastic and creepy tales set aboard ships at sea and in weird out of the way, sometimes imagined, locations.  If you like this sort of thing, Sea Cursed will not disappoint because the editors include tales about yachts, battleships, whirlpools, undersea misadventures, psycho shipmates, monsters of the deep, ships lost at sea, zombie sailors and many other plots and themes that explore this obscure genre.  Tales by Joseph Conrad, Edgar Allen Poe, Clive Barker, H. P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Roger Zelazny and other less-well-known creepsters of the deep are included.  There's another book in this same vein called Mysterious Sea Stories edited by William Patrick that has 14 similar tales by all the greats including Poe, London, Conrad and Bradbury.

The must-read Grand Daddy of nautical fiction.

Moby Dick
by Herman Melville

I concur with the critics, Moby Dick is a literary masterpiece and one of the best sea stories ever written.  Anyone serious about reading nautical literature must park their ass in a chair and read this monster of a novel.  Overflowing with all the elements that make up a great sea story, Moby Dick sets the standard for writing about sailors, ocean travel and making a living at sea.  But even more than this, Moby Dick is a novel about being alive and searching for something and everything.  In Moby Dick the reader will find all the things that make going to sea in ships so amazing, and that includes deep friendships, earning a livelihood, monumental challenges, profound mysteries, youthful adventure, technology, the grandeur of nature, heartbreaking tragedy, disaster and salvation.  Rather than try to come up with any more catchy lines of praise, I'll just quote one sentence from Melville's story and leave it at that:  "He [Captain Ahab] piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."

Some believe Jules Verne was a time traveler because
his books were full of futuristic technology.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
by Jules Verne

After Captain Nemo kidnaps his passengers he takes them aboard his super-high-tech submarine to the Amazon basin, up the Gulf Stream, under the polar ice caps and to many other amazing places that were impossible for even the best equipped adventurers to go at the time this book was published.  Jules Verne's high tech adventure stories have inspired generations of writers, readers and movie-goers.  His most popular book, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, inspired a Disney ride that thrilled kids of all ages from 1971 to 1994.  20,000 leagues was only one of his many books that include the classics Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days.  The story contains some lengthy and instructive passages about submarine technology, ocean currents, aquatic life, scuba diving and navigation.   I happen to like all that sort of thing, plus there are many excellent passages that provoke mystery, fear and excitement.

Survival of the fittest among a crew of scoundrels aboard the sealing ship Sea Wolf.

The Sea-Wolf
by Jack London

A soft and pudgy literary critic, Humphrey van Weydon, slips from the decks of a ferry in the middle of foggy San Francisco Bay and is whisked under the Golden Gate Bridge by the outgoing tide.  Just as he surrenders to death by drowning he is dragged aboard the sealing ship Sea Wolf, by Wolf Larson who turns out to be the greatest psycho-genius sea captain in all of nautical literature.  We follow along with Hump', as he's called by the crew, as he hardens into a deckhand and eventually into the first mate as he develops the ability to fight for his life among a crew of the worst scoundrels on the open sea.  The best parts of this story are the conversations about human nature between Hump and Wolf Larsen.  There's also plenty of seafaring adventures that include disasters and rescues, murder, men overboard, mutiny, romance and being stranded on a desolate island.

The USS Caine a destroyer-minesweeper crisscrosses the Pacific during WWII.

The Caine Mutiny
by Herman Wouk

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is based on the author's personal experience in the US Navy during WWII.  A colorful cast of characters makes up the crew of the USS Caine a destroyer-minesweeper.  All at once, it's a war story, a comedy, a legal thriller and a romance that illustrates what happens when enormous numbers of civilians are drafted into the military and sent to war on the planet's most remote and dangerous places.  It contains one of the best court martial scenes ever written.  The Caine Mutiny like many of the books on this list have been adapted into excellent feature films.  The author, Herman Wouk, who celebrated his 100th birthday in 2015, published his latest book, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, also wrote two gigantic novels, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, both of which were turned into popular TV miniseries.

The best sea story ever written.

by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad, one of the great masters of the sea story, tells a tale of being young and sailing from England to India aboard a doomed ship.  This is a short story, but the absolute authenticity of every word on the page makes it one of my favorite piece of literature.  It demonstrates Conrad's mastery as a writer.  If you've experience the hardships and romance of being a sailor--crossing oceans aboard ship, travelling slowly to foreign lands, seen the raging sea in a storm or felt the heat of the sun on the equator--then read this story because it will spark all those conflicted feelings in your soul again.

The yarn that launched Tom Clancy's prolific career.

