Columns > Published on May 29th, 2012

LURID: Jaws - Back In The Water

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

Memorial Day means Summer!  It’s time to get your beach reads on, with those plot-heavy paperbacks we’ve come to know and love as Bad Books.  If you’re looking for something inherently trashy but engrossing, with an old-school flavor, boasting a front cover that will make others think twice about kicking sand in your face, then Jaws is a perennial Lurid pick.

Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel about a shark terrorizing the Long Island seaside town of Amity was a bestseller from its first summer of publication.  Although it has been overshadowed by the blockbusting movie version, and often receives a bad rap in comparison, it’s an enjoyable thriller of surprising substance that deserves a second look – especially if you’re a fan of the movie.  And who isn’t?

At its core, Jaws is that great, rare thing, a novel that hinges around a single, terrifying concept that needs no explanation beyond the cover art and the one-word title.  Roger Kastel’s design for the paperback jacket is absolutely iconic, and is responsible in no small way for the book’s reputation and sales. From the “fish-hook” J of the title to the clearly naked Chrissie’s pert breasts to the outrageous proportions of the shark (if Chrissie gives us scale, that monster’s teeth are two feet long) to the disturbing psychosexual undertones (there’s a giant penis with teeth heading straight for Chrissie’s unprotected vagina! No, wait! It’s the giant vagina dentata that lurks in the deep sea of everyone’s subconscious birth memories!) it’s unforgettable.  How could any reader not want to know what lies inside?  Universal used the same illustration for the movie poster as they couldn’t think of a more powerful way to hook the audience.  That never happens.

All first time novelists should get down on their knees and pray they get a jacket design that is even a fraction as effective at generating sales as Kastel’s art.

At its core, Jaws is that great, rare thing, a novel that hinges around a single, terrifying concept that needs no explanation beyond the cover art and the one-word title.

Once you crack the cover, Jaws can be appreciated anew if you know a little about its genesis, and can brace yourself for the bad sex (hint: skip Chapter 8).  Apart from the very 1970s references to pot, and rape fantasies, it's aged reasonably well.  In addition to addressing the primal fear of what lurks in the deep, Benchley riffs on some still-relevant political themes, particularly when it comes to the class divide programmed into the Amity townsfolk’s DNA, the summer vs. year-round islanders.  A lot of the tension in the book comes from the helplessness felt by the local tradespeople as their income is decimated by the presence of the shark.  Their misery is worsened by the knowledge that the tennis club crowd can easily shrug off one summer of bad luck, but for the less fortunate, shark attacks are fatal in more ways than one.  It could be any summer since 2008.

Jaws is also a discourse on unsustainability; tourism vs. ecology.  The movie version doesn’t entertain for a nanosecond the idea that it might be wrong to destroy such a magnificent – and rare – predator that is only behaving according to its instincts.  Instead, the death of the shark becomes a moment of heroic victory. Smile, you sonofabitch! The book is much more sympathetic to the idea that humans are the ones who are out of line, invading another creature’s territory, splashing around in the shallows for fun, rather than for food or procreation purposes.  They’re the ones who should retreat – as Chief Brody suggests – until the shark has moved on.  Closing the beaches to prevent further fatalities is the simplest, most eco-friendly response to the problem, but Benchley explores how the economic structures of Amity can’t tolerate that solution.  Human society is driven by a more powerful and destructive need to consume than any species of shark – a message that resonates much more today than it did in 1974.

Three years before that cover hit the shelves, Peter Benchley was a freelance journalist who’d edited the TV pages for Newsweek, who had a background as a speechwriter in Lyndon Johnson’s White House, and was trying to find a way to support his family with his writing.  He pitched various ideas for non-fiction books to Tom Congdon, a Doubleday editor.  Congdon wasn’t impressed by these, but was intrigued by Benchley’s proposal for a novel featuring a shark as antagonist and offered him a $1000 advance to go away and write a hundred pages.

The result, Jaws, is an object lesson in writing about what you know and what consumes you.  Benchley had long been fascinated by sharks, through boyhood summers spent diving with them in the waters off Nantucket Island, and through an obsession with shark news stories – particularly the capture of a 4,500 lb great white off Long Island in 1964, and tales of the 1916 attacks off the Jersey Shore.   When he spotted the dorsal fins of sharks in the water “they spoke of the unknown and the mysterious, of invisible danger and mindless savagery.”[1]

Benchley had also been entranced by the 1971 documentary Blue Water, White Death. Made by Peter Gimbel, department store heir and underwater adventurer, it follows an expedition to locate and film great white sharks, something no one had done before.  It features the photography of Ron and Valerie Taylor, and Rodney Fox – who went on to film the live shark sequences for Jaws – and culminates in a great white attacking the divers’ shark cage.  Although the close-up footage of great whites in action seems tame to today’s Shark Week veterans, the documentary caused a sensation in 1971, and was responsible for moving these hitherto enigmatic fish to the forefront of the zeitgeist.

