August 17, 2013

BOOKSQUAWK SUMMER SHARKTACULAR

A toothsome treasury of shark books

Aquanut: Pat Black

Shark Weeks come and go, but your Shark Shelf is permanent. Popular culture’s fascination with fearsome fishies can be traced back to Peter Benchley’s Jaws, and the movie that came after it in 1975.

Hmm. Maybe it isn’t a pop culture fascination at all. Maybe it’s just me.

Anyway, Amity Island’s great white intruder (careful now) isn’t the only cartilaginous colossus prowling the pages. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Booksquawk takes a deep breath and plunges into the world of sharkiture and sharkography. These aren’t real words, but don’t fret. Sharks aren’t the big problem here - it’s the puns you need to watch out for. They say it’s the one you can’t see that’s the biggest danger…

1.) Jaws by Peter Benchley

We start with the great granddaddy of all shark novels – and still the reigning undefeated champion. His Royal Sharkness Jaws sold a chumbucketload of copies even before a bumfluffed Steven Spielberg stuck a script treatment into his romper suit pocket back at Universal studios in 1974. Former journalist Peter Benchley crafted a thriller looking at a very simple premise – a monster shark taking residence off a seaside town, and helping itself to swimmers.

Basic elements of plot, structure and principal characterisation were all transferred to the big screen, but the Jaws of the printed word is a significantly different beast to the one we know from the movie. The personalities of the main players in the book are a little more abrasive than you might expect. Chief Brody’s everyman copper is an angry small town grouch, hung up on his social status and permanently irritated by his wife. Mrs Brody, in turn, does the dirty on her man with the oceanographer Hooper, who, instead of being a kooky wee science geek with a beard and glasses, is in fact a six-foot plus, perma-tanned preppy pillock. The novel’s Quint has all the sinister undertones we see in Robert Shaw’s interpretation, but none of his charm. Frankly, you’re rooting for the shark by the time the final chapters surface.

If we are being especially kind to Jaws, when the star attraction does appear, it’s electrifying – what a shame we see so little of the great fish. But instead of shark suspense, the book is bulked out by several unnecessary and tiresome sub-plots, such as Mayor Vaughan’s trouble with the mafia, Ellen Brody’s aforementioned extra-marital paddle with Hooper and a bizarre dinner party scene which felt like it could have belonged in a Tuesday night Play For Today, independent of any notion of fins, teeth and blood (though there is some screaming). The movie adaptation wisely did away with these fripperies and pared the story down to the bone.

Spielberg’s classic vision firmly anchored Jaws in the public consciousness. What Jaws’ many screenwriters did with the script was an echo of what the production team had to do later with the finished film: it became a masterclass in knowing what to cut out in order to service the story.

Benchley’s blockbuster is still worth a read. The ocean-going suspense is first rate. There are neat little episodes that might have transferred well to the screen, such as one boy’s ten-dollar bet to go swimming when everyone knows there’s a killer shark out there. Oh dear…

For my money, the opening chapter – beat for beat, the opening of the movie – is probably one of the most effective in popular literature. And knowing that the shark doesn’t die thanks to a magical exploding Scuba tank lends the finale the shock of the new.

You may not know that Jaws is based on a true story. Which brings us to our next catch:


In the summer of 1916, four people died in a series of shark attacks over the space of a few days in New Jersey. Two young men were fatally mauled after swimming just off the beach; perhaps more horrifyingly, two children were then killed while swimming inland, in Matawan Creek. A fifth victim managed to survive his injuries as the shark headed back out to sea.

Capuzzo’s true life story is an excellent piece of journalism, with its intricate period detail perhaps owing something to the dense broadsheet newspaper columns of the time. It’s fascinating in its own right, but let’s face it – you didn’t buy this to read about vintage bathing costumes or the construction of Edwardian bandstands. You wanted shark horror, and it is shark horror you will have. I detected a certain relish in the descriptions, and there are plenty of chills as Capuzzo attempts to capture the nightmare realisation that you are not alone in the water.

One witness casually mentions to a lifeguard that a red canoe seems to have capsized. That’s not a canoe, lady! As Lord Flashheart said to his lady-in-waiting.

The US was still a fair way off entering the First World War when the shark first struck, and Capuzzo shows an America comfortable with its status at the head of the world’s top table. The nation’s children frolic in the waves without a care… Until the world outside makes a rude appearance in the shape of a nasty fish.

The book also looks at an early media panic which gripped the popular imagination, with the sort of follow-up stories, hype and sometimes outright nonsense which we can still see in our media today.

