Above and Beyond the Call of Booty

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No, not the “-licious” kind of booty. Pirate booty. Swag. The other wages of sin. Howard Pyle prefaced his Book of Pirates with a rhetorical question: “Why is it that a little spice of deviltry lends not an unpleasantly titillating tang to the great mass of respectable flour that goes to make up the pudding of our modern civilization?” Advance word has whispered that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest will add a little spice of not-particularly-Disneyfied devilry to the great mass of not-to-be-baked-with flour-substitute that constitutes the 2006 summer releases — indeed, some genre-oriented websites are going so far as to suggest that Dead Man’s Chest is to 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl as The Empire Strikes Back was to Star Wars.

The captain’s-share of the credit for the phenomenon that the first Pirates of the Caribbean became goes of course to Johnny Depp and his inspired tribute to the woozy body language and woozier speech patterns of Keith Richards, who in his protracted heyday treated everything life had to offer as one defenseless Spanish treasure fleet. But Captain Jack Sparrow’s scurvy groove and raffish glide stood out all the more against the backdrop of a supernatural pirate story, for Gore Verbinski’s film belonged, much to the delight of a few of us, to a subgenre of a subgenre. We learned early on that the Black Pearl had “black sails, [was] crewed by the damned, and [was] captained by a man so evil that Hell itself spat him back out”–Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa, whom vindictive Aztec gods (and why wouldn’t they be vindictive?) afflicted with a death-in-life condition in which he and his men were unable to eat, drink, or be merry. Not to be outdone, the crew of tentacle-bearded soul collector Davy Jones’ Flying Dutchman in Dead Man’s Chest, all of them recruited from sinking vessels, are transmuting into anthropomorphic sea creatures whose shore leave options will soon be limited to Innsmouth.

“There is a sense, therefore, in which all fiction about pirates has a fantasy dimension,” Brian Stableford argued in the The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Certainly piracy as an activity leaves blood in the water, blood that — if we’re thinking fantastically — is likely to attract not only sharks but also less natural predators. Nor should anyone need reminding that curses affix themselves to hoards as do barnacles to hulls. Beyond that, I’d speculate that in classic Caribbean-set examples, proximity to the human horrors that resulted from the battening of the Old World upon the New tempts pirate fiction toward the supernatural, suggests a step outside of the vicious circle of man’s inhumanity to man to where more radical and remote inhumanities whet their talons and appetites.

Robert E. Howard’s best supernatural pirate stories are more often thought of as Conan stories: “The Pool of the Black One” and “The Black Stranger.” Perhaps because Howard was keeping one eye-patch on Farnsworth Wright, we always seem to be joining the Cimmerian with his lateral mobility already in progress. In “Iron Shadows in the Moon” he throws in with the Red Brotherhood of the Vilayet after the kozaki have been annihilated. In “Pool of the Black One” he escapes the Brotherhood’s Tortage branch and duels his way to a captaincy among the Zingaran buccaneer; at the end of “The Black Stranger” he is ready to try again as a captain of the Barachans. Such transitional phases leave no time for actual piracy.

“Black Vulmea’s Vengeance” (another one of the stories in which Howard confounds his own caricature) and “The Isle of Pirate’s Doom” flirt with the supernatural but never arrive at a consummation, while “The Shadow in the Well,” which calls for “a monstrous thing” to erupt from an island’s “great black temple,” is merely a synopsis. Like Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man,” Howard’s “Sea Curse” includes a piratical backstory: “From the hell of lost craft Satan sent a ship of bygone ages! A ship red with gore and stained with the memory of horrid crimes!”

And if we look to the poetry, “Buccaneer Treasure,” which appeared in the January 1985 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories and Joe Marek’s The “New” Howard Reader #2 in 1998, sails straight into the uncharted and unhallowed. The poem’s initial narrator sets up the monologue of a waterfront derelict who relates how two decades earlier only he and the first mate had survived, adrift in a lifeboat, after their ship came to grief in the fog. The usual falling-out over the division of the spoils ensues, but in the two men’s extremity the spoils are but a single keg of water

“My thirst was like a raging fiend; I leaped with lifted knife;
He woke — his pistol grabbed — too late; my dagger drank his life.

The knife-thrust is the key that unlocks the door to yet another example of Howardian fairyland:

“Through the golden day as mazed I lay, like jade without a flaw,
The sea lay clear to my wondering eyes and strange were the sights I
I gazed on wonders of ages gone as my boat went drifting o’er
Gem-set towers and strange sea flowers a-bloom on the ocean floor.

The survivor is eventually guided by mermaids (unembittered by the loss of their sisters to Japanese fishing nets) until he boards a lifeless galley where skeletons rest at their oars and a steel-bound chest seemingly invites plundering. But his gem-gloating effrontery quickens both galley and fleshless crew:

“No wordly fires could fling such flame and I knew what befell —
as faster and faster the galley sped — she was bearing me into Hell!
Shrieking I hurled me across the rail, I clambered into the boat,
With shaking hands I loosed the chain and pushed her far afloat.

Next the man telling the story is himself told a story by the ghost of Captain Kidd, (who of course elsewhere in Howard’s work furnishes the name of Breck Elkins’ untamed partner in property damage):

“He wore his pistols and great sea boots as when he trod the deck,
But shackles clung to his hairy arms and the noose was on his neck.
And he told me how, as a living man, he had sailed to unknown climes
And had found that galley upon the sea, adrift since ancient times.

“And put thereon his chest of loot and a grisly bargain made
With Satan himself, and with men’s blood he sealed his part of the trade.
And Satan guards his servant’s gold with a magic grim and fell
And none may seize that blood-stained loot lest they be hurled into
From his bearded lips I had the tale, ere the weary stars had fled,
And he faded like a wisp of smoke before the dawn broke red.

“Buccaneer Treasure” is not one of Howard’s very best poems, but with its pirates, phantoms, and occult/oceanic imagery it demonstrates how the silk and lace of verse in no way impeded his drive and directness as a storyteller.