A “pirate novel” that’s actually a 90-page sledgehammer of gore, dismemberment, cannibalism, pedophilia, and perversity. It wants to shock and offend, and since I wanted to be shocked and offended, I enjoyed it greatly.
Donald Trump reputedly owns an edited version of the film Bloodsport that contains only the fight scenes. White Skull is like an edited version of the 17th century that only contains nothing except vileness. Call it the Golden Shower Age of Piracy. The sheer depth and density of Havoc’s perverse invention is impressive – nearly every paragraph provokes a “wait…what?” reaction at some point.
White Skull is derived from corruptions of pirate tropes. A young man called Misson (who may have actually existed but probably didn’t) incites mutiny on the high seas, helped by an insane monk called Carriacole (who considers himself “the shit of Christ”). He takes command of a ship, renounces all ties to God and Government, and becomes free. Free to do what, exactly? His will. The idea that pirates were early anarchists is a familiar one, and not original to Havoc. They were men who tried to solve their problems not by learning new concepts, but by purging their minds of concepts already there. And while the analogy can only go so far, there has to be a correlation between men who defy earthly authority and those who defy any authority – that of Christianity, or that of basic human decency.
The newly-made pirates cut a swathe of destruction across the main, destroying slaving ships, whaling vessels, and everything else they consider an affront against liberty. Real life pirates such as Billy the Kid, Thomas Tew, and Jean Lafitte play roles in the story (the fact that these men lived decades and sometimes centuries apart doesn’t trouble Havoc). Eventually, Misson and friends establish a stronghold on the island of Madagascar, hoping for a pirate paradise. However, corruption and decadence soon attack the pirate community from within.
Things take on an interesting allegorical edge here. Beneath the gore and human debris, White Skull is the story of what happens when men throw off the chains of society…and then find that those chains were the only things keeping them tethered to sanity. As the pirate paradise grows increasingly vile and repugnant, Havoc sketches Misson’s growing disillusionment with the project – even though he might secretly be the worst of all of them.
This is the closest James Havoc (a pen name for someone else) came to writing a genuine novel. His previous works include Raism (an unreadable Burroughs-style experiment), and Satanskin (a Clive Barker-style short story collection). To see Havoc tackle a traditional beginning-middle-end Story is surprising. The writing is incantatory: as foul and colourful as gems expelled from bowels. It’s both realistic enough to shock and surrealistic enough to float, and it’s one of the fastest-paced stories I’ve read. White Skull doesn’t just move, it spins crazily forward like a unmasted ship before a gale, and the finale is ridiculous but satisfying.