And it’s also the story of the shark. You’ll be astonished at Capuzzo’s assertion that Americans didn’t believe sharks were dangerous before the 1916 attacks. Star swimmers and millionaires even made bets that they could swim at sea without being harmed. These events changed all that, in the US at least. After the New Jersey attacks, the shark was something to be feared, with fins in the water becoming an easy shorthand image for cartoonists depicting unease, danger and fear. Jaws might have crystallised the idea of the shark in modern popular culture, but it has its roots in these horrifying events.

Capuzzo surrenders to the seductive idea of a single juvenile great white shark being responsible for these events. I would have staked money on it having been a bull shark, given the fish’s foray inland – common behaviour among those predators. That was until I saw this almost surreal video on the BBC, featuring an enormous great white drifting along inland in a US river. Think about that the next time you dip your net into Stickleback Pond.

This real-life episode was the subject of another book, Twelve Days of Terror, by Richard Fernicola. I haven’t read it yet… But give it time.

The New Jersey horror is not the only true story connected to Jaws. Many people feel that the movie version’s finest scene is when Robert Shaw’s character talks about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during the Second World War. Which brings us to:

3.) In Harm’s Way by Doug Stanton

This is the true story of the USS Indianapolis, the navy ship that delivered the “baaamb” in 1945. It’s another fine piece of journalism looking at the ship from the point of view of several of the men who served on it, from casting off on its journey with the uranium, through to it being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.

The terrible fire and the flight from the ship as it sank in a matter of minutes are frightening enough. But then, exhausted, dehydrated, burned and covered in oil in the open sea, the survivors were surrounded by sharks.

To his credit, Stanton addresses the apparent myth that it was a massacre by sharks – dehydration and exposure was the main cause of death, thanks to several days in open water – but there is no doubt that many men suffered an awful fate in the jaws of a fish.

As well as a tale of survival at sea, it’s also a look at the successful quest by the remaining crew to exonerate the man made the scapegoat for a notorious military debacle based on bad information: Captain Charles McVay. It’s an examination of the nightmare of war as much as a nightmare of nature.

Before things get too grim, let’s dip our toes back into fictional seas, to see if we get a nibble.

4.) Meg by Steve Alten

It’s going to take a bad shark to out-shark Jaws. There’s only one direction you can go – bigger. Way bigger!

Steve Alten super-sizes his sharkage with Meg, the first in a series of daft but entertaining novels looking at what might happen if the 60ft prehistoric monster fish, the megalodon, survived in the present day, swam up to a beach somewhere, and… fill in the blanks.

The idea is absurd but then you’d have a fair idea that was the case when you handed over the cash for Meg. The fish in question is liberated from the Marianas Trench in the Pacific by riding a bloodcloud back to the cooler surface waters. Then it develops an appetite.

Only Jonas Taylor, a military submersible pilot who has a history with the fish, can stop it. The carnage is plentiful and things build to a suitably ridiculous climax… inside the shark’s belly.

Meg has been optioned for a movie, but was never produced. It’s come close a couple of times; the plug got pulled on the first effort after the 1998 version of Godzilla under-performed at the box office. The second was all set to go in 2007 or so, but underwhelming reviews for Peter Jackson’s King Kong put the monster blockers on it again.

Come on! What’s going on, Hollywood? We can get Pacific Rim… Hell… We can get Sharknado… but we can’t get Meg? What’s not to like? It’s Jaws squared!

For the luckless Alten, I guess the money’s not bad (or I hope so anyway), but it must be frustrating that they can’t get the movie made. It’s certainly a pity for people like me who have actually read every Meg novel.

I can’t help thinking that the title is a deal-breaker. Meg suggests a housecat, or a crazy clairvoyant, or Peter Griffin’s daughter. While any one of those would make for an amusing Jaws poster spoof on George Takei’s Facebook wall, maybe something has to change in the title.

I’ve listed Meg as our entry here, but there’s a true gem in its sequel, The Trench, the best in the series. How to make Meg better? Naturally we’re going to need a bigger megalodon. More than one, in fact. Then we add deep sea dinosaurs… then some crazy Russian secret agents, in an underwater base out of The Spy Who Loved Me… It is absolutely mental, turned right up to 11, and not to be missed.

5.) Extinct by Charles Wilson

Steve Alten wasn’t the only Meg-wrangler in town. In the same year (1997), Charles Wilson’s Extinct breached. It looks at the even-more unlikely scenario of a megalodon making its way up the Mississippi from the Gulf coast. It’s one thing for a 10ft shark to sneak into a creek, you would think; quite another for a 70ft hangover from the Cretacious. Perhaps it disguised itself as a jetty?

