Subverting the Tropes

This is the Captain with his son, Zé.

I don’t know the secret of creating a long-running character, because I didn’t set out to create one. Writing the Captain is like painting in watercolor: always unpredictable, sometimes risky, with happy accidents and sometimes startling effects— knowing broadly what the outcome will be but not precisely how I’m going to get there. The “DaSilva-verse” evolved something like that, too. I’m pretty sure I’ve kept it consistent with its internal laws, even if I have to engage in a bit of reverse-engineering from time to time. Playing with supernatural tropes is fun; giving them a new twist it what makes the colors sparkle.

Though when I think about it, it isn’t just the supernatural tropes I try to subvert. I’m very fed up with protagonists who can’t cope with their problems. My flawed alter ego is not battling with the demons of booze or tobacco (he indulges in both with gusto) but with real, terrifying, dangerous demons; his marriage is not on the rocks; he is not black-dogged by depression. He regrets his somewhat shady past but doesn’t agonize over it, even when it comes back to haunt him — sometimes literally. In fact he uses everything he’s learned from that past without a second thought, be it fighting dirty, going around armed , shooting first and answering questions later. Having a background as quite a bad guy comes in handy when you’re battling the real bad guys.

But since his world, in John Crowley’s useful phrase, has this sun and these stars, events in it resonate. The long rule of the seas by the sailing ship is nearing the end of its steep decline; revolutions are on the boil; the specter of war is on the horizon. Some things impinge through all realities, leaving scars on the multiverse. When the Captain’s ship passes through the very visceral ghosts of Trafalgar, the ruination they see reduces men to tears.

“A pall of smoke hung over the ghost ships. It looked as solid and real as they did. Not the smoke from wood alone. It came from pitch and tar and human bodies. Thick and greasy and blackish-brown. The smoke from the battle, all those broadsides, roundshot, grapeshot, seemed to separate out from it like vinegar and oil. Less meaty, and lighter in color.

“The smoke blotted out the sky as we drew nearer. The sea, too, was invisible, hidden by a debris of broken spars and shattered masts, half-floating shredded canvas, and corpses. Surrounding this, all around for fifty yards and more, the water was red, flecked with soot, and ringed with a fatty scum. There’s no sign of the land that should be there. Only this empty sea filled with an enormous horrible specter of burned and broken ships and men.

“Beside me, a grim-faced Ashley was keeping tally. I believe the British lost no ships at all, and of men a fraction of the thousands of French and Spanish dead. But this sight would chill any sailor’s blood. And the ghostly bodies bobbing in the sea were unrecognizable as either Spaniards, French or British. Only a few had simply drowned. Most were shot to pieces, or burned to overcooked meat. Dismembered limbs floated among the debris.

“There was no going round the carnage. No avoiding the sight.

“Everyone on board was silent now. No-one spoke. Caps came off. Rosaries clicked. Ashley, always formal, saluted. I felt the wind in my hair, and it was suddenly deathly cold. The back of my neck prickled. We passed another hulk, like a floating heap of broken wood, trailing the tattered remnants of a Spanish flag. Hardly recognizable as a ship at all.

“Behind me I heard Benjamin’s mellow tenor start to sing, “Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm doth bind the restless wave.” It’s an English hymn. I don’t know the words, but apparently quite a lot of the men did. Including Pierce, who was standing on my left. I hadn’t even sensed him arrive, but I turned now and saw his face was wet with tears.

“By the time they got to the last For those in peril on the sea even Harris was singing, and that’s not something you want to hear sober.

“And then we were past the last poor shattered vessel, and the whole horror was behind us. Not a man looked back. The crowd dispersed in silence. I found a cheroot, and lit it with a sense of relief. Ashley walked away, stiff-backed.

“Poor buggers,” said Pierce. His voice shook. “You don’t ever need to ask me why I’m a pacifist.”

That scene was the first thing I wrote after 9/11: it was my catharsis.


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