Charles Williams: Noir at Sea
Published May 11, 2016
CHARLES WILLIAMS: NOIR AT SEA
“The room was high-ceilinged and dim and passably clean, stamped with the drab monotony of all cheap hotel rooms and that air of being ready, with the same weary and impervious acquiescence, for sleep, assignation, or suicide.” Aground.
I’ve never been a sailor, but I’ve always loved sailboats. Blown by the wind, floating on the sea, they seem, of all human creations, most in keeping with the natural world. This past summer I drove down to Atlantic Canada and had a great time—wonderful people, lovely scenery. But when I came home, and reflected, I realized something was missing. I hadn’t seen enough sailboats. Those I had were usually glimpsed from the car, and far-off. And nothing stood out. I was in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. That far north, you won’t often spot a Concordia yawl, but what about a Bermuda 40, or something that at least made me think of Alden or Sparkman & Stevens? But no, it was pretty much one standard white fibreglass hull after another.
Back home, I decided to remedy this lack by watching a few movies featuring sailboats. The web is full of lists, including numerous “best sailing films,” and I worked my way through them. One title, Dead Calm, appeared on several. I vaguely remembered it, though I was fairly sure I hadn’t seen it. But it was released in 1989, back when we still had video stores, so I’d probably looked it over and decided, no. Now, finally giving in, I could see why. It was Halloween on a boat. Nicole Kidman in panties. Sam Neill as her serious, sensitive hubby. A mysterious young man with a loony smile and the mystery of the black schooner: busty figureheads in the main cabin, bodies in the bilge—yuck! And of course a speargun—oops, I skewered the dog! Finally, a signal flare right in the mouth…I watched to the end, mainly because I wanted to see if the boat would get a credit. It did. “Storm Vogel”: a 73-foot ketch—surely, even for a captain in the Australian navy (Sam), that’s a lot of yacht with only your wife as crew. But another credit was even more surprising. From the novel ‘Dead Calm’ by Charles Williams. I didn’t believe it. There was no way Charles Williams could have written a novel that bad.
He hadn’t, of course: I found a copy and read it, just to be sure.
I suppose I should be thankful to the film for reminding me of Williams, and sending me back to his writing. Although he still has a few readers, he’s not well known today. His biography has never been very detailed: born in Texas 1909, he left school after grade ten, joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and then worked for a marine radio company during and after the War. He began to write in the 1950s. His literary antecedents are plain enough: Erskine Caldwell, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, the “noir” fiction of the 30s and 40s. This kind of writing had traditionally been published in “the pulps” but by the time Williams came along, they were in decline, and he became a top writer of paperback originals: many of his titles came out as Fawcett, “Gold Medal” books. Fawcett began as a magazine publisher (Mechanix Illustrated, True Confessions) and book distributor—they put New American Library paperbacks into drugstores and bus stations. But in 1950 they started their own line—original titles that had never been published as hardcovers—and their instant success revolutionized publishing. Williams was one of their first big writers; others included John D. MacDonald (the Travis McGee novels), Richard Prather (the Shell Scott mysteries), David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Edward S. Aarons (Sam Durrell) and Donald Hamilton (the Matt Helm spy stories.) Rona Jaffe worked at Fawcett as an editor, and turned the experience into a novel, The Best of Everything, that was very successfully filmed. A run of dialogue (Brian Aherne as Fed Shalimar to Diane Baker as April Morrison) explains the Fawcett philosophy: “Few people realize the great future for paperbacks…Some towns don’t have any library at all, not even a bookshop. If people want to get a book, they have to go to a drugstore. And what do they read? Our books. We are responsible for changing the literary taste of America. It’s our books with our sexy covers and our low costs and mass distribution…”
Williams wrote more than twenty novels. The first half-dozen—Hill Girl, Big City Girl, River Girl, Hell Hath No Fury, Nothing in Her Way, Go Home Stranger—are “backwoods noir,” working a fictional vein opened by Erskine Caldwell in Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre. Set in the backcountry of Texas and the South, these novels recall the Depression: bare subsistence scraped from hardscrabble farms, political corruption, characters trapped in lives of desperation and hopelessness, the only escape the railroad track that runs out of town. You can almost taste the despair. Here’s Mitch Neely, part of the sharecropper family in Big City Girl as he watches the rain kill his cotton crop:
Ain’t nothing to do but set and wait for it, he thought savagely. Nothing you can fight or get holt of to stop it. You set and watch the rain drown it and turn it yellow and the grass grow up so rank you could get lost in it, and there ain’t even enough left at the end of the year to pay off the credit, let alone buy any mules. Every year is going to be the last one you’ll have to work on the halves, because this time you’ll have something left over to start buying back some tools of your own and some mules, if you can keep the old man from diddling it all off again on yellow shoes and another broken-down car, and then something happens. Too wet, too dry, boll weevils, or the price goes down, or something.
