OR: Frenzy

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #13:-

Frenzy (Eternal Press paperback, 79pp, $5.95) is by Carole Johnstone, a writer who debuted in Black Static. The plot has a deceptive simplicity to it. Pete wakes from troubled sleep to find himself on a life raft with seven other men, and apart from vague memories of a ship none of them has any knowledge of how they got there. They drift aimlessly, tormented by the circling sharks and the threat of something else, something dark and terrible from the bottom of the ocean. One by one they die, of bloody wounds that draw the sharks, madness that causes them to abandon the raft, dehydration and other debilitating conditions.

There are echoes in this story, of an episode of the TV show Outer Limits and also of the old joke about different nationalities stranded together in a life raft, reflected here in the dramatis personae of the novella. Hints too of Jaws, and just about every other Hollywood slice of shark fare, of the sea stories of William Hope Hodgson, and of Lost and reality TV in the resolution that is eventually provided. But Johnstone is her own woman and takes this familiar material in a new and unexpected direction.

The novella can be approached on two different levels. On the surface is the story of an oblique and yet compelling fight for survival, one where nothing is truly explained and all the better for it, with the antagonism between the various characters and the constant threat of the sharks and other sea life adding an extra frisson or three. Each of the men in the raft is strongly drawn, with distinctive voices and personalities, and the tension arises naturally out of these disparate individuals being stuck together, the only feeling they have in common a fear of the ferocious sharks, with a cut or anything that puts blood in the water heightening their collective terror. Over it all hangs the shadow of some other, never clearly defined menace, sensed but not seen, suggested by their own thoughts (and the Nosferatu like cover illustration).

Pete however is central to the story, and on another level the ocean on which they are adrift could be interpreted as his subconscious and each character an aspect of Pete’s personality. As the narrative gathers momentum, occurrences in the real world are eclipsed by an almost stream of consciousness effect, with Pete flashing back to past events, and memories that always stay tentatively out of reach, so that there is the hint of something truly terrible that took place, but never revealed, never dragged into the full light of day. There is the possibility that what we are reading is the ‘whole life flashing past your eyes’ experience of a man who is going down for the third and final time, a deathbed phantasmagoria. It is a bravura performance, and one that is absolutely gripping, as the layers of Pete’s psyche are stripped away, so that you wonder what really happened with his girl friend and how his brother ended up in hospital, and everything revealed is tainted with the curse of the unreliable narrator, the one who hides not only from the reader but from himself.

Frenzy is Johnstone’s first novella and it is an impressive debut at this length, one that speaks of a bright future.

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