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Set sail for the sea of imagination

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There are all numbers of things fantastic in my third Cross novel, The Apocalypse Ark. There are angels and a crazed Noah, sorcerous pirates and sunken cities, a vampire and a white whale, to name just a few. In one sense, the book is a stand-in for the ark of the title, which in Cross’s universe is not the ship that saved humanity but is instead the storage place for all of God’s misfit creations. There are many such misfits in the book. In another, more personal sense, The Apocalypse Ark is a return to some of the things that inspired me to begin writing when I was a child.

The cast of curious creatures is nothing new for the series. The first two Cross books, The Mona Lisa Sacrifice and The Dead Hamlets, also have their share of the mythological and wondrous. With those books, though, the fantastic was much more grounded in the real. I’ve always loved fantasy, but I really wanted to create a fantasy series that was about our world rather than some made-up realm — I wanted readers to feel a real-life connection to the characters and places in the books, even if the characters were immortals, faerie and the like.

In The Mona Lisa Sacrifice, the fantasy elements are very clearly tied to our world — the Gaudi church in Barcelona inspired much of the book (as I’ve written about before), the gorgon is linked to a statue in the Louvre and a glass skull in the British Museum, Cross’s love Penelope is enmeshed in the spiritualist movement, an abandoned factory in Detroit is the setting for a key scene and so forth. There’s even a real-life painting or two that play a role.

I continued to find the fantasy in the real with The Dead Hamlets, where the Tower of London plays a key role, as does the castle that likely inspired Hamlet. There are a few other things, such as a certain cemetery, a legendary historical text, Westminster Abbey, the church where Shakespeare is buried, a real-life haunted theatre and rumoured ghost, and so on. I let my imagination run a little more wild in The Dead Hamlets, creating settings and characters that are definitely out of this world, but for the most part I was working within pre-existing myths, legends and texts.

With The Apocalypse Ark, I set sail for the seas of the imagination instead of the real world, though. The novel originated in a mad fantasy rather than the real world, after all — the idea that Noah was God’s jailer rather than humanity’s saviour and had gone mad and sought to end the world. As with the other books, I wanted a wild assortment of mythic characters and magical settings, but rather than find their origins in real life I wanted to anchor them in books, movies, and other works of art that had meant something to me. (Some of you may say there is no difference between real life and art, but bear with me….)

In many ways, The Apocalypse Ark is a tribute to the works that inspired me as a youth and lit the fires of my imagination. Chief among them is the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, based on the Jules Verne novel. I remember seeing the movie in a school gymnasium right before the holidays when I was in elementary school. I sat on the floor in the dark with hundreds of other students and watched, mesmerized, as the secret submarine Nautilus emerged from the depths and its crew did battle with a giant squid. It was a dark, stylish film with more than a little moral ambiguity and complex ideas for a young child such as myself. It was a far cry from the usual Disney fare I was used to, and I was hooked immediately.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was one of those things that changed the way I thought about books and movies — Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Amber were a couple of other notable atomic texts for me. It wasn’t long after I saw the movie that I found myself reading HP Lovecraft’s books and devouring the Conan tales, which are every bit as dark and disturbing as Lovecraft. If I were to go back through my life, I could probably follow the wake of the Nautilus through all my younger, formative years, right into university, where I discovered Melville’s tale of Ahab and the white whale. Another work of art that changed everything for me.

There’s so much of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in The Apocalypse Ark — the Nautilus and Nemo are both present in more than a passing manner. There’s a bit of steampunk to it, which was deliberate as I see 20,000 Leagues as one of the early steampunk works — not only for its stylish vision but also for its critique of capitalism and industry. The whole Cross series follows an antihero, of which we have a couple examples in 20,000 Leagues. Jules Verne even makes an appearance in The Apocalypse Ark! And, of course, The Apocalypse Ark does have a memorable giant squid attack. I hope it’s memorable, anyway….

I also wrote in the other books that influenced me, the ones that Verne’s Nautilus led me toward. The Sunken City may remind you of a certain Lovecraft aquatic abode, and I tried to channel the madness of Moby Dick with my own version of Ahab and the white whale.

It’s not all echoes and homages, though — I like to think I managed to create my own dark and wondrous world populated by deranged angels, cunning vampires and crazed kraken and the like. I would love it if readers set sail into the sea of my imagination and find it as much a shock and inspiration as that moment I found myself huddled in the dark on a gymnasium floor, watching a strange new world come to life before me.

I hope The Apocalypse Ark carries you away, dear reader, much as 20,000 Leagues carried me away to a world I never could have imagined but can now never forget.

It’s Moby Dick weekend!

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Moby Dick by Herman Melville is one of those books I’ve had a love-hate relationship with since I read it the first time, back in an American Lit university course. To be honest, I was baffled by the book after that initial encounter. If you’ve read it, I’m sure you’ll understand. If you haven’t read it, let’s just say it’s a work of eccentric genius.

Moby Dick has some of the most memorable scenes in literature for me, and I can see its influence everywhere — Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian leaps to mind first. Moby Dick is a thing of sublime beauty that tells a simple yet incredibly compelling story. It’s also a completely batshit crazy book that breaks all the rules of writing and publishing and veers into textual madness at times. It marked a trend for Melville’s later books, which faced an uneven reception to their literary experimentation — see the headline “Herman Melville Crazy,” for example.

I’ve read Moby Dick a number of times since that first encounter, and I’m not sure I understand it any better now. That’s kind of the point of the book, though — or one of its points, anyway. Ahab is consumed by his quest to master the whale, which remains throughout an incomprehensible force to him and the others. You have as much luck truly understanding the book as Ahab does of besting the white whale.

I do appreciate the beauty of the book, though, and its incredible imagery and masterful scene construction were much in my mind when writing my latest Cross book, The Apocalypse Ark (ah, here’s where we getting to things). I wanted to capture Moby Dick’s sense of something vast and mysterious lurking just under the surface of our world — I guess it will be up to readers to decide if I succeeded or not.

I was also inspired by Melville’s bravery and risk-taking in publishing what you could call an unusual text. Often, writers are influenced more by market trends and sales numbers — “Hey, maybe I should put a steampunk vampire romance in this book….” Sometimes you have to remind yourself of the chances other writers have taken, of the commitment they’ve had to their vision, before you can truly commit to your own crazy vision. And I do think the vision I had for The Apocalypse Ark was crazy — it’s batshit crazy in the same spirit as Moby Dick, although I would never make claims about being equal to that book in any other capacity. “Peter Roman: Crazy as Melville!”

Anyway, this is all a long-winded post about the fact that it’s Moby Dick weekend — where people gather to read and watch others read aloud the entirety of Moby Dick, in a marathon event that’s as mad as Ahab. Check out the livestream, read along in your own copy, or just retweet your favourite lines.

That should be enough to hold you until The Apocalypse Ark comes out and you can see what I’ve done with Moby Dick and Herman Melville in my own peculiar telling of the tale.

Image is from Paul Vermeersch’s postcard art collection, but I supplied the caption.