We know, or think we know, what is going to happen. The Cunard liner Lusitania will be hit by a torpedo and sink; most of the passengers will die. What more can be said, and to what aim? Erik Larson answers that question with 'Dead Wake,' a tightly written historical thriller that for all its meticulous documentation, creates character and suspense as well as any novel. Readers will find themselves in the peculiar position of rooting for the impossible.
It's important to note that Larson is a stickler for accuracy. Everything in the book is sourced. I mention this up front because the reading experience is so immersive and novelistic that it's easy to forget you're reading a work of non-fiction. Using the sinking of the Lusitania as the centerpiece, Larson has very carefully crafted a work that offers a striking and sweeping vision of the world descending into chaos as the war that will eventually be called World War One begins.
'Dead Wake' itself begins at pier 54 on the Hudson River, on May 1, 1915, as Captain William Thomas Turner readies the Lusitania. Larson puts us effectively in the place and time of his work with sparse, effective world-building. He knows the precise level of detail required to envelop readers in the perceptions of those whop were there. And in doing so, he immediately crafts an intense sense of suspense; will these passengers survive?
On the other side of the equation, he lets us meet Captain Walther Schwieger of U-20, the German sub fated to sink the Lusitania. Here, Larson finds a disarmingly likable figure, a man who runs the "happy U-boat" with a managerial ruthlessness devoted to sinking the biggest ships he can bring down. But U-boat tech is seriously cutting edge, which in this case means that it barely and rarely works as advertised. Torpedoes are more miss than hit, and the flimsy confines of a steel tube in the ocean are prone to leaks and lack sonar.
The plot is simple and tense; soon enough, the Lusitania will meet U-20, be torpedoed and sink in 18 minutes. Getting there is the key and Larson takes us from Washington DC, where we meet a depressed and love-struck President Woodrow Wilson, to Room 40 in the UK< where Winston Churchill is angling to get the Yanks dragged into this European War, to the war front itself, where soldiers jump and die to advance a battle line on the nightmarish landscape that would inspire J. R. R. Tolkien's Mordor. Larson makes all this seem relevant, seamless and crisply engaging.
'Dead Wake' offers all the involving thrills of a novel; great characters, complicated ethics and morals, tense situations, romance, and the world literally hanging in the balance, with the impact of non-fiction, to wit — it's all mind-bogglingly true. Larson assuredly fills in a lot of details about the sinking of the Lusitania that will be shockingly new to most readers, but the real appeal here is not simply the great facts, or even the great stories. 'Dead Wake' weaves facts in a manner that is equally artful and entertaining. Larson re-builds the past with his own personal style of prose, story and spectacle. For his readers, Erik Larson makes the past present.
04-15-15:Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light'
Strange Stories of Modern Scholars
Cram us into cities, spread us out in the suburbs, scatter us in the country, disperse us as you will; humans are nonetheless at heart a lonely species. We are smart enough to cauterize our solitude with society, but there's a part of every man, woman or child that is aware of our spectral nature. We know we are haunted, and that when we reach out we catch — at best — the ghosts of those around us.
'A Certain Slant of Light' collects five previously published stories and three originals in a very nice package. Paul Lowe illustrates each story with sparse pencil visions that are moody and suggestive. Publisher Robert Morgan's sans-DJ volume has the feel of a volume you might find in the library frequented by one of Peter Bell's characters. Before you can even read a word, a spell is cast.
Bell's stories live up to the classy presentation. "Lamia" offers up a richly textured scholarly twist on the "spend a night in this house" genre. In a nicely paced short story, we get the rich detail a longer piece. In "Bewitched" young Philip ignores neighborhood wisdom to his own peril, and receives the sort of gift one wishes to, but cannot, return. Here, Bell takes on another familiar horror trope, and brings his sense of pacing and prose to craft a low-key, disturbing vision.
"Millennium Ball" finds Kent pending his vacation with an old college friend on the Isle of Coll. Isolation does not serve him well, other than to those who have decidedly unhealthy plans in store. "Conservation" presents Natasha with an urban architectural puzzle that is best left unsolved. Bell's evocation of the unsettling nature of a space in a crowded city is superb. "The Barony at Rødal" brings forth shapeshifter by way of the past reaching into a present-day tour of Norway. As with all the stories in this book, there's a lot to unpack here, pleasurable details that cling to the reader's discomfort long after the story is finished.
"Merfield House" makes explicit the ghost hovering over this collection, that is M. R. James. Caroline Caulker makes, as often happens in life and more so to the unfortunates who character Bell's stories, an unfortunate decision. In her case, it involves researching and then reading a manuscript. Here, Bell's ability to manufacture scholarship, to haunt his readers with the imagined knowledge they might unhappily possess, is well served by his ability to craft the prose of others.
In "Archangel," Marcus explores a church, and in Peter Bell's visionary prose, that results in an experience that is delightful for the reader, but not so much for Marcus. The final story in the collection is "Only Sleeping," which of course, is not the case with regards to the subtle terrors that await Robert on his return to the boarding house on the Isle of Man.
In the "Afterword," Bell alludes to the influence of M. R. James on the stories in this book, and discusses each story in this regard. But influence only goes so far; Bell's work bears his own unique stamp, in particular prose that captures numinous detail and protagonists who feel authentically weary of the pace of their own lives, however fast or slow that may be. Peter Bell's stories in 'A Certain Slant of Light' capture the mood that wraps us when we are alone, and feeling less than happy. It isn't sorrow, but a regret as to the things we do not know but would hope to learn, and those we find within and are unable to forget.
New to the Agony Column
09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity
08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]