This one was slightly less silly than Meg in the execution, but didn’t last quite as long in the mind. This is a shame as Wilson tries to reel in some tension and suspense, as well as the deep-sea monster-mashing. The opening scene, where two little boys disappear in the river (a nod to the Matawan Creek attacks?), a redneck’s messy encounter with the giant fish in the night, and then a creepy moment where a diver becomes certain he is being stalked, are terrific pieces of suspense. The conclusion aims for the ineffable, but sadly comes across as a foreshadowing of Pete Griffin’s idea for Jaws 5, with a succession of ever-bigger Jawses, like the Russian doll scenario in reverse. But with sharks.

The front cover of my copy, bought in 2002, said: “Coming soon to ABC.” We’re still waiting.

Turns out the sea isn’t the only place you can be stalked by razor-smile piscine killers, though. There are sharks IN YOUR MIND.

6.) The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

A Booksquawk favourite, Hall’s 2006 debut used concrete poetry forms shaped by keyboard characters to bring sudden, jolting life to his surreal story. You don’t so much need “suspension of disbelief” so much as the complete revocation of it. The Raw Shark Texts looks at a conceptual shark that seeks to eat an amnesiac’s identity. The Ludovician, to give the fish its Sunday name, is from Un-space, a conceptual twilight zone, where it seeks to finish the job of devouring the memory of The Second Eric Sanderson. Sanderson can slip in and out of the Un-space, assisted by the alluring Scout and Dr Trey Fidorous, and tries to piece together the life event involving a girl called Clio Ames that brought him to such a sorry state.

He is guided by a series of notes left by The First Eric Sanderson in a race against time to stop the shark before the shark stops him.  The Ludovician, which is made out of letters, numbers and punctuation, draws ever closer – which you can see in one inspired flip-book animation section – stalking Eric from the static on TV screens, drawn to him through written letters like they were a streamer of blood, and looming in the black-and-white tiled flooring of an empty swimming pool.

It’s bonkers – a mystery, a love story, a straight-up rewiring of Jaws, a Matrix-style step into an alternate universe. The illustrations are neat, too. What has Hall been up to since then?

This was another one that had Hollywood circling; there’s a possibly apocryphal story about how Nicole Kidman sought the rights to make this into a movie, on the condition that she play a female version of The Second Eric Sanderson. How about it? With its search for identity, and its examination of the complexity of memories and dreams, Christopher Nolan could do wonderful things with that book.

As it stands (or swims), you’ll just have to immerse yourself in a small, but select cult. Just watch out for the

7.) Shark in the Park! by Nick Sharratt

A children’s picture book – though you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a real SyFy Channel movie given Sharknado’s recent rampage. This follows a little boy, Timothy, who spies what he thinks is a shark through his new telescope. It’s a colourful guessing game, with the gimmick of a die-cut hole in the centre of the book, revealing the image of what looks like a shark’s dorsal fin as seen through Tim’s telescope. It’s usually mistaken identity, with the fin turning out to be a cat’s ears or even Timothy’s dad’s crazy hair. But is there a shark in the park..? You’ll have to read and find out.

Great fun, with lots of scope for audience participation – a treat at bedtime. Though my missus does get bored having to read it to me for the 10th time each night. There’s also a glow-in-the-dark sequel, Shark in the Dark!

8.) You Are A Shark by Edward Packard

The Choose Your Own Adventure stable was a favourite of mine when I was a boy - you must remember these. You’re the hero of the story, and at the bottom of each page you have to make a choice about where the narrative is going to go. Sometimes you even get killed in nasty ways.

Edward Packard’s You Are A Shark was my absolute favourite. Here, you gain the power to become a variety of animals. I’d have loved to have gone a shark for the whole book, of course, but you get to try out all kinds of creatures, from a domestic cat to an eagle to a blue whale.

There is an interesting scenario where you try to eat a diver, but the book spares you the dilemma of either becoming a cannibal or going hungry.

9.) Fin by James Delingpole

Better known for being one of Britain’s most obnoxious newspaper columnists, Fin marked James Delingpole’s second foray into fiction. I allowed my curiosity to get the better of me here, and regretted it. Not for the first time.