Those first novels made Williams’s reputation, and I admire them, but for me his writing comes into its own when he begins writing about the sea.
Professionally, he’d moved on—his novels now often appeared as hardcovers, although the first of his sea stories, Scorpion Reef, began as a novella in Manhunt, and had a separate paperback life as Gulf Coast Girl. The novel is a skiillful, charming genuflection to that great marine mystery, the loss of the Mary Celeste. A tanker, the Joseph H. Hallock, is steaming across the Gulf of Mexico when she comes across a 36-foot sailing yacht, Freya, out of Puerto Rico, apparently abandoned. “She was gliding along with serene purpose on a southeaserly course which would have taken her into the Yucutan Strait. Her dinghy was still there, atop the cabin, and everything was shipshape…” The Hallock’s captain sends out a boat and his mate to investigate and discovers that the Freya “was well provisioned and she had water. The two bunks were made and the cabin swept…When the hard-bitten old mate walked over and put his hand against the coffeepot sitting on one burner of the primus stove, it was slightly warm to the touch.” And the mystery deepens when a satchel is discovered, stuffed with eighty-three thousand U.S. dollars. What’s happened to the boat and the couple aboard her, Bill Manning and the beautiful Shannon? The answer lies in the log. As the captain of the Hallock goes through it, we’re looking over his shoulder. The last entry is enigmatic, The rapture…the rapture–which, as the captain notes, bore an “odd, reverse-English similarity to Kurtz’s agonized death cry in The Heart of Darkness. ‘The horror. The horror.’” And when the captain resolves the mystery, at least in his own mind, it’s in terms of another Conradian reference. “The Joseph H. Hallock was waddling, full-bellied, up the coast of Florida just south of Fowey Rocks. She was well inshore from the main axis of the Stream, since they had made arrangements by radio to have a Coast Guard boat meet them off Miami and take Freya off their hands. Or, at least that was the master’s excuse to Mr. Davidson, the mate. He felt, actually, a little like Conrad’s master in The Secret Sharer, a story he was sure Manning had enjoyed.” Conrad’s captain, recall, brings his vessel dangerously close to shore to enable ‘the secret sharer’ of his cabin, his second self, a chance to swim free: “a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.” No doubt this is the clue to the mystery of the Freya, but it also explains the difference between Scorpion Reef and Williams’ earlier books. In those first novels, people like the Neely’s haven’t a chance, they’re crushed by circumstance, society, injustice. But Manning and Shannon do have a chance, for the sea is a realm of freedom, offering an escape into a fresh, new world.
Scorpion Reef is the most literary of Williams’ novels in the sense that it’s the most formally constructed, a frame story that’s also bracketed within the two Conradian references. His next two books, Aground and Dead Calm, are looser, though they also have a particular literary relation, since one is the sequel to the other. Together, they go to the heart of what Wiliams wanted to write about, for if the sea is a realm of freedom it also corresponds to the realm of sex and love, for both love and the sea embrace Manning and Shannon. But obligatorily, since Williams is a noir writer, sex is problematic; he’s sailing into dangerous waters.
