“Spectral Whalers: And Other Nautical Legends of Olde New England”
by Eric Stanway
184 pages, $14.95
The era of Urban Dictionary has been loosed upon the land and many-book Eric Stanway of Fitzwilliam has adapted to the maverick lingo of this exotica.
Stanway’s compendium of old-time legends is well-titled: “Spectral Whalers; And Other Nautical Legends of Olde New England.”
This shows up as an update of a linguistic mix of words of old — “howled with screeching laughter,” “obviously mad and convinced that he was damned,” “howled through the bowels of the house.”
Stanway’s version of Urban Dictionary — basically, an open door invitation to erstwhile language inventions — feeds the human gene for story and narrative.
In the current Urban Dictionary, American English emerges from a crowd-sourced, short-lived language — a dictionary of structureless street slang, sometimes appearing as The Wild Word of the Day. In essence, Urban Dictionary is a personal language, highly informal and arbitrary at the edge of illiteracy. Suddenly, possibilities abound with impunity.
Stanway’s adventure with the offbeat and the unconventional releases the imagination and sanctions the exotic.
Applied to spectral, ghostly whalers, sea serpents and other feverish legends of the sea, Urban Dictionary requires the suspension of disbelief, the traditional literary application that allows for the detour of critical thinking and basic logic in judging differences between fiction and nonfiction.
At the same time, Stanway faces the fantastic and the foolish in his revival of the traditional deep-down New England ghostly history.
He cites Ray Abeyta’s recently recreated 2008 painting “The Specter Whalemen” from the 1841 story “when it was published in The Old American Comic and People’s Almanac.”
Stanway populates his revived historical stories with many skeletal creatures pictured fighting the fiends of the black-dark oceans. He describes Boston Harbor as a nest of Long John Silver pirates of the 17th century. When real-life Dixey Bull decided to start a racket, some French pirates stole his furs and pushed him off the coast of Maine. So Dixey Bull decided to exact his revenge.
He captured a couple of skull trading vessels with his crew of 13 amateur pirates and decided to attack Pemaquid. The Mainers retaliated and took a pot-shot at his first lieutenant, killing him on the spot.
This setback convinced Bull to persuade himself to give up excessive drinking and head south for the winter. Bull, a renegade English sea captain turned sea pirate, was eventually hanged in England, a Stanway example of a real-life mix of fiction and nonfiction.
An accompanying painting depicts a whale in a stormy sea attacking an open longboat carrying six animated fleshless skeletons plus a harpoon counterattacking a monstrous whale trying to upend the bevy of bones.
“They say that the skeletal fingers of revenge have a long reach,” Stanway writes.
For those sailors who plied their trade in the whaling industry of Nantucket, tragedy was always a present companion. Many who ventured to sea in search of the huge mammals never made it back to home and hearth. “Such was published in The Old American Comic and People’s Almanac, out of Boston,” continues Stanway.
He takes the frightening facts of life and transmogrifies them into entertaining narratives, feeding the suspension of disbelief:
“The quaint fishing town of Ipswich has its own share of odd story,” he writes, including that of “mooncusser” Harry Main, “who would lure passing ships onto the rocks, whereby he could loot the wrecks. The townspeople soon had enough of his shenanigans and sentenced him to be chained to a sandbar, where he would shovel mud for all eternity.”
Rev. George Whitefield also showed up here, Stanway continues. “He dispensed fire and brimstone sermons for the locals. They were astonished when, one day, right in the middle of speaking, he engaged the Devil himself in hand-to-hand combat.”
Stanway tells the story of Rachel Wall about when she became a pirate out of financial necessity. Eventually, he writes, her luck ran out, and she was executed on a gibbet meant for three, all for attempting to steal a hat worth about seven shillings. He also tells of the sea serpent that made its appearance for quite a number of years, beginning in 1817. It was said that one of its progeny was washed up on shore, and was dispatched by a farmer with a pitchfork.
“These are tales of high romance on the seas; as to their veracity,” Stanway writes of “Spectral Whalers,” adding, “I cannot testify. I will maintain, however, that they make for good reading, especially on a stormy night, when the wind rushes in from the ocean, and the tide threatens to wash all away.”
Because Stanway brings bridges of reality to his book of exotic legends, he makes the stories fit the popular New England lore of ghosts and goblins.
The impetus behind the widening spread of Urban Dictionary has increased within entertaining stories. So has the use of protective phrases such as “They say” and “It was said” and the forthright Stanway tell-all: “There is no real verification for the tale.”