A Book Review of the World’s Worst Novel by Crad Kilodney
Schooner Bay, by Jack Neilson. 1977. Exposition Press. Hicksville, N.Y. 168 pages. Hardcover. $7.50.
For some reason, many vanity press authors are compelled to write adventure novels about shipwrecks, tropical islands, plane crashes in weird places, and so on. And to my taste, they know how to pull them off much better than poor schnooks like Joseph Conrad, James Hilton, Daniel Defoe, or Herman Melville.
Those four guys put together couldn’t match the imagination of Jack Neilson, a Milwaukee apartment building manager and author of Schooner Bay. This is certainly one of the best novels Exposition Press has put out in years.
To begin with, we have a family called Zammersmith sailing to “the little-known South Seas island called Thatch Roof. It was a private island that lay somewhere off the distant coast of a larger South Pacific island in the year of 1890.” It’s impossible to tell whether they’ve departed from England or America and what route they’ve taken, but this is not a serious matter.
The Zammersmiths consist of Anvil and Constance, and their children Damian and Elena. They also have a Negro servant named Joshua, who is said to be “trained.” In addition, “his loyalty and devotion were unquestioned as he would quickly lay down his life for the family as they would for him.”
Since it is 1890, we find Anvil talking like this on page 10: “Aye, lad, ’tis so, but had ye noticed the darkness to the north ye’d know a storm was brewin’.” I wasn’t looking forward to 168 pages of that, and I guess the author wasn’t either. By page 12, they are all talking modern idiomatic English. In fact, on page 133, Anvil says, “But you know with all its complexities, it is still a fine place to live if you can roll with the system.”
What is the reason for the Zammersmiths’ sea voyage to a little-known island whose precise location is in doubt? Simple. They’ve been getting letters from their uncle Benjamin inviting them to come and live with him there, and they’ve finally given in. Besides, as Constance explains to Elena, “the docks closed and your father could not find work.” (Sure hate to see those docks close.) I’ve been wondering how Uncle Ben mailed his letters, but I guess that’s not too important either.
On their way to Thatch Roof, they stop off at a place called Port Baleen, where English currency is used. “They noticed the finely dressed ladies in their long hoop skirts and bonnets, carrying sun umbrellas with lace trim. The gentlemen wore top hats and tails; the shopkeepers, of course, had aprons.”
On their way back to the ship (for some reason, they anchor off shore and come in in a rowboat), a little dog decides to follow them for no reason. It even jumps in the water and paddles after them all the way back to the ship. Naturally they keep it.
Jack Neilson puts us in a real nautical spirit in these early chapters. We are told that “Josh manned the steerage.” Later Anvil tells him to “turn thirty degrees due east.” Anvil says to Damian, “You see he was a giant whale shark and they feed on tiny fish like shrimp and other small minnows.” And when the Schooner Bay bashes its hull on a coral reef, they attempt to patch up the hole by melting some tar in a pot, scooping it up in their hands, diving underwater, and slapping it over the hole before it hardens. Of course, they fail.
However, as luck would have it, they have gone aground just off Thatch Roof. What’s more, they find Uncle Ben’s two-storey house also called Thatch Roof, waiting for them. But where is Uncle Ben? He has since left the island.
The Z’s settle in and soon meet a friendly native from the island next door. His name is Bala, he speaks English, and Elena think’s he’s cute.
Bala tells them the island is cursed by a black creature that attacks at night. A panther, no less. Bala and his tribe decide to help the Z’s kill it. “A while later, they flushed the vicious animal from a cave, only to lose one man and have another lay injured. A few spears had been tossed, but the aim was off — at best, they only scratched the cat. This kind of action went on for several more hours.” By killing the panther, the Z’s earn the gratitude of Bala’s tribe, who decide to build up Thatch Roof real nice.
But the Z’s would like to find another boat and go home. So one day, Bala, Josh, and Damian take a bag of pearls and go to Port Flounder by raft. There they get drunk, and bad men take their pearls. On the raft going home, they are surrounded by sharks. Damian falls overboard and gets killed, and Josh is so distraught he commits suicide by jumping overboard too. In another time and place, they would have both been killed by speeding trucks, but when you’re a resourceful author like Jack Neilson, you use whatever’s available.
Back at Thatch Roof, Anvil and Bala decide to build a boat from scratch. But you know what a drag that can be. The natives get discouraged after a few untimely storms and lightning bolts. Bala realizes he has to pep his people up.