You could call Fin “lad-lit”, but you should do so with gritted teeth. It is narrated by an utter tosser who has a shark phobia. You’re meant to see it as a story of redemption, but he is irredeemable; an ageing, self-satisfied London scenester who consumes drugs and seduces women as easily as you might pick up a pint of milk down at the shop. There is no apparent thought for consequences until the book builds up to a silly quest for the narrator to go cage-diving with great white sharks in South Africa. If memory serves me right, this is done to atone for cheating on his true love with an ex. It’s “big display” romantic nonsense at its utter worst, the delusional, bipolar crap which facilitates the belief among gullible people that running around in the rain, chasing after trains or making grandstanding Richard Curtis style gestures is an acceptable substitute for reasoned, rational behaviour. As if anyone would find that acceptable. “Oh, he’s gone off to South Africa to go cage diving. He must really love me. I don’t mind that he nailed this blonde girl he used to knock around with. I must fly into his arms.” As if love is a game of chance that can be decided by going Scuba diving with dangerous animals.

I’m probably being a tad harsh when it comes to a short, silly and occasionally amusing novel about male hang-ups and preoccupations, but the central character is too much of an arsehole. It takes a bit of skill to make an arsehole likeable; layering on unpleasantness on top of unpleasantness isn’t quite the way to do it. Once you fill in the gaps and have a look at Delingpole’s journalism and some of his other books - for example, Watermelons: How Environmentalists Are Killing The Planet, Destroying Productivity and Stealing Your Children’s Future, or How To Be Right: The Essential Guide To Making Lefty Liberals History – then an unappealing picture begins to emerge.

Those titles weren’t a joke, by the way.

Although it’s a comedy, Fin is a little bit too much like Jaws for its own good; too much domestic stuff, not enough shark. It’s a lumpy melange of chick-lit clich├ęs and Loaded magazine sleaze. I had little sympathy for these people - utterly self-absorbed, behaving like muppets and expecting their friends and loved ones to tolerate it. When the frigging shark makes its appearance at the end, you are behind it all the way.

Sadly for everyone, there’s a happy ending.

10.) Shark Trouble by Peter Benchley

We’ll end on a note of contrition from the man at the top.

The Jaws creator bit the big one back in 2006, but before he left us he wrote this short book, a collection of writings on sharks, other types of sea life and the damage done to the oceans by humans.

A better title for this book might have been An Apology For Jaws. But then as Benchley stated more than once, he doesn’t have anything to apologise for. Jaws is seen by some as a movie that helped demonise one of the world’s rarest creatures. But for every idiot who wanted to kill great white sharks for sport, there could be a dozen more people who fostered a fascination for sharks and the oceans thanks to that movie.

Shark Trouble is a well-meaning book, maybe a touch anecdotal and disjointed, but packed full of excellent stories. One section tells you how to survive a riptide – an oceanic phenomenon that kills far more people than sharks. Something you have to be aware of if you’re ever in that wonderful scenario of being shipwrecked, and bobbing up and down in the open ocean, wondering if you have any chance whatsoever of being rescued before you find out precisely what “worse things happen at sea” means.  

It makes a fine epitaph, won’t take up a lot of your time… And still manages to be scary. Benchley’s story about an oceanic whitetip attempting to drag him into the deep via a line caught around his leg is as frightening as anything in Jaws.

                                                                  ***

So there we go, a top ten of shark books. Why the love for these creatures? After all, the buggers’ll bite you if you try to pet them.

As Benchley says, little boys love dinosaurs, or sharks, or both. Jaws has been a constant in my life, right from the beginning. There’s an old family story about my mum discovering she was pregnant with her fifth child - me. Another mouth to feed was going to be tough at the Black residence. She picked her moment well to let my dad know “the good news”; when my dad took her to see the re-release of Jaws. Talk about a tense evening’s entertainment. I’m guessing my dad’s popcorn carton flew up into the air that night, and perhaps he screamed.

I can just about remember the premiere of the movie on British television. It was no exaggeration to say that people gathered round each other’s houses to watch, a phenomenon on a par with big football matches or the royal wedding. We get nostalgic for these big movies. They turn into big events. In 20 years or so, a whole generation of men will be nostalgic for Transformers movies. I’m glad I’ve got Jaws.

But on top of that, watching Jaws today has that feeling of summer – big, clear skies and beaches, flashing lights and pinging bells of seaside arcades and attractions, girls in bikinis, the cool blue water. That there’s an awesome monster zooming around in there, gobbling up swimmers, is the main reason for the obsession, but not the only one.

I could go deeper, too – the ocean, or any body of water, has an instinctive pull on us, especially if it’s sunny. This is touched on by Tim Ecott’s superb book on the lure of the deep, Neutral Buoyancy. Perhaps it goes back to being immersed in the womb. But there’s also the feeling that you are taking a step into another world, where the rules we know do not apply. It’s as close as we’ll get to being on another planet, another universe, a different dimension.

One where real monsters lurk.

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