Monday, 17 October 2011

A Romance of the Sea-Serpent: A Review

A fine and funny review of the Whisky Priest edtion of Eugene Batchelder's  A Romance of the Sea-Serpent, or the Icthyosaurus. Stolen from Amazon, (buy the book here or here, or here).

From William Mahoney:

5 Stars: The Critics are Wrong

The description for this book cites from "Beneath the American Renaissance" by David S. Reynolds. Reynolds, like many others, considers "Moby Dick" a great American novel. He discusses Batchelder's work in passing. He sees this as one of many books which told tales of sea-monsters, and thus potentially influenced Melville. Unfortunately, his appreciation of great literature is clearly distorted: "A Romance of the Sea-Serpent" is by far the better work. Consider:

*Melville writes in everyday prose. Batchelder is a poet. Nearly every paragraph in this masterpiece contains at least one rhyme. These aren't forced, either. None of his contemporaries could pull of a clause that bests "out on the sea, out on the sea, the fleet is dashing merrily!" The best part of his verse is the way he mixes it up. The various rhyme structures - ABAB, AABB, ABCABC - come at you unexpectedly. They're often placed in the middle of paragraphs written in standard prose. Batchelder seems to be making a statement about the unpredictability of life: you never know what his next rhyme will be, just like you never know when a sea monster might walk onto land and eat you from behind.

*Romance: Females are only mentioned in passing in Moby Dick. Most of the time that they come up, it's in regards to how awful their love life is: Ahab or some other sailor has abandoned them for a life on the sea. This work includes well-rounded women doing all the things typical women do: they have strapping young lads sing for them, they attend balls, and they get eaten by sea monsters.

*If romance isn't your thing, don't worry. This book is too powerful for one genre, and can easily be described as an action tale as well. In Moby Dick, one needs to wait over 200,000 words before the sea monster starts tossing sailors around. Here, you don't even have to wait 10 pages, and the body count never stops adding up.

*The difference in ferocity is probably due to this monster's superiority over the white whale. Moby Dick is 100 feet at most. His Snakeship is over 600. He is the king of the sea - other sea-serpents, sharks, kraken, and whales (presumably white one as well) - do his bidding. At one point, he sics 40 serpents on one yacht. Also, I don't believe Moby Dick could walk on land or talk to people, and was certainly never offered a Harvard degree.

*Speaking of degrees, Melville's highest level of education was high school. Batchelder, like his monster, graduated Harvard. Ergo, Batchelder is clearly smarter and a better writer. This shows in passages possessing incredible metaphors and puns, such as this one, when a character doesn't feel like singing: "I feel, like the indigo, somewhat blue, but Sue will sing without much suing."

*"Call me Ishmael." I'm pretty sure I've been offered similar introductions on Greyhounds before. Batchelder opens up with the following, adequately setting up the thrillfest to follow: "unless you've strong nerves, just throw down the book, and never dare in its pages to look."

In short, don't waste your money or time on the overrated Moby Dick.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Arnold Bennett: A Great Man

Finally, a new book!

Arnold Bennett was extraordinarily prolific, which has probably one of the reasons he's no longer seen as the giant of literature he once was. But that's not entirely fair, because his best books really are great. He could also be very funny, and as someone who knew the Victorian and Edwardian literary worlds intimately, he was ideally placed to write A Great Man, a wonderful satire on writers and publishing.

It's a satire that still holds true for today: the financial and artistic wranglings between writers, publishers and agents; the sheer mass of books being produced every day; literary fiction versus commercial fiction... it's all there.

The hero, a sentimental novelist who views himself as the enemy of  what he calls 'the Stream of Trashy Novels Constantly Poured Forth by the Press', is also the owner of a delicate digestive system. Here, in an extract that will give you an idea of the style of the novel, is perhaps the finest description of an attack of vomiting ever given in an Edwardian novel:

It proved to be the worst dyspeptic visitation that Henry had ever had. It was not a mere ‘attack’—it was a revolution, beginning with slight insurrections, but culminating in universal upheaval, the overthrowing of dynasties, the establishment of committees of public safety, and a reign of terror. As a series of phenomena it was immense, variegated, and splendid, and was remembered for months afterwards.

A Great Man can be viewed and bought here.

Sunday, 9 October 2011


I know it's been a long time, but I have been working away behind the scenes at producing the next set of Whisky Priest Books. Coming soon... the long-promised science-fiction of Anthony Trollope! The autobiographical writings of Ambrose Bierce! The piss-take of Victorian literature by Arnold Bennett! And more...