August 1st is the horses’ birthday, but it also belongs to the whales, because Herman Melville was born this day in 1819.

437_Herman_Melville_photographIn January 1841, aged 21, Melville left America on the whaler Acushnet to spend four wild years roving about the Pacific, soaking up many an experience that led to his best writing. As he said, ‘A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard’. In July 1842 he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands and took up with a Polynesian tribe, the Typee. Although much feared as warlike cannibals, they treated him kindly.

Melville stayed a month with the Typee before setting off on another whaler, the chaotic Lucy Ann from Sydney, a ship so badly run the sailors mutinied and were jailed in Tahiti. This actually turned out well; soon freed, Melville enjoyed a stint of beachcombing and island hopping until joining a third whale ship, the Charles & Henry from Nantucket, on which he worked as a harpooner.

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This six-month cruise ended in Hawaii, where he worked three months ashore, carefully avoiding the Acushnet when it showed up (the captain still wanted his head on a stick for deserting). Eventually he got himself home by joining the U.S. Navy. In October 1844 Melville was discharged in Boston after a year or so with the frigate United States, and soon began writing, his muse aflame with all those maritime adventures.

His first novel, the best-selling Typee (1846), fictionalises his Marquesas sojourn. Its sequel Omoo (1847) covers the Lucy Ann mutiny and his beachcombing (Omoo is a Typee word for wanderer). His third, the highly strange Mardi (1848), is a first tilt at something deeper, a rambling oceanic odyssey awash with allegory and symbolism.

Mardi sold poorly, alas, prompting his return to semi-autobiography. Redburn (1849) was inspired by his first voyage, as a cabin boy in 1839, to Liverpool; this one is Melville at his most Dickensian. White-Jacket (1850) follows his naval career and was highly influential in ending flogging in the U.S. Navy.

Next came his second, and artistically triumphant, dive into mystical rhapsody – his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851), a book broiled in ‘hell-fire’, he once said. Of his subsequent works, all are worth exploring but I particularly recommend Bartleby (1853), one of the greatest, most subtly shattering short stories ever written and, unusually for Melville, set firmly on very dry land indeed – a lawyer’s office.

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They’re still flogging copies (not convicts!) at the University of Queensland Press website. TOUR TO HELL tells the true tale of colonial Australia’s convict ‘escape mythology’.

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Escape mythology is my umbrella term for the bizarre beliefs that had runaway convicts convinced they could walk to China, find sanctuary with a mystery white society in the outback, or find the west coast of Australia (together with a port and a ship back home) just a short distance through the bush from Sydney.

Resurrected from contemporary sources (court records, colonial diaries and newspapers, etc) this strange corner of Australian history has never before been told in full. As well as documenting the most significant outbreak of the convict imagination in early colonial New South Wales, Tour To Hell casts valuable light on a fascinating but little-known aspect of first contact between European and Aboriginal people.

 

Dimension 6 Annual Collection 2019 (now available from Couer de Lion publishing) features my story The Sirens’ Secret and other tales of wonder and imagination – science-fiction, the fantastique, etc. And sirens! Listen, can you hear them? You can’t resist…

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Issue 17 of online spec fic magazine Dimension6 has cyber-materialised to be read freely over at Coeur de Lion Publishing

I’ve a tale in this one called The Sirens’ Secret, revisiting the famous myth.

To introduce it, here’s an edited extract from my author bio in the issue…

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The Roman emperor Tiberius, whose vital interest was Greek mythology, enjoyed pestering scholars with obscure questions such as ‘What song did the sirens sing?’ His biographer Suetonius called this ‘foolish and ridiculous’.

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I disagree, partly because I share some of the emperor’s fascination for these old tales, but also because the nature of siren song must rank among music’s greatest mysteries. Unlike fairy music, of which brief examples have occasionally been written down, it has been entirely lost to posterity.

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The Sirens’ Secret grew not just from immersion in mythology, but also from a throwaway comment by a famous musician who said he never listens to his old albums because he makes them for other people, not himself. I hope that doesn’t give away too much plot…

PS: The Siren Vase (475 BC), Ancient Greek and in the British Museum, shows Sirens as bird-nymphs. The paintings are The Sirens & Ulysses (1837) by William Etty and below it, Gustav Wertheimer’s The Kiss Of The Siren (1882).

Mightily chuffed and honoured to have my supernatural/historical short story SHARK’S ISLAND swim into this year’s THE YELLOW BOOKE, the annual collection of “original horror, ghost stories and weird fiction” from US-based Oldstyle Press. Shark’s Island (pages 123-132) transports you to the wildest outer limits of Australia’s convict past. Follow the link to read The Yellow Booke (vol iv) free online, or buy a print copy from Amazon at an Amazingly good price.

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As well as putting out the annual Yellow Booke, Oldstyle Press publishes handsomely illustrated and annotated editions representing many of the great masters of classic weird and supernatural fiction – Poe, Shelley, Blackwood, Stoker, Bierce, Dickens, James, RLS and more. Well worth sinking your teeth into!