Of course the typical cover of a “Gold Medal” book—inevitably described as “lurid”—promised plenty of “sex,” at least as the word was understood circa 1955: something endlessly desired and universally condemned. In fact, those covers always over-promised, and what’s inside rarely rises to the salacious, let alone the erotic. “Gold Medal” sex was usually banal and strictly conventional. Within noir, those conventions condemned women to being femme fatales, whores with hearts of gold, or hopeless innocents, while the men are saps and dupes or brutal “he-men.” Williams understood those conventions perfectly; in Scorpion Reef, Bill Manning for a time believes he’s been suckered by the glorious Shannon and curses himself as a fool. But even when Williams was obeying the conventions, he was usually subverting them. For one thing, he understands where they come from: the helplessness men feel in the face of their own desire. In Big City Girl, for example, here is Mitch Neely thinking about Joy, the sexy wife of Sewell, his brother. It was a hot night in spite of the rain, and he lay there sweating in just his underwear, with no cover over him, trying to think of Joy…In his opinion she was a tramp, and he couldn’t see how Sewell had married her in the first place…All that was simple and easy to understand, but what were you going to do about the fact that you couldn’t think about it without seeing her and you didn’t want to see her when you were lying there alone in the hot darkness with the ache in you… His women often seem to match the convention but he gives them enough shading to step out from it. In a Williams novel, the women will be as carefully observed as the men, equally realistic given the form he was working in, and usually equal to the men in terms of their power and status. This is certainly true of Rae Osborne in Aground. It’s she who hires Ingram, and she’s as tough as he is. The gun-runners who’ve captured them dump Ingram on a sandbar but Rae elects to stay behind on the boat, drinking with the thugs. When they finally get sick of her and deposit her in Ingram’s lap—with one black eye and her clothes torn—he’s taken in until he flicks on his lighter and “had sense enough to look at the other eye and saw the cool, green glint of humour in it just before she winked. She was no drunker than he was.” She explains that staying behind was a ploy, an attempt to get hold of the life-raft that might let them escape. When he remarks that she’d been taking a chance, she replies.,“‘It wasn’t quite that bad…I wasn’t sure if I could handle Morrison or not, but it was worth the risk. After all, Ingram, I’m not Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. I’m thirty-four and I’ve been married twice. If I lost the bet, I’d still survive.’” This isn’t how the 1950s woman was supposed to contemplate the prospect of rape.
In Dead Calm, Rae and Ingram are convincingly together, even properly so since they’re now married and on their honeymoon. How different this is from the film. In it, we first see Rae as an upper-middle-class mommy, driving along with her son (properly strapped in a car-seat, of course.) Accident. Little boy dies. Mommy with tubes up her nose, uniformed hubby in ER. To top it all off, it’s Christmas. Cut—we’re on the boat. But the dead calm of the sea has now been rendered lugubrious and morbid: When you’re strong, says hubby, we’ll go home and start again. This is quite the opposite from Williams’ realm of freedom. In the novel, the calm doesn’t bother Ingram: Wind or no wind, it was morning, it was beautiful, and it was good to be alive. And it doesn’t bother Rae: They weren’t in a hurry, she pointed out, they were on their honeymoon, and they had privacy measurable in millions of square miles. The film will turn every aspect of itself into ideology, moralistic and “feminist," but in any case a conformism: which is precisely what Williams’ characters are seeking to escape. The novel, not trying to impose itself, can offer us realism. With the nautical detail that sometimes distresses readers of his sea stories, Williams gives us this definition of Ingram’s boat: “Saracen was thirty-two feet on the waterline, forty over-all, ketch-rigged. She was mahogany planked over oak frames and had been built less than ten years ago by a New England yard. She wasn’t as fast as some, nor as tall and long-ended and patrician of line, but she was reasonably dry on deck and with her short overhang forward and her deep forefoot she pounded very little in a seaway…” What a contrast to the overdone, oversized, Storm Vogel of the film. In the same way, the calm is not particularly menacing, because Ingram is a real sailor and Williams wants us to enter his world. “Though it had been less than four hours since he’d secured everything on deck and come below, Ingram awoke just before dawn…Without even consciously thinking about it, his mind received, filtered and evaluated each of the individual sounds in the orchestration of creaks and minute collisions going on about him, oblivious to the total melody but capable of becoming instantly alert at the mere suspicon of a note that was out of place. Nothing was rolling or banging on deck; everything was still secure topside. The metallic bumping just beyond his feet in the galley section of the cabin was the teakettle sliding against the rails that kept it on the stove. The click and intermittent rattle above it were the dishes shifting inside their stowage on the bulkhead above the sink…That sound of something rolling back and forth was a pencil loose in a drawer.”
