Filler content from the ocean – Part 2

Following on from Monday’s post, the second part of a feature on maritime mayhem that originally appeared in Black Static #51:-

STAY OUT OF THE WATER (continued)

As editor Jonathan Green reminds us in his introduction to SHARKPUNK (Snowbooks pb, 416pp, £12.99), sharks are at the top of the food chain when it comes to undersea predation. It’s a reputation that’s largely based on the success of Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws and the slew of killer shark films that have been swimming into our multiplexes ever since. In reality approximately ten people are killed annually in shark attacks, which is small potatoes compared to, for example, the twenty nine hundred deaths per annum attributed to the hippopotamus. Of course sharks look the part, while the inaptly named “river horse” does not. In the circumstances, an anthology of shark stories might seem like a further unnecessary libel on this species’ good name, but fortunately Green casts his net wider than the archetypal killer shark template and hauls in a rich and varied catch, and as ever the biggest and most deadly of predators is man himself.

First into the water is ‘Peter and the Invisible Shark’ by Jonathan Oliver, the story of a children’s writer who is haunted by nightmares and hallucinations that involve a fibreglass shark he saw on a visit to an aquarium as a child. There’s a suggestion, albeit only slight, that this fear is rooted in the antipathy Peter feels towards his father, but the irony of the story is that in trying to exorcise the fear through his fiction Peter only passes it on to somebody else, which may or may not be a comment on the motivation of horror writers in general. Antipathy between father and son is the plot driver of Den Patrick’s ‘Blood in the Water’, written as a diary chronicling the creation of a shark/human hybrid. At bottom the story is a Frankenstein variant, told from the perspective of the monster, whose humanity is undermined by men who cannot see beyond their own agenda, and so we sympathise with the character and are shown who the true monsters are. Jaws is transplanted to a fantasy setting in ‘The Lickspittle Leviathan’ by David Lee Stone, with a trainee magician charged with protecting an island tribe from the predations of a monster shark. But of course nothing is quite that simple in this delightful and engaging story.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Damien Hirst was an inspiration for Ian Whates’ ‘Sharkadelic’ with an up and coming journalist given the chance to interview the latest art world sensation, a painter who takes his inspiration from sharks somewhat more directly than might be suspected. The reader will probably guess where this one is going, but it’s none the less satisfying for its skilled depiction of ambition in action, and the underlying ideas that touch on and gently, but with barbs, poke fun at the extremes of the art world. ‘Shirley’ by Amy and Andy Taylor has an original concept at its heart. It’s set in a world where nations resolve their differences by having emblematic animals fight each other to the death, and so the British shark battles the American bear for supremacy. The reader is drawn into this tense situation, rooting for Shirley even as we realise the essential cruelty of what is taking place, enthralled in spite of this, and as far as that goes it seems that we are represented by the viewpoint character of scientist Rose, who finds herself the lynchpin in this setup, even while she hates it with all her heart. The story isn’t just about animals fighting, but also about what people are prepared to do, and while the human population might be spared the horrors of war there is something deeply unsettling about what we are offered as an alternative.

And then there’s the slightly bombastic and undeniably tongue in cheek ‘Deep Black Space’ by Toby Frost in which the ramshackle crew of the spaceship John Pym take on a mechanical megalomaniac and his army of void sharks, the whole thing slightly ludicrous and somewhat fun, a most definite change of pace. In David Tallerman’s blackly comedic ‘The Shark in the Heart’ Noah’s parents buy him a fish for a pet which he calls Rover, as he’d wanted a dog, only the fish turns out to be a shark and Noah uses it to adjust his outsider standing in the community. The real thrust of the story lies in the way Noah himself changes, using the shark as a weapon and to intimidate others, developing the very traits that he hates in those who oppress him, with a subtext that turns on its head the old saw about there but for the grace of God. Quietly told and with a strong psychological underpinning in the way Noah comes to mimic the qualities of his pet, and crowned by a delightful end twist, it’s one of the best stories in the anthology.

