Published on November 27th, 2014 | by Michaela Buckley0
Orca – Arthur Herzog
I don’t ever think it should take much to write a natural horror book. All you need is an interesting premise and enough subversions of tropes to keep the story from falling into an oblivion of stale reading, but somehow Herzog manages to screw even this up.
Published in 1977, two years after Jaws hit the silver screen, it was destined to not only get its own cinematic adaptation but also be touted as derivative before it had even hit the printing press. If that hadn’t offered enough incentive for a writer to put some kind of effort into the venture of novel-writing, if only to stick the fingers at society at large, then surely knowing that you have secured the top predator of the sea, one which are notoriously loved and not particularly feared, would at least pump up some kind of muse-sweat surely?
Instead, we are handed a typically routine offering of Jaws, but with less gore and even less character-building. What does Orca offer if none of that and certainly not a lot of it’s titular creature? Angry villagers. Yep, you heard it. You know of course, that in the 70’s angry villagers, or at least, weird and blood-thirsty villagers were somewhat in vogue, The Wicker Man, Straw Dogs, Deliverance, but dull and leverage-less Canadians really do take the pissy biscuit in this.
The main character, god knows his name, is a drunken womaniser that is convinced by his sister that staking their Florida marina on conjuring up a live Great White Shark for some reward money from a Japanese water park investor was a good idea. Spoilers! It’ not. Although you don’t need flashing red lettering to have figured that out, as it’s a ridiculous thing to do in any kind of circumstances. However, go he does, and reports of sharks lead them to Canada, somehow.
Inevitably, a shark appears only to be somewhat violently killed by an Orca and a larger than average one at that, so our face-less heroes switch their sights to the larger and less valuable Killer Whale, for god knows what reason.
After a magical Native-American warns the protagonists (well I hesitate to call the bloodthirsty troupe protagonists, but it’s a damn sight better than heroes) not to pursue the whale, they decide to go ahead anyway and steadily the novel devolves into a terrible slasher.
There’s very little drama to the cutting down of the cast, one might describe the emotions of characters after their deaths as ‘disinterested and mild guiltiness with a twinge of existential doubt’, the atmostphere feels like a cross between an accidental death and the death of an old relative that nobody cares about, except as another reminder of their own mortality. Not only do the deaths serve as expected plot devices in terms of attempting to drill a sense of dread in the reader and give the main characters a vague sense of agency, but they also become emotional devices for the angry villagers, who seemingly don’t care about the fates of their fellow citizens, but use their deaths as a scapegoat for yokel rage.
The novel picks off various characters until it builds to… well… it doesn’t really build to anything actually, the book just, sort of, ends.
If you give a crap at all about spoilers in this book, that, in all honesty you’re not even going to read, then stop here as I am about ruin the glorious ending of the book, which after reading, I went straight onto the internet to see if anyone else was as miffed as I was.
Okay, so at this point, the crew have been forced into fighting it by the angry villagers because they are all wimpy about it and are now conveniently listening to the magical Native American (whose character arc is literally just people wondering whether or not he was a Chief), the whale gets hurt and starts to head away from the bay, obviously, they could just wander off and go back to Florida at this point, but instead, they decide to chase the whale, in a very poorly executed Ahab moment.
After chasing the whale to somewhere near the Arctic circle, it starts to lure them into dangerous areas surrounded by icebergs and then resumes battering the ship. There are some throw-away reasons given about why the whale came this way but it’s hardly convincing, as the ice obviousl makes for a pretty nice set-up for a cinematic ‘final showdown’ and a good clincher on that movie deal, so nobody is being fooled here, but I digress, it starts hammering away at the ship and everyone except the bloke and the bird are dead, and then all of a sudden a helicopter appears that was previously summoned just as the Orca has slammed itself onto a large ice floe that the bloke is on, the floe starts to tip and he begins to slide down and the whale has its mouth open and everything and then suddenly it backs off, jumps in the air ‘Free Willy’ style and swims off. That’s the end, it’s jarringly surreal. I even re-read it about three of four times because I couldn’t believe how abrupt and nonsensical it all was.
What makes this ending so odd, is the difference between it and the film version’s ending, which goes through all the motions to deliver a thoroughly generic climax. It almost feels like the book didn’t want to end like Jaws, so decided that if they made it as vague as possible people might rally and fill in their own ideas, however the main difference between a culturally significant piece of work getting a lot of people reading into it and one that doesn’t, is whether the rest of the work gave any real promise for reward for reading into it, which Orca does not.
The whale is an allegory for the man’s problems in his life? Because we’ve not heard that a million times before. Anything else then Herzog?
I thought not.
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