On Stranger Tides Tim Powers, 1987
Jonathan Green grabs a bottle of rum and enjoys the fantasy that inspired Pirates Of The Caribbean
Although On Stranger Tides had been launched to wide acclaim six years previously, I set out on my own voyage of discovery with the book in 1993 – the year my first Fighting Fantasy adventure, Spellbreaker, was published – and it would go on to influence my own zombie- pirate fantasy romp Bloodbones.
I can still vividly remember the cover of the copy I picked up in Bath Central Library. The image of a peg- legged skeleton on the deck of a galleon from the Golden Age of Piracy, surrounded by the accoutrements of the buccaneer’s trade ( right down to the parrot on his bony shoulder), had me reaching for the book without a second thought.
The plot concerns the unfortunate exploits of one- time puppeteer Jack Chandagnac, who sets off for the Caribbean in search of his inheritancestealing uncle, only to be captured by pirates and forced to join their crew, now rechristened as Jack Shandy. The tale also concerns Blackbeard the pirate and the search for the immortality- granting Fountain of Youth. Before you know it, there are dramatic sea battles and even more dramatic magical duels between eighteenth century sorcerers.
Powers’ skill as a storyteller is consummate; the writing is deceptively simple and keeps the story tearing along at a breakneck pace. Orson Scott Card described Powers’ prose as both clean and elegant, a “style that illuminates without slowing down the tale. The story promises marvels and horrors, and delivers them all.”
However, the success of On Stranger Tides, it could be argued, is that it is firmly rooted in reality. “It gives a lot of real- world lumber to support my crazy supernatural business,” Powers once said, when asked about his movieinspiring novel. “I’m always very aware of the risk that a reader will blink and say, ‘ Wait a minute this is all made- up crap, isn’t it?’ But if I talk about carriages and shoe buckles and George III and
Tides has played its part in popularising pirates all over again
commerce between London and Amsterdam, the reader will be a little more tilted towards thinking this is happening in the real world.”
In Blackbeard the pirate, Powers found all the inspiration he needed. “Blackbeard behaved insanely” – twining lit matches into his beard as well as drinking rum mixed with gunpowder. “Of course in real life these things happened because these people were crazy. But for the purposes of my book, I said, let’s say they weren’t. Let’s say these were very shrewd moves, but in a supernatural context…”
To the world at large, On Stranger Tides will always be associated with the Pirates Of The Caribbean film franchise, having lent its name to the fourth big- screen fantasy swashbuckler, even though the movie borrowed only a few elements from the book – most notably Blackbeard, the Fountain of Youth, and a handful of voodoo- inspired zombies.
The story goes that the Pirates writing team first learned of Powers’ novel during the production of sequel Dead Man’s Chest, deciding that it would make a good starting point for a new movie in the series. Well, it had already inspired Ron Gilbert, creator of the Monkey Island series of graphic adventure games.
However, consciously or unconsciously, the book’s influence had already wormed its way into the previous three movies, via the collective subconscious of those involved in the production, having a hold on the first film, The Curse Of The Black Pearl, as strong as the Kraken’s tentacles around a doomed Scottish merchantman.
To many who had already enjoyed Powers’ book, adopting On Stranger Tides as the title of the fourth Pirates movie felt like an acknowledgement of the influence the book had already had on the series as much as an indication of what the plot of the inevitable blockbuster might entail.
Either directly or indirectly, On Stranger Tides has played its part in popularising pirates all over again – just think of the Black Sails TV series, or videogames such as Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag – although, as with dinosaurs, their appeal never really goes away. Isn’t that right, me hearties? Jonathan Green’s Fighting Fantasy gamebook Bloodbones is available now from Tin Man Games, while Sharkpunk is coming in May from Snowbooks.