MIKE JONES The Scrimshaw Marionette: The Transgressions Cycle Book Two. Reviewed by Lou Murphy
The Scrimshaw Marionette begins with a prologue set in 1881 on Flukesplade Island, a remote whaling station in the Tasman Sea and an unforgiving environment that plays host to superstition and omens. The resident whalers are reliant on blackfish – the killer whales that serve as lures for the humpbacks – and regard them with something close to worship. The blackfish also provide the whalers with protection, serving as buffers between the humpbacks and the scanty longboats of the men.
The whalers pursue their prey with determination through the cruel seas. Meanwhile Violet, the ten-year-old daughter of their harpooner, hears the call of the blackfish from the relative safety of the beach. Children are unwelcome on the island and treated with suspicion, as it is believed they bring bad luck to the whale-hunting. But the whalers put up with this child’s presence because they need the harpooning skills of her father, Abe, who is a widower.
On the beach Violet plays with a doll made for her by one of the whalers:
… The surface of the doll’s skin was carved with miniature tattoos – fine contrast etchings, intricate patterns made with a careful hand and a sharp knife. A work of scrimshaw, carved from the bones of slaughtered whales …
This is our first encounter with the scrimshaw marionette. As a supernatural consequence of the marionette’s sinister dance, Abe is thrown overboard. In the chaos of the ocean, attacked by both the humpbacks and the blackfish hungry for their share of meat, his arm is wrenched off. The dismemberment is written with gripping veracity and colourful, gory detail.
Push forward 50 years to 1931 and the desperation caused by the Depression. The action-driven pace continues, now following the plight of Will, his wife Martha, and their ten-year-old daughter Rosa. Unable to find work on the Sydney docks – aptly nicknamed the Hungry Mile – Will takes to the bottle to drown his despair.
Jones artfully depicts the sorry, alcohol-induced haze Will consequently inhabits. It takes a tragedy that renders Rosa mute to pull Will out of his addiction. In an echo of the earlier story, he and Rosa are left on their own.
With guilt gnawing his soul, Will tries to pursue a life for himself and his daughter in Sydney, but riot and eviction force them to leave. They walk south, with no real goal and only meagre possessions, relying on the occasional charity of others for food and sleeping wherever they can. Will’s dreams are haunted:
At night, when he and Rosa slept by the side of the road, his body sweated and ached. There were sounds in his ears, voices he couldn’t determine, calling to him. At times he thought he saw things, heard things – wretched entities haunting his half-asleep dreams. Black ocean waves filled with teeth. Bodies dragged into the sea by unseen strings. And the melancholy call of whale song like a grinding squeeze-organ cranked under dense, murky water.
Eventually, father and daughter make their way to a small fishing village called Saltwater. Here Will encounters a laudanum-addicted doctor who services Flukesplade Island. It is whaling season and the island is desperate for workers. The doctor is prepared to take Will there – however, when he discovers that Will has a daughter he changes his mind, saying that the island is ‘no place for a child’. Will’s desperation eventually persuades the doctor to let them go, and Will reassures him that the child will be no trouble.
And so Will and Rosa step into the bleak savagery of Flukesplade, and it is at this point that The Scrimshaw Marionette pushes into pure horror. Will is employed as a slaughterer and leaves his daughter unattended for hours at a time. In her wanderings on the desolate island she discovers the scrimshaw marionette and it exerts a powerful hold over her. Its occult legacy plunges her into a maze of apparitions; spectres guide her every move.
Rosa travels into the horrors of the past, possessed by the power of the doll, pulling her father and the doctor with her:
… the doctor had seen many things with his rational mind. The scientific process was carved into his thinking by the substantial education his parents had given him. But the isolation of the ocean and the mix of strangers he’d lived with had shown him things he could not reconcile. The superstitions of sailors that he had once dismissed were now not so easily ignored …
To survive the influence of the marionette Will and Rosa are pushed into supernatural territory made all the more disturbing by the grim realities so eloquently evoked in this chilling tale.
Lou Murphy is the author of the crime novel Squealer, available from http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/LouMurphy