The realism of the novel can sustain a suspense story, credible within the limits of its genre: the ideology of the film turns this into “horror,” characters and actions that can’t be accounted for except in terms of metaphysical and supernatural absolutes such as “evil.” The plot, in both novel and film, begins with the arrival of a beautiful, terrified young man, Hughie Warriner, who’s rowed over from the boat that Rae and Ingram sight in the calm, Orpheus. He’s determined that Ingram not return to her, and when Ingram does, Hughie overpowers Rae, takes control of Saracen, and motors away. This leaves Ingram marooned on Orpheus, which is taking on water and sinking. Now film and novel diverge. In the film, Orpheus is deserted; the only clue to what’s happened is a video showing sexy girls on a beach with some unclear intimations of violence. In the novel, on the other hand, Ingram discovers a couple aboard; these were Hughie’s fellow passengers, a sports writer named Bellew, and Hughie’s wife. As Ingram sets about trying to keep the yacht afloat—an effort presented with Williams’ usual care and nautical realism—we hear the story of what’s happened, an account of love, dependency, jealousy, rising tension, and a final, terrifying accident. In the film, there’s nothing of this. Indeed, the film doesn’t have the novel’s balance, for its tilted toward Rae’s attempts to take back Saraccen and then sail back to her husband. This, of course, is also a big part of the novel. But the difference between the two is remarkable. In the film, Rae is being shown as a “strong” woman. There’s a shotgun aboard Saracen; only at the last second does Warriner prevent Rae from blowing him away. She then goes for the speargun. One spear kills the dog, but the second hits Hughie in the shoulder—at this point we’re clearly supposed to be cheering her on—and Rae beats Warriner unconscious and sets him adrift (certainly to die) in the life-raft. Of course, he turns up again, however improbably, and is finally dispatched with that flare in the mouth.
The novel views all this quite differently. The shotgun is there, but both Rae and Ingram agonize over Rae’s using it. Here’s Ingram, pumping desperately on the flooded Orpheus, trying to imagine how Rae could overcome Hughie Warriner back on Saracen.
Rae was no match for him physically; he was a powerfully built man in his twenties. You could forget that. And there was no weapon— He stopped. The shotgun…it was taken down, the barrels and stock wrapped separately in oiled sheepskin and stowed in a drawer where it could be sealed by customs in ports where it wasn’t permitted. She knew nothing about guns; could she even assemble and load it? No, that wasn’t the question. Could she use it? Could she deliberately shoot a man with it? And if she did, what would it do to her afterward?
And the morality—in truth, the reality—of this is equally clear to Rae. She could kill Warriner with the shotgun, or she could go off and leave John to drown. Since neither of these was even conceivable, she had the third, which wasn’t even an alternative choice…her nerves would crack. Rae wrestles with the question, but then She realized there was no sense to any of these arguments. You couldn’t rationalize killing a man with a shotgun, and you didn’t arrive at the deed by any process of thought…If you did it at all, it was after you’d quit thinking in desperation, when nothing else was left.
