Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Name:
Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

30.1.07

What I've been reading

The Mystery of the Sea by Bram Stoker. 300 pages, 1902, Sutton Publishing Limited (1997 edition).

This is a strange book. It begins like you might expect a book by the author of Dracula to begin, but then goes in a wildly different direction. It's not a bad book, but Stoker does try to add some elements that don't seem to make much sense. It's weird.

Even the back of the book adds to the confusion. In my edition, the back copy speaks of Archie Hunter (the narrator) arriving in Aberdeenshire for an annual holiday. He sees a vision of a couple carrying a coffin, and learns shortly afterward that their child has died. He sees a man drown, and a weird old lady, Gormala, tells him that he has the Second Sight. The man, of course, later drowns. The text on the back asks, "Where are these terrible visions, whose force he seems unable to counter, taking him?" To sum up, it reads, "First published in 1902, this story, in which the dead come back to haunt the living, was one of Stoker's most successful after Dracula." From this description, you'd be expecting a creepy, eerie horror story, right? Right?!?!?

Well, that's not what this book is like at all. Early on, it seems to be that way. Hunter arrives at Cruden Bay on the east coast of Scotland, meets the strange woman Gormala, who tells him of the Second Sight and how he can see the horrible fate of people, and then, one night, he sees ghosts rise out of the North Sea and walk along the beach. One of the ghosts, a Spaniard, leads him to an area near his house before disappearing. Later Hunter buys a chest of drawers with some encrypted papers on them. Could it be the Mystery of the Sea?

So far, this has been a pretty interesting story, full of creepiness and mounting horror. Stoker provides wonderful descriptions of the wind-swept coast and the environs, giving a sense of the isolation of the population and how that might lead to, well, madness, which it seems to have in Gormala. Not that she doesn't have the Sight, but she's a bit nutty as well. The march of the ghosts is weird and eerie, and Stoker does a nice job, as many writers used to do, of building tension without indulging in shock tactics. He did this nicely in Dracula, and he does it nicely here.

Suddenly, about 40 pages in, the book's tone shifts, and we get the real story. The encrypted papers in the chest deal with a fabulous treasure, one that was entrusted to a Spaniard (the same one who Hunter saw as a ghost) by the Pope during the days of the Spanish Armada. When that expedition turned out to be ill-fated, the Spaniard buried it in Scotland - near where Hunter lives now - and hoped that he could return at some point to reclaim it. The papers tell where he buried it. Hunter also meets Marjory Drake, a young lady from Chicago, who happens to be a great heiress. Not only that, she provided the United States Navy with its first battleship. Hunter knows none of this until he falls head over heels for Marjory, but once he finds out, the book turns into a spy thriller and leaves horror behind. It's a weird move, because it's somewhat unexpected.

That's not to say the book is ruined. The thriller part of the book is perfectly fine. The story takes place during the Spanish-American War, and Marjory expresses her hatred for the Spanish many times. A descendant of the original Spaniard, Don Bernardino, shows up, and he and our heroes engage in some biting repartee before Bernardino, ever the honorable gentleman, becomes Hunter's ally late in the book. Hunter deciphers the code and he and Marjory find the treasure, in adventurous fashion. Spanish agents are conspiring to kidnap Marjory and hold her for ransom, something the American government does not want. The kidnappers succeed, of course, and Hunter must find her before it's too late! It's all very exciting.

Stoker does a nice job blending in the events that were happening at the time with the narrative. Of course, we're all supposed to know what's happening between the U. S. and Spain, but even if we don't, he does a decent job at least providing some background. The "action" scenes - so to speak - are handled well, too. When Hunter and Marjory descend into the cave to seek the treasure, we get a good sense of them being underground, where a cave-in could kill them easily. When Marjory is kidnapped, Stoker does a good job with the principals searching her out, leading to a big confrontation on a ship. Stoker never actually forgets that Hunter has the Sight, as he uses it occasionally throughout, but after the importance placed upon it in the early going, when he does mention it again, or when Gormala shows up occasionally (as she does), it's kind of weird to read about it, because we're caught up in this treasure hunt. The two different threads of the book - Hunter's "abilities" and how he copes with them, and the treasure hunt/kidnap plot - never really reconcile, but Stoker doesn't try too hard to keep up with how Hunter is able to do all these things. The supernatural aspect of the book doesn't interfere too much with the main plot.

For a book published a little over a hundred years ago, Stoker's attitudes are somewhat surprising. Toward the end, a black man from New Orleans shows up, and there are a lot of racist descriptions of him (he is a villain, to be fair, but he's the only one to be explained as a villain because he's black). Don Bernardino, the Spaniard, also comes off poorly, as Hunter often speculates about how his "blood" has determined how he's acting. Stoker does redeem him a bit at the end, when he acts nobly, but for much of the book, it's uncomfortable reading about him. With Marjory, Stoker does a better job. There is a section in the book where Mrs. Jack, Marjory's nurse and friend, speaks to her about the duties of a wife (she has married Hunter by this time), and it's as pre-feminist as you might expect, and Marjory bows down to Mrs. Jack's infinite wisdom. (I read some of it to Krys, who's as uppity as they come. Mrs. Jack begins: "Marjory, my dear one, when a woman takes a husband she gives up herself. It is right that she should; and it is better too, for us women. How can we look after our mankind, if we're thinking of ourselves all the time!" She goes on for a while, and then says, "But a woman only learns true happiness when she gives up all her own wishes, and thinks only of her husband." That Mrs. Jack - she knows the score!) However, for most of the book, Marjory is an equal partner with Hunter, and they form a nice partnership in searching for the treasure. Yes, Stoker makes sure we know that Marjory is a weak little woman, but for the most part, her portrayal is handled very well. When she is kidnapped, she leaves clues for the rescuers, who remark on how surprising it is that an addled woman would do that. Hunter, for his part, sticks up for her. Marjory's character is very interesting, because Stoker apparently does this often. Witness Mina Harker in Dracula, who is also a strong female character.

There's a lot to like about The Mystery of the Sea. It's a good thriller, and it draws us into the politics of the period, as well as providing some excitement and creepiness. Stoker can be overwrought with his prose, as many writers of the age could be, but the book does sail along relatively well. If you're sick of political thrillers with no meat on them, you might want to check this out, because it has a lot packed into it.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Roger Green said...

I'm surprised that you're surprised by racism in early 20th C. lit.

31/1/07 3:35 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Yeah, I should have made that clear. I'm not surprised by the racism at all, I'm surprised by the fact that Stoker writes Marjory as a relatively full-fledged character and not simply as a clingy woman with no brain. He indulges a bit in that, but generally, she's a good character. Bad sentence construction on my part. The racism, unfortunately, did not surprise me in the least.

31/1/07 7:28 AM  

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