Giant beasts lurking out of sight beneath us in the depths of the water capture the imagination. Partly because of the very real possibility that unknown creatures really do exist in the shadowy, deep water…
A sea monster story does not survive on the surprise element – we all know that the creature is going to go on a rampage at some point, and casualties will occur. The real fun is watching the shocked characters realise that the beast is real, try and decide what it is, and then work out how to either escape it or kill it!
Finding a new sea monster story is exciting, although not as exciting is actually finding a GOOD sea monster story…! So many can drop away into the depths of a weak plot, or, even worse, an unconvincing creature. Yet, still I persist, and so should you! Many of the books I have have been found accidentally in second-hand shops, and a number have proven to be real gems.
There have been many different approaches to the genre, from the real-world giant-sea-beast format of Jaws, through to the supernatural and science fiction.
Peter Benchley was the author of the classic ‘Jaws’ series of books, dealing with killer white pointer sharks, each shark larger than the previous. He put us into the head of the shark for a fascinating ride. Steve Alten took the giant shark story to new levels, featuring the extinct shark Megalodon as the perpetrator in his novel ‘Meg’. Robin Brown used the same creature in the novel ‘Megalodon’ – but don’t make the mistake of reading this book instead of Alten’s!
Benchley takes biology on another ride in ‘Beast’, using the giant squid as the sea monster. This novel has some wonderful awe inspiring moments, painting scenes that stay with me still.
Unusual or giant squid feature in great short stories by HG Wells and William Hope Hodgson. Wells’ story, ‘The Sea Raiders’, features a brief coastal-shallows invasion by swarms of large squid, while Hodgson’s story ‘The Thing in the Weeds’, shows a strange night-time attack on a ship by a mysterious entity lurking in a marine clump of weed.
Sea monsters were considered a fact of ocean travel, and this idea spawned many classic novels. Jules Verne takes us ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’, showing the amazing and occasionally dangerous marine creatures. Herman Melville’s tale of revenge and obsession, ‘Moby Dick’, pits man against a whale that fights back successfully! Sir Arthur Conan Doyle drops to the depths of the ocean, displaying a lack of knowledge of physics in ‘The Maracot Deep’, but entertaining nonetheless.
Science fiction has embraced sea monsters. As a child I was fascinated by Jack Vance’s novel ‘The Blue World’, where descendants of space crash survivors live on an all-water planet. With no technology, they form settlements on giant waterlily leaves, and placate the giant creatures that swim beneath them.
Arthur C Clarke takes a failed space pilot into the depths in a submarine in ‘The Deep Range’. The future eats whale meat, farmed in the ocean. Teams of whale wranglers protect their herds from predation by hungry giant squid, and glimpses of strange creatures beyond the depth of their submarines.
‘Cachalot’, by Alan Dean Foster, is an ocean planet given to the surviving whales of Earth. The alien planet enables the many types of whale to grow to sizes far beyond what they did on Earth, and their help is sought to uncover the alien force that is attacking the floating human settlements. I found the ending to be fascinating.
Benchley’s ‘White Shark’ is a sci-fi horror that does not feature a shark, or any real entertainment. John Wyndham’s ‘The Kraken Wakes’, similarly does not feature a kraken.
The master of horror, HP Lovecraft, tackles a threat from the sea in ‘The Shadow Over Innismouth’. A genuinely creepy short story; I’ve read and re-read this many times to soak up the atmosphere. Other horror efforts have not been so successful, such as the appalling ‘Saurian’ by William Schoell, where a giant reptile creature destroys coastal property, and ‘Night of the Crabs’, by Guy N. Smith, where giant crabs attack.
Marine biologist Richard Ellis has written ‘Monsters of the Sea’, a fantastic look at most of the legends and creatures ever featured in a sea monster story, and many books on cryptozoology (the pseudo-scientific search for hidden animals) discuss unknown sea creatures, such as the Loch Ness Monster and the great sea serpent.
Sea monster stories endure through to present day, with new sightings of mysterious creatures fuelling speculation of what lurks in the ocean depths. Do prehistoric reptiles still swim beneath us? The kraken has been tagged and bagged. Discoveries of new and giant marine beasts only leave us asking – what mythical sea beast will we find next?
© 2008 Damian Herde
Subtitle: When Biology Attacks – the Sea Monster Genre.
A brief review of sea monsters in fiction. Some of my favourites, and why they’re great!
This has been published in the first issue of Greenbeardmag.