"The great fish moved silently through the night water..."
When I was five years old I wanted only one thing for my birthday- to finally watch the movie Jaws. I'd already developed a shark fixation thanks to National Geographic specials and a coloring book dedicated to the toothy beasts. They were the only thing cooler, in my book, than dinosaurs. I had a brutal case of fear-based fascination that made my first swimming lessons terrible- who knew where sharks could pop up. I even had the awesome Jaws game, wherein two people compete to hook various items from the rubber-band rigged mouth of a plastic great white. Lift one item too abruptly or get one of the final pieces and SNAP!
But I still hadn't seen the film. The big one. THE shark movie.
So, on my fifth birthday, when I heard the first bass-heavy strains of the score- yup, I knew the iconic music long before seeing the movie- coming from my parents' living room, I knew I'd got my birthday wish. And for the next two hours I sat in my mom's lap and watched what was to become one of my favorite films of all time.
It was about two years later when I discovered a ratty old copy of the paperback among my dad's books. I dived right in, of course. Having already seen the film thirty-or-so times by then I was a bit shocked when Hooper and Mrs. Brody became intimate, and even more shocked with what happened to Hooper later in the book. And the Quint-incites-a-frenzy scene was priceless, if a bit too dark for Spielberg's film. Sure the ending lacked the cinematic POW! of the movie version, but it was still a deeply rewarding read and one that introduced me to Peter Benchley's potent world of oceanic thrillers.
Benchley's writing often merged captivating facts about marine biology with pulpy thrills, and still managed to excite even when he basically re-wrote his own Jaws with a giant squid instead of a carcharodon carcharias in Beast. His books read effortlessly and always satisfied. His later take on sharks as less malevolent creatures (Shark Trouble) was equally interesting, and will hopefully one day reach an audience as wide as Jaws has had. He was a man deeply concerned with humankind's abuse of the ocean, and you could sense in his later work a desire to exorcise the damage his early work may have had on cultural perception.
Had Benchley never written Jaws? Well, I wouldn't have shelled out serious cash for a framed original theatrical poster (including the "...may be too INTENSE for younger children" note next to the PG rating). I wouldn't own four copies of the book including the awesome illustrated Reader's Digest condensed version that I "procured" from a hotel lobby. Steve Alten would have no career. I wouldn't have wasted so much time on the Jaws NES game. Shark Week wouldn't drop me into a TV-coma. Spielberg may not have ended up where he is today, and the phrase Summer Blockbuster might not have entered the lexicon. I never would have contemplated a career in marine biology. I'm sure there are other things I'm missing. The influence of his book was huge.
His passing at age 65 is indeed sad, a literary voice and caring steward of the sea lost, but there is a sense that his work will endure for some time. Jaws has deservedly become a part of the thriller canon, and I hope it will continue to delight readers throughout the next century.
Peter Benchley, RIP. Thank you for the stories.
p.s. If there is indeed some sort of Writer's Valhalla as I'd like to imagine, I hope Peter's knocking back a cold one with Selby and Hunter right now. My heroes need to stick around a little longer.
p.p.s. On the lighter side of things- Tom Piccirilli, author of one of my top five books of last year, A Choir of Ill Children, has offered up this awesome blurb for Siren Promised:
"Using Alan M. Clark's gorgeously dark fantastique artwork to springboard the lush, compelling, often raw storyline forward, Johnson and Clark have created a unique literary atmosphere full of dread and wonder. This is a synergistic fusion of major talents that seethes with the black, beautiful energy of nightmares made real."--Tom Piccirilli, author of HEADSTONE CITY and A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN
So that's cool.