Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Long before Captain Jack Sparrow came reeling out of the fervid imagination of Johnny Depp, there was Jack Shandy, reluctant pirate captain and hero of Tim Powers' gorgeous historical fantasy adventure, On Stranger Tides. Now that the folks at Disney have appropriated Powers' novel for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie (due on local screens Friday, or 11:59 tomorrow night, for the terminally obsessed), I thought it was time to put in a good word for the original book.

I first encountered On Stranger Tides in the spring of 1989, when this paperback cover leaped out at me from a shelf at the old Bookshop Santa Cruz. Back then, I was reading everything I could find about pirates, getting ready to write my own pirate novel, The Witch From the Sea. With its elements of dark magic, voudon (or "voodoo"), zombie pirate crews and the Fountain of Youth, you couldn't exactly classify Powers' book as strict historical research. But unlike the PotC movies, the novel is rooted in a very specific historical time and place—chiefly, the pirate island of New Providence in the Bahamas, ca. 1718. This was the year Governor Woodes Rogers came out from England to "reform" New Providence by buying off the pirates with the King's Pardon to give up the trade. It was also the last year in the short but spectacular career of Ed Teach, aka Blackbeard.

Even though Powers' book is set a century before mine, I started reading it for its realistic depiction of the pirate life on board ship and ashore. But pretty soon I was devouring it for its lush, and simmering sense of magical forces bubbling just under the surface of real life (and history). Powers contends that magic has run its course in the Old World, but is still viable in some wild, remote regions of the New World, where it has not yet been civilized out of existence. The "Fountain of Youth" at the heart of his story does not restore youth; rather it's a power spot of dark sorcery where the living can be made immortal, and the dead resurrected (albeit zombie-style).

The action gallops from New Providence to Port-au-Prince on Hispaniola (now Haiti), to Kingston, Jamaica. Young Englishman and puppeteer John Chandagnac is sailing into the Caribbees to claim a family inheritance when his ship is captured by pirates in league with Blackbeard. They are there to rendezvous with another passenger, Hurwood, an elderly Oxford don and magical scholar who's en route to the Fountain; maddened by the death of his wife, he's planning to resurrect her in the body of his nubile young daughter, Beth. Determined to save Beth, Chandagnac joins the pirate crew, who rechristen him "Jack Shandy," and after several raucous adventures in which his desperation or sheer foolhardiness are mistaken for bravery, he's elected their captain.

The centerpiece of the story is a hair-raising trip to the eerie, demon-haunted Fountain in the company of Blackbeard himself, the only man who's ever been to the Fountain and come out again. (Hurwood needs the pirate to show him the way.) I just love how Powers seeds his supernatural plot so plausibly into what is historically known about Teach. According to Powers, he didn't do the immortality rituals properly the first time, and came away troubled by phantoms and ghosts—which neatly explains Blackbeard's historically well-known nuttiness and rages. Powers also suggests that Blackbeard engineered his own "death" in that famous fight with Lt. Maynard (which occurs in the book) in order to come back in a completely new—and immortal—identity. How does this ruse play out? Read the book and find out! (Shop local: pick up a copy at Bookshop Santa Cruz , or Capitola Book Cafe.)

One shudders to think how the PotC franchise will adulterate this material. Parts of the book seem tailor-made for the series, what with all those pirates getting killed and resurrected as zombies. There's even a sea battle between two historically correct ghost ships, the Charlotte Bailey and the Nuestra Señora di Lagrimas, resurrected from the bottom of the sea with their phantom crews when a magic spell goes astray.

We also know in advance that Blackbeard appears in the movie (although this time, he's the one with the daughter), and the plot evidently revolves around the Fountain of Youth. But the mermaids who figure so prominently in the movie PR are not to be found in Powers' story at all. And how are they going to insert Jack Sparrow into all of this? We can only hope the PotC brain trust rises to the occasion with a movie that's worthy of Powers' book, Depp's marvelously loony creation, and the eager viewing audience.

In the meantime, if you find yourself in the mood for more buccaneer action, check out my pirate movie review page. (Yes, that's me over there, in full yo-ho-ho regalia.) Granted, this personal and eclectic list doesn't include every entry in the genre, but there's still plenty to choose from, good, bad, and ugly, vintage or contemporary, from Anne Of the Indies to Yellowbeard. Cruise around and enjoy!

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