“I remember once when I was very small that my people worshipped a giant clam!…I remember that a small band of shipwrecked pirates had washed ashore shortly before the clam appeared… When my people saw it there sitting on a high pile of stones, they were confused.” The clam told them what to do or else, but it was really a pirate hiding underneath, get it? So Bala decides to find another giant clam and trick his tribe into building the boat. “Each dive Bala made became adorned with some revelation that was synonymous with the total picture of the sea.”
Unfortunately, another storm interrupts their work. This time it brings them visitors — some Chinese fishermen in a junk. Naturally the captain, Chu-sung, speaks English. After suitable introductions and refreshments, “the entire collage then went back to Thatch Roof.”
Chu-sung offers to take the Z’s to China to get a new boat, so off they go. “This part of the South China Sea enabled them to drift and to blend nicely into the busy and fascinating view that enhanced the total reflection of a colorful and generous new port.” They find the port populated mainly by Orientals who dress in an Oriental fashion. “They noticed the serenity in most of the faces, and on occasion they too could see the apathy in them, although most had the adamant tenure in relation to a given determination of destination.”
The Z’s walk around until they find a five-room flat to let. “It was furnished in Oriental tradition.” The owner doesn’t speak English, so by means of sign language they agree that the Z’s can stay temporarily if they pay double the rent. “Figuring it was rare that such a large place would not be easy to find was an incentive in itself.” You’re telling me?
The Chinese port is described like a tourist mecca. “Bala saw and did many things that he had no knowledge of whatsoever.” The Z’s all go to a Chinese restaurant, which has a maitre d’, a menu on parchment, and “a gypsy trio who played for the guests of different nationalities.”
Anvil and Constance leave early so that Bala and Elena can be alone. “Elena took both of his hands in hers. ‘You look very handsome, Bala,’ she said softly as their encomium toward each other could be further felt deeply by their searching eyes, as love guided the flame that burned deep into their minds.” Their romantic experience “evoked the somewhat ferine type they had experienced on Thatch Roof.
“However, much like life itself, all good things must be concluded at some degree and that degree was sitting but a few tables away in the form of four henchmen, who were huddled together in the fetid idea of kidnapping a certain lady, who would bring them great wealth.”
You can expect the worst from four guys who can huddle in a fetid idea. They kidnap Elena and take her to the Rogue of Gambia, who lives in an underground castle in the mountains.
The Z’s enlist Chu-sung’s help. He leads them inland on horseback. On the way, they stop at a village where the people “live off the land and raise oxen, which they sell at semiannual auctions at which foreign buyers from the ports bid.” They also own “animals of various sizes, shapes, and colors.”
Going further inland, the Z’s are captured by the Rogue’s henchmen, who take them to the underground castle. There they meet Jun-jee, headmaster for the high lama Chan-whan. Jun speaks English too.
The castle is frequently described as ornate. It has flower gardens, despite being underground, numerous servants who do not speak, and a huge aquarium in which naughty persons are thrown to be eaten by the “variety of large sea mammals.” The Z’s, Bala, and Chu-sung work out an escape plan. “They would not have this chance again for maybe a year or more as the schedule of the work cycle was on an axis similar to the solar system. Bala had figured this out in his plan of escape.”
They try to escape by putting shells over their heads and swimming underwater through the bamboo piping. We are told they could breathe for ten minutes in their shells. At the other end, they are recaptured and brought back to be thrown into the aquarium. At the critical moment, there’s an earthquake, and Anvil and Constance are killed. Elena, Bala, and Chu-sung make their way back to the seaport, and eventually they return to Thatch Roof in an exact replica of the Schooner Bay.
Elena and Bala get married and go off on a honeymoon. The weeks pass. One day the wreckage of their boat washes ashore. All the Z’s are finally dead. Sort of.
Chu-sung is on the beach one day when he sees a vision on the horizon. All the Z’s are there in their ship waving at him. Bala’s voice says, “Tell no one of what you saw here today and we will return each year at this same date at this exact hour!”
As a result, Chu-sung’s hair turns white “and his face had a mean look…He became unbearable to live with.” Chu-sung dies after many years and joins the ghost ship.
Now that’s a hell of a yarn, I think. The only little flaw that we never find out is why Uncle Benjamin left the island in the beginning and where he went. But I have a theory. After inviting his relatives to Thatch Roof, Uncle Ben decided he’d made a terrible mistake and should get out before getting involved further in the story. Maybe find himself a modest supporting role in a story by Conrad or Melville. No offense to his relatives, but anything would be better than being caught dead in a novel like Schooner Bay.
by Crad Kilodney
This review originally appeared in Only Paper Today, December 1979.
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