“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”
If there’s any kind of character in literature I come increasingly to identify with, it’s people too old and grizzled to give a shit. If there’s another, it’s characters who are unmercifully forced to shoulder the bone-snapping weight of obsession. Both of these are central to a book that’s been a perennial favorite of mine since I was a kid.
Half-drowning in the seas and sands of my own tribulations, innumerable novels have acted as flotation devices, and while they’ve no doubt affected me in countless ways, keeping me from sinking below the lightless horizons of my many traumas has often been chief among them. Yet it’s Herman Melville’s magnum opus that grabbed hold of me as a child and refused to let go even into adulthood. Interestingly enough, it’s also the book that launched me into my trajectory of literary horror. If you’ll indulge me in a little gross, substantively dubious hyperbole, you might even call it one of the first modern horror novels.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (the rather unwieldy original name for what we now usually just call Moby-Dick) came after the seminal works by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and John William Polidori in the early 1800s, and prior to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde close to the turn of the century. Published in 1851, Moby-Dick was a notorious critical and commercial failure before finally getting its due recognition as an American classic some 30 years after Melville’s death (and nearly 70 years after its initial publication).
In this light, it really is a sort of undead lich king of a book, rising from an early grave to post-life power and glory, but that’s not what makes it one of the great horror novels of its century. No; that’s the stark, pungent religious imagery slathered over the pages like pitch, from Father Mapple’s fiery sermon on Jonah that helps presage the coming brutality to the prophetic fate of the Jeroboam and her crew that uses biblical reference to foreshadow the grim fate of a possessed Captain Ahab. It’s the whale’s grand majesty contrasted with the literal horror splattered all over detailed descriptions of its dissection. And yes, it is of course Ahab’s monomaniacal drive that propels so much of the book in all its demonic fervor; but it’s also when Stubb orders Fleece, the cook, to deliver a sermon to the sharks swarming the corpse of a recently murdered sperm whale, a sermon which ends in the timeless exhortation to “Kick up de damndest row as ever you can; fill your dam bellies ‘till dey bust- and den die.”
(There’s a reason I call this the most quotable book written in the English language. It’s poetry. You can’t go more than a handful of pages without a line worthy of opening a novel.)
If you’ve never read it, the whole book is exactly that metal. In a chapter detailing the “funeral” of a dead whale as the natural world comes to feast upon its remains, the “peeled white body” of the beheaded creature is described as “a marble sepulchre”. A sickly Queequeg lies himself down next to his harpoon inside a custom-made coffin, later used as a sea chest upon regaining his health, and which will eventually save Ishmael’s life as a makeshift buoy. Ahab, bullying the ship’s blacksmith to craft a weapon to slay his White Whale, all but opens negotiations with motioning to his head and saying, “can ye smoothe out a seam like this … if thou could’st, blacksmith, glad enough would I lay my head upon thy anvil, and feel thy heaviest hammer between my eyes.” Right before the harpoon is forged in the offered blood of three crew members while Ahab invokes the name of the devil.
None of this would sound out of place on Mastodon’s second studio album, Leviathan, which is based on Moby-Dick for the obvious reason that it’s pretty hard to get any more metal than Melville did in the mid-1800s. Despite occasional outings as a bank clerk and schoolteacher, he was a badass in his own right, grappling with the concept of God upon the high seas in the navy and aboard the whaling vessels from which the Pequodwould eventually sprout. In many ways, he was a man after my own heart, using the page to explore his own experiences and work them out. The downward spiral of Pierre; or, The Ambiguities* that begins in its latter passages has all the cheerful narrative softness of a rock hammer, and this mix of literary foundations layered with the subtly horrific has been a huge influence in how I work out my own nonsense on the page.
Moby-Dick also has plenty of the real-life horrors common to its era, which must be acknowledged. The crushing realities of slavery and racism sit restlessly aside the outrageously dangerous working conditions common to the working class—as if the outright murder of some of nature’s most wondrous creatures to turn them into a host of darkest commodities wasn’t dark enough already. Sometimes it includes all these things deliberately, to purposeful effect; other times such depictions are unfortunate casualties of the time and place in which it was written, which makes them a decidedly different kind of uncomfortable.
Yet no matter how you shake it, Moby-Dick is a triumph of dark, psychological storytelling, and it was in the mad eyes of Ahab that I first glimpsed the horror stories I wanted to tell as an author. I owe a sincere debt to Herman Melville, and I hope my own contributions to literature, however small, might be worthy enough to pay fitting tribute to his memory—even if that’s one hell of a tall order.