Finally, Rae does assemble the shotgun, has Hughie squarely in her sights and can’t pull the trigger. She eventually overcomes him (the film also uses this device) by mixing drugs into his lemonade; but she doesn’t set him adrift, she ties him up. In both the novel and film, there’s then the sail back to Orpheus. In the film, it’s all about she-girl Rae (Nicole Kidman), silhouetted by the sunset, rescuing her man; thankfully, we don’t actually have “I am woman!” as the background score (though in some ways its worse, a vaguely ecclesiastical dirge.) In the novel, Rae is confronted with the navigational problem of how she can find Orpheus, a problem whose intricacies Williams successfully explains and Rae ingeniously solves. The novel then has a stab at understanding what actually happened, a picturing of Hughie’s consciousness—and unconconsciousness—that keeps us in the rational world. In the film, of course, that’s impossible. So Hughie arises one last time from the great dark deep to be finally dispatched by the flare. All in all, Dead Calm, film and novel, makes for a fascinating look at the progress of feminism, but is also a demonstration of how ideology works. If reality is a round hole, ideology is a square peg; you can only get one into the other by brute force. Taken far enough, ideolgoy must, finally, exclude the rational, substituting for it morality and power: judgment. And it tells us that the strongly moral are doomed to become the strongly irrational; and regardless of sex, they kill.
A final note, re: the film of Dead Calm. Originally, the rights to the novel were bought by Orson Welles, who shot it as The Deep with Laurence Harvey and Jeanne Moreau. It was never finished, and Welles final lady companion, Oja Kodar, sold the rights to Dead Calm’s producers.
Williams’ last sea story, And the Deep Blue Sea, demonstrates how he liked symmetry, reversals, his characters and plots coming full circle. The novel’s hero is Harry Goddard, formerly a film producer and writer, who’s been “single-handing across the Pacific in the thirty-two foot sloop Shoshone for reasons he wasn’t sure of himself except that the horizon provided a sort of self-renewing objective if you no longer had any other.” When his boat is sunk by a half-submerged log, he’s rescued by a passing freighter and rejoins the civilized world. But he quickly discovers that civilization is not much more than a cinematic illusion: the freighter has been taken over by a group of Nazis helping a war criminal make his escape. The plot is worked out with Williams typical care for the details—it features two well-drawn female characters—and at the end of it Goddard ends up back in the water. As he’s pulled out, one of the sailors asks him, “‘Don’t you ever get enough of this stupid ocean?’” The answer is No. For Williams, you’re better off in a life-raft than on the Queen Mary.
Williams achievement goes well beyond his sea stories; I’ve noted the “backwoods” noir novels, but his “man-on-the-run” tales make another category altogether. And since I began with the film of Dead Calm, it’s worth noting that a dozen Williams novels have been filmed, often by the French, though the most recent was Hot Spot, made by Dennis Hopper (1990)–quite funny, and cheerfully wicked. Still, I think the sea stories have a special place in Williams’ writing. He’d worked on the sea, and he loved the sea, and he also loved boats. Behind all noir writing lies one great figure, Hemingway. He was undoubtedly the most influential writer in English of the twentieth century. Anthony Powell, so different a writer than Hemingway let alone Williams, put it this way: “You really need to have lived then to realise what a revelation he was. Everybody writes like that now, which wasn’t at all the case then. We thought it was absolutely extraordinary.” At its best, Williams’ clean, straight, American prose is worthy of the influence. Of course Hemingway loved the sea too, and in his life Williams might have made a Hemingway hero, perhaps a model for Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not. Like Heminway, Williams also died a suicide. His wife had died of cancer a few years before, and apparently Williams didn’t want to go on by himself. It makes me think of Hemingway’s lines in Death in the Afternoon: “There is no lonelier man in death except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her.”