Occult detective St. Cyprian and his associate Ebe Gallowglass go to the aid of a man possessed by the spirit of a shark in ‘Deep Red Bells’ by Josh Reynolds, the story witty and with some excellent characterisation, a piece that put me very much in mind of John Llewellyn Probert’s Massene Henderson and Samantha Jephcott adventures. No doubt taking a leaf out of comic books, Alec Worley’s ‘Sharkcop 2: Feeding Frenzy’ is set in a police department where all the detectives have special abilities, including one who turns into a shark when he smells blood, though their talents are every bit as much hindrance as help. It’s a pun a page romp, with a story that pokes fun at celebrity chefs and reveals the truth about dolphins, and is so over the top that going up the ski slope of the narrative you might meet the ending as it comes down the other side. ‘Sharkbait’ in Richard Salter’s story is the name of a young girl who has a special relationship with sharks, and career criminals need her help to recover their ill-gotten gains from the bottom of the sea, little suspecting that the girl has her own agenda. It’s a slightly contrived plot to my mind, but Salter makes it work through some engaging characterisation, with criminal Laurel more than the two-dimensional bad person required by the plot, and a grimly satisfying reversal of fortune as the end game plays out.

Sharks are only peripheral to the action in ‘Goblin’ by Kim Lakin-Smith, the key to curing a soldier whose craft has crashed on a primitive world. Again, it’s an absorbing read, well written and with the implications of what takes place left to fester in the reader’s mind long after the story is done. Andrew Lane’s story ‘Blood Relations’ tells of prisoner Thorpe, who is offered freedom in exchange for having a shark’s sense of smell spliced into his genes, but with terrible consequences. The idea is intriguing, and its realisation on the page certainly holds the attention, as courtesy of Thorpe we learn to live with an enhanced sense of smell, to experience the world through his nose, though the ending felt rather perfunctory and not quite convincing. There’s an Andromeda and the Kraken vibe going on with ‘Feast of the Shark God’ by C. L. Werner, with a samurai coming to rescue a maiden intended as sacrifice for the favours of the shark god. It’s an action packed and exciting story, with a strong subtext about what happens when you collude with the powers of evil instead of resisting them.

In ‘Le Shark’ Laurel Sills tackles that old standby of a deal with the Devil, fame and fortune in exchange for the firstborn, or something like that, and his Satanic Majesty appears as a rather chilling entity referred to simply as The Shark (it sounds classier in French). The story runs with these common tropes of the genre and gives them an interesting twist, with lively characterisation that takes on board an examination of the trappings of celebrity, and the novel setting of a restaurant where the only food is shark meat. All species are protected in the future world of Jenni Hill’s ‘The Serial Killer Who Thought She Was A Shark’, even serial killers, albeit steps are taken to limit their activities. Courtney manages to find a way to beat the system, in one of the strongest stories in the book, with a striking conceit at the story’s core, engaging characters, and a gratifying denouement, one that comes complete with an environmental subtext. I loved it.

‘Rise of the Übershark’ by Robert Spalding brought to mind a minimalist version of Pacific Rim with its picture of humans in heavily armed suits taking on intelligent sharks, though the truth of the situation is somewhat more complicated. It’s a piece that seems uncertain if it wants to be taken seriously or read as comedy, and the two elements don’t fit together as well as they might, creating a story that entertains but which you can’t quite believe in, where the ending somewhat undercuts what had gone before. Steven Savile’s ‘Swimming with the Fishes’ details a power struggle between various factions in the underworld of Monster Town, and a plot against the great white Big Joe, the kingpin of the town. With echoes of Toon Town in Roger Rabbit it’s a feisty, innovative noir variation, with nothing really decided until the (non-fat) lady sings. In ‘Ambergris’ by Kit Cox the professional monster hunter Major Jack Union has an encounter with the Megalodon, a giant prehistoric shark, and you can probably guess who comes off worst, though discovering how is nine parts of the joy in what is pretty much a regular monster tale in period costume.

‘Silent Waters, Running Deep’ has many of the traits of a typical Gary McMahon story, insofar as there is such a thing. There’s a protagonist whose warped personal psychology drives the narrative, which is centred on the relationship between a social worker and his client, a man who thinks that he is being hunted down by an imaginary shark. Atmosphere is everything, with the world viewed from an angle that is slightly off kilter, one where nothing quite adds up and minatory impressions of madness slowly coagulate until the true horror is revealed in all its repellent glory. Finally we have ‘You Are The Shark’ by Al Ewing and Sarah Peploe in which an unhappy young girl finds distraction by playing an arcade game, getting herself into the mind-set of a ferocious man eating shark. It’s a subtle story, one in which the coping mechanisms we all have are touched on, showing how a form of transference might work, and that for some to become an invincible killer of the high seas is simply a form of escape from a humdrum and powerless life, one in which you can effect nothing. It’s the perfect end to a collection of shark stories in fact, because there’s no getting out of the water when you are the shark.

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