Saturday, October 20

13 Days of Halloween: Sailor Twain

by Mark Siegel
First Second Press 2012

A riverboat captain on the 19th century Hudson River nurses an injured mermaid back to health, hidden from his employer who is determined to find and kill her, but is he another of her victims caught in her wrath and fury?

Captain Twain, no relation to Samuel Clemens' alter ego, is a riverboat pilot who runs a tight ship and  prefers not to meddle in his passengers affairs. His current employer is the brother of his previous employer who mysteriously became melancholy, disappeared, and was later discovered to have committed suicide. One day Captain Twain discovers a wounded mermaid floating near death in the river. Taking her back to his room he nurses her back to health in secret, bringing her food and telling her stories to entertain her, imploring her not to sing to him so that her song doesn't bind him to her underwater limbo; the Captain's sickly love waits for him and he has no desire to be unfaithful. She agrees, but can she be trusted?

The Captain observes his employer take on many lovers simultaneously, almost methodically, while maintaining a postal correspondence with an author of stories about the supernatural, including mermaids. He also mysteriously throws messages in a bottle into the river and refuses to leave the boat for any reason. It becomes clear over time that his employer doesn't believe his brother committed suicide but has fallen under the spell of the mermaid the Captain is harboring and is, in all his unusual efforts, attempting to undo her power over the souls she has taken.

Throughout there is the story of the mysterious author who seems to know something about the mermaid of the Hudson, known simply as South, and about the ways she can be defeated. Being a mysterious recluse the author agrees to appear in public and give a lecture on the boat at his employer's invitation. When it turns out the author is a woman the press suggests she's a fraud and even her publishers admit they wouldn't have given her the time of day if they knew or believed their beloved author was a woman. She takes the moment of her heightened publicity to speak out against slavery and women's suffrage and, for a moment, looks to become the last of his employer's lovers which would break the spell the mermaid has over his brother.

Healed, South returns home, inviting Twain to join her below as she believes he is the one she has been waiting for, the one who can release her from the spell that keeps her forever bound to the Hudson river. Torn between wanting to free her and fearing she might take him as she has taken other souls, Twain devises a plan to return his former employer to the world of the living but in the end suffers a fate very similar many who crossed the mermaid of the Hudson.

Initially daunting at 400 pages, Siegel has crafted a haunting tale that tweaks Greek mythology, gothic horror, and the strange romance of life on a river. While Twain's motives aren't always clear, his thoughts not always articulated, he is strangely compelling in the way that he observes and studies those around him in order to piece together what is going on. Granted, much of Twain's movements are for the benefit of the reader, but its only under close critical scrutiny after the fact that a reader might find the otherwise hidden seams holding the narrative together. In truth, the tale was so compelling I was more interested in getting to the end to find out what happened (and giving up precious sleep in the process) that the only time I felt pulled away from the story was in the very active climax where I found things to get a bit muddled.

Indeed, this muddle was further confirmed in the comments section of a review at Guys Lit Wire. Why did the wheelman of the ship sabotage it? Was everyone on board the boat under the thrall of the Mermaid's song? Did Twain himself, like Ishmael, survive to tell the tale only long enough to be reunited with his spiritual self?

By the end, with the story framed by a his employer's wife who holds the key to Twain's resolution, all I wanted to do was go back to beginning and start all over. I did not want to spend more time with these characters in further tales – or prequels, or backstory – I wanted them to relive their lives in the hope they would make different decisions. It's been a long time I've read a story that made me feel that.

This graphic novel is clearly for the older YA set due to mature sexual themes – almost unavoidable, really, if you want to tell a believable story concerning mermaids. Haunting, brooding, and inevitably people are going to call it the love child of Twain and Poe with, perhaps, a bit of Washington Irving thrown in for good measure.

I'd shortlist this for a Cybil award as well, though with its messy resolution I'd be surprised to see it pass the first round.
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