The only continuous lifelong thread of my entire reading career, in its amateur, professional and avocational phases, is science fiction.

The trouble is, I’ve gone at it like a dog in the woods, chasing whatever moves. Meaning that my personal SF canon is so haphazard I never tried to devise a college course in it when, in a long-lost dimension, I was a professor. (Not counting a summer course in J.R.R. Tolkien, which I prepared but never delivered because not enough students enrolled.) I’m half-versed in everything from Arthur C. Clarke to Philip K. Dick to Ursula K. Le Guin to Neal Stephenson. (Stephenson’s “Seveneves,” in which the moon blows up in the first paragraph and then humanity proceeds to try to save itself by piling aboard the International Space Station, might be the most readable hard science fiction novel ever written. According to me.)

Some of Maine’s better-known SF and fantasy writers are Alex Irvine,  of South Portland; Sharon Lee and Steve Miller,  of Winslow, and their Liaden space-operas; Catherynne Valente, of Peaks Island; big-time award-winner Elizabeth Hand, of Lincolnville; Barry Goodyear, of Farmington; Oakland native Thomas Easton; and, of course, Stephen King,  whose books are so prominent on mainstream lists that it’s rarely mentioned most of them are well within the range of science, or at least speculative, fiction. These are the writers I think of immediately. Of course there are more.

Anyway, last summer my fellow Maine journalist Daniel Dunkle, of Rockland, received the 2019 Maine Literary Award for Speculative Fiction for his self-published novel “The Scrimshaw Worm.” “Speculative fiction” is a catch-all term for science fiction and fantasy crossovers, anomalies and whatever else irritates the genre-pickers for on-radar bestseller lists, and so I asked if he might send me a copy. “The Scrimshaw Worm” turns out to be “Moby-Dick,” Poe’s ”Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories stirred into a series of unfortunate horror shows covering quite a bit of the amorphous territory of the speculative genre.

It’s the 1850s. Will Correy, a peripatetic and not quite qualified ship’s doctor, while whoring in Valparaiso, Chile, finds a spot aboard the whaling vessel Virgil Coffey. As the voyage goes on, things start to get weird. The ship passes through some kind of disorienting, vision-inducing fog. Then the crew notices with bewilderment that the southern stars by which they navigate have been largely replaced by other, unfamiliar stars. Meanwhile they come upon a lifeboat containing the grisly remains of several dead sailors, some of whom may have been eaten by the others — or by the sole survivor, a woman named Dorothy Wren. Dorothy warns the Virgil’s captain about repeating the mistakes of the vessel she and her unfortunate shipmates had to abandon.

Little by little, Dorothy’s story of how she got there does not seem to add up, but her warning does. They pursue and encounter a strangely behaving whale, and are horrified when it spews up weird worms. Soon, sailors are dying inexplicably horrific deaths, and tension aboard ship rises as the crew, reminiscent of the isolated Antarctica base team in John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” start to suspect each other of murder. Lurking is the scrimshaw worm …

The narrative surfs along with minimal attention to characters and maximal attention to divulging the horrors aboard the ship, along with interposed depictions of 19th-century whaling scenery, gear, practices and terminology. There are many a “God help us!” and “There she blows!” and “We will find the culprit and see that he receives justice!” type exclamations, suggesting the author had great, good, campy fun writing this book.

Its airy playfulness bears some resemblance to the playfulness of the 2018 winner for speculative fiction, “American Ghost”  by Unity College instructor Paul Guernsey. But they are much different books in aim and, presumably, audience, an indication maybe of how wide the net of speculative fiction stretches. “The Scrimshaw Worm” was the only finalist selected from among the submissions to that category for the 2019 award, according to the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance.

Daniel Dunkle is news director for The Courier-Gazette, Camden Herald and Republican Journal newspapers. “The Scrimshaw Worm” is available from the author through his website https://danieldunkle.wordpress.com/

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

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