Sunday 27 December 2009

Frenzy, by Carole Johnstone

Eight men find themselves in a life raft with no memory (or so they say) of how they got there. It’s an odd kind of raft – basically a hoop from which each of them dangles in a claustrophobic little pocket, like an inverted toolbelt. No land is visible. The water beneath them is very deep, and it’s full of sharks – though they have as much to fear from each other.

I do enjoy a good shark story every so often (Meg was great fun, for example), so that brought this novella by Carole Johnstone straight to the top of my reading pile. However, it was disappointingly light on shark action. The sharks are there just to give the men something extra to worry about, to set them against each other. In fact, the men are almost in too much danger – from the sun, from each other, from drowning, thirst, hunger and madness – for the sharks to be a big problem.

This is really a psychological horror story, exploring Pete’s nightmares, his feelings about his brother, his relationships with the other men. This is done extremely well, but for me it lessened the drama of the situation. Anyone would be upset at what had happened to his brother, but would it be uppermost in your mind with sharks nipping at your toes?

As the days go by, and people bleed into the ocean from various wounds, the threat of a frenzied shark attack seems ever more distant. It’s sidelined so much that it stops being frightening. The sharks feel like an afterthought, added at an editor’s suggestion to make the book more commercial. The novella would have worked just as well without them – and shark fans wouldn’t have felt cheated.

In fact, no part of the story really blows up in the way you might have hoped: the sharks don’t seem hungry, the male rivalries are trumped up, the mystery of how they got onto the life raft summarily dismissed. At one point I thought the story might take a truly horrifying turn – why didn’t any women make it to the raft? – but even if I wish the story had focused elsewhere and taken different turns, it’s well written and never less than gripping. Just don’t expect Jaws.

Frenzy, by Carole Johnstone, Eternal Press, ebook, 80pp.

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