The Hunt for Red October
by Tom Clancy

An interesting bit of back story is that The Hunt for Red October was turned down by many publishers of popular fiction because it was considered too technical.  After being published in a limited run by the Naval Institute Press, Ronald Reagan read it and mentioned during an interview that it was an excellent sea yarn, and the rest is history.  The Hunt for Red October went on to be a blockbuster best seller and was made into a movie starring Harrison Ford.  Clancy's long list of top-shelf thrillers have plots that are so realistic and accurate it made many wonder if he (a Baltimore insurance salesmen) had access to top secret military information.  The story opens with a soviet navy captain attempting to defect to the US with the Red October, a brand new super-stealthy soviet submarine.  The US and Soviet Navies face off on the Atlantic and . . . over 3-million readers stay up all night turning pages.  Tom Clancy went on to have an amazing career as a writer of best selling high-tech espionage thrillers.  He wrote (and co-wrote) dozens of fiction and non-fiction military books and video games.  He wrote 17 books that hit #1 on the NY Times Best Seller list.  What's fascinating is Tom Clancy died in 2013 but books with his name plastered across the cover (with a co-author's name in tiny print below) continue to appear on the best seller list.

Wonderfully written tale with characters and plot that whisk you along on a grand adventure.

Treasure Island
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Five hundred years from now when humans are crossing the galaxy aboard spaceships, they will still be reading Treasure Island because it is one of the best written stories of all time.  It is truly a classic written in 1883 by Robert Louis Stevenson, a man who traveled quite a bit aboard ship himself.  The quality of the story telling is absolutely brilliant, with narration, dialog, character develop and plot all blending together to form a tale that might well be the best example of the English language in print.  There's not much more to say other than:  Treasure Island is required reading for kids between the ages of 8 and 118.  Anyone who is not a fan of sea stories and nautical novels will be after they read Treasure Island.

Hemingway, a literary genius, slumming in Key West, Cuba and points in between.

To Have and Have Not
by Ernest Hemingway

No list of great sea stories and nautical novels would be complete without a tale based out of Key West, Florida, and the best of that bunch, in my humble opinion, is To Have and Have Not by the much-celebrated Ernest Hemingway.  Harry Morgan is a good man but he's forced by tough economic conditions to smuggle cargo and people between Cuba and Florida, and along the way he encounters plenty of trouble.  This story has been criticized as a jumble of two previously published short stories, a novella and some experimental writing that seems to drift between narrators.  I can't argue with that, however I've read everything by Hemingway, so I enjoyed the writing style in this book which does depart from his typical declarative sentences laid down by an unemotional male narrator.  It is wonderful, though, to see Hemingway, who had so much talent, slumming in this story.

One of the authentic thrillers in a series charting Navy officer Dan Lenson's exciting career.

The Circle
by David Poyer

If you enjoy techno-thrillers aboard US Navy ships this series by David Poyer is for you.  The Circle is one of fifteen books featuring US Navy officer Dan Lenson.  Other books in the series include The Med, The Gulf, The Passage and many others.  These stories follow Dan Lenson throughout his career from a Naval Academy grad to taking command of a ship, leading secret missions in international hot spots and working with top brass at the Pentagon and White House.   Along the way the author weaves in plenty of current events, politics, seafaring action and high tech weapons.  He never shies away from the human and emotional elements present aboard ship as the crew faces long deployments, terrorism, complex weapon systems and geopolitical strife.  The main thing about Poyer is that he nails every character from brass-plated admirals, hard-ass captains, crusty chiefs, spit-polished petty officers and new recruits.   If you served in the Navy for four years or forty years, you certain to enjoy Poyer's stories and characters.

Comical, mystical and deadly serious story about a black man who mistakenly becomes the first mate aboard a slave trader

Middle Passage
by Charles R. Johnson

The main character of this story is Rutherford Calhoun, a pervert, liar, thief and recently freed slave from Illinois who drops down to New Orleans to get away from a woman who he's promised to marry.  From this character, the author has plenty of raw energy to spin a great novel-length sea story.  The action ramps up when Calhoun, pursued by his determined bride-to-be, stows away aboard a slaver headed to Africa to pick up an illegal cargo of slaves.  Rollicking action ensues when the slaves turn out to be from a tribe of crafty magicians.  Mixing comedy, adventure and subtle yet serious doses of social criticism, Charles Johnson delivers an excellent book that went on to win the National Book Award.

Weird things happen when a stupid sailor kills an albatross
the crew had considered a good omen.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

If you can handle what at first seems a stuffy old poem by a stuffy old Brit, you discover The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is overflowing with all the elements of a great sea story.  The narrator is an old sailor who has the power to mesmerize a young man with his weird story about a voyage full of bad omens, curses, fights, murder and animated skeletons aboard several doomed ship.  The poem has been republished many times over the years in illustrated editions and it is great fun to read aloud or listen to on audio book.  The rhyme scheme is hypnotic and flashes with one amazing image after another.  I've read it many times and find new visuals and new meaning ever time.  Coleridge, a poet and literary critic, was said to have visions brought on by his Opium habit.  This may have influenced his fantastic imagination and helped him write his many poems.  


If you enjoy a good sea story, try these two free on all eReaders

Malcolm Torres is the author of original sea stories and nautical novels.