The British small press Egaeus Press prides itself on publishing “morbid and fantastical works.” Their A Book of the Sea, edited by Mark Beech, certainly fits the bill, although not all of the stories are completely satisfying.
As the title suggests, this anthology features stories in which the sea plays a prominent role—in some, it’s a character in its own right. Some of the stories are strikingly imaginative. In Stephen J. Clark’s “The Figurehead of the Cailleach,” an artist is commissioned to restore an old figurehead half-ruined by the elements. As he works, he begins to suspect there’s something unusual about this figurehead and about the isolated cove where his studio has been set up. The central conceit of the story doesn’t fit into any of the typical marine motifs—pirates, mermaids, ghost ships, and so forth. It’s a truly original and intriguing piece. Karim Ghahwagi’s “The Sorrows of Satan’s Book” is a similarly imaginative tale. It blends a murder mystery with an interesting theological premise, all set in a Danish seaside town.
Interestingly, the book’s other strength is in stories that do hew closely to old tropes. A couple of the pieces here perfectly capture the feel of a folktale from the Old Country (wherever that happens to be for you) or the modern equivalent, the friend-of-a-friend narrative. “Dancing Boy” by Colin Insole tells of a cursed ship built to punish a malefactor, while Steven Pirie’s “The Woman Who Walked into the Sea” is the story of a long-ago mystical bargain fulfilled.
Unfortunately, a few of the stories are marred by purple prose. Albert Power’s “The Final Flight of Fidelia” is a moving story of a revenant seeking justice for a grave wrongdoing, but the emotional impact is somewhat blunted by the artificially old-fashioned writing style. And while I don’t object to a dense narrative, the writing in Jonathan Wood’s “From Whence We Came” crosses the line from dense to impenetrable.
One last note I want to make here is about the production values for this book. Egaeus Press says they strive to produce “volumes of a quality of ornateness rarely seen in modern books,” and they are not kidding. The book, as a physical object, is beautiful. It’s a sturdily-bound hardcover, with reproductions of a gorgeous painting on the front- and endpapers. Each section of the book, as well as the beginning and end of each story, are marked by line drawings. This is a quality you rarely see from large publishers, let alone a small press.