Benchley managed to combine his marine preoccupations with the signs of the times surrounding him, considering the shark as a metaphor for everything that threatened America in the early 1970s. Against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal, the oil crisis, the Chilean coup, the Cold and Vietnam wars and any number of other shady government activities that would be generating conspiracy theories in the years to come (the destruction of MK ULTRA files, anyone?) Benchley pulled together shark tales from various sources and embarked on the book that would redefine his career. 

He set out with very clear intentions:

I had no interest in writing a one-note horror story: Shark eats people.  I concentrated on the question of what would actually happen if a huge predator laid siege to a resort community.  The first reaction of the authorities, I thought, would be to try to cover up the problem in the hopes that it would go away… Of course, by the time of the second or third fatal attack, the cover-up would be impossible to sustain.[2]

Given the year of its publication, it’s hardly surprising that Jaws is constructed around power, corruption and lies.  Benchley does an excellent job of creating horror from reaction rather than action, taking a dramatic inciting incident and extrapolating his narrative through a series of denials and poor choices that make the situation much, much worse.  The paranoia he generates within Amity is disproportionate to a fish that, over the course of the book, kills just six people, two of whom are engaged in directly attacking it.  Jaws isn't really about a shark.  It’s about how the U.S. retaliates to a threat.  When Minnie Eldridge, the elderly postmistress, declares the crisis of Biblical proportions, thus sanctioning the use of any available force, she’s pre-empting American foreign policy for the next forty years.

Benchley also does an excellent job of delivering his set pieces, the shark attacks.  The first five pages, describing the demise of the unfortunate skinny dipper, Chrissie, are masterful in their economy of detail and style.  Effortlessly, Benchley hits some key horror tropes. He cuts between the shark and the human point of view, showing them converging in time and space.  Chrissie is an “untutored” swimmer who plunges into the ocean after a middle-of-the-night bout of sloppy, drunken sand-dune sex with a guy she doesn’t know very well.  Oh dear, Chrissie, transgress much?  But even this lost girl is allowed a moment of regret, a single good decision, when she senses something is wrong, and turns back.

She guessed that she was fifty yards from shore.  She could see the line of white foam where the waves broke on the beach.  She saw the lights in the house, and for a comforting moment she thought she saw someone pass by one of the windows.”

So near, so far.  Thanks to Kastel’s cover, the reader knows Chrissie’s not going to make it.  Benchley is clinical, almost leisurely, as he plays out her doom.

She reached down to touch her foot, treading water with her left leg to keep her head up, feeling in the blackness with her left hand.  She could not find her foot.  She reached higher on her leg, and then she was overcome by a rush of nausea and dizziness.  Her groping fingers had found a nub of bone and tattered flesh.  She knew that the warm pulsing flow over her fingers in the chill water was her own blood.”

Sparse.  Just enough to give you nightmares for weeks. 

Once Benchley's taken the reader this up close and personal with the gaping maw of the monster, our imaginations are overclocking and he doesn’t need to go into such detail again.  Alex Kintner barely has time to react as he is bitten in half (“The boy’s last – only – thought was that he had been punched in the stomach.”), an old man’s death comes via the shocked, disjointed second-hand account of cop Hendricks (“There was all this splashing around, and blood was flying all over the place…That’s the biggest fuckin’ fish I ever saw in my whole life”), and all they find of Ben Gardner is an abandoned boat.  Benchley focuses on the foreplay to the attacks, the positioning of people in the danger zone, the slow tease of shadows spotted in the water, the cheek-raking anxiety experienced by Brody as he attempts to protect his people against a lawless, unseen thing.

Jaws isn't really about a shark.  It’s about how the U.S. retaliates to a threat.  When Minnie Eldridge declares the crisis of Biblical proportions, sanctioning the use of any available force, she’s pre-empting American foreign policy for the next forty years.

Admittedly, there’s a lot of fumbling between the thrusts.  The chip on Chief Brody’s shoulder about being a local married to a summer person is burdensome at times.  The sexual encounter between Ellen Brody and Hooper is excruciating.  Overall, Ellen is excruciating – especially when she’s attempting to host a dinner party.  The Mafia sub-plot doesn’t fly.  But, despite these missteps, Benchley effectively portrays a tight-knit community in the process of fracture from the impact of the shark.  By the time we get to the final mano-a-mano conflict that’s spread across Chapters 13 and 14, it seems as though every character has fallen to pieces, even if they get nowhere near the serrated edges of the shark's teeth.

Spielberg described the ending of the book as “a downer” and made some major changes for the film.  For his part, Benchley thought Spielberg’s explosive finale was implausible, engineered to get the cheap seats cheering.  The author’s ending gives the whole tale a more somber timbre, especially via the reference to one of Benchley’s more obvious sources, Moby Dick.  Although they share a few set pieces, the book is very, very different to the 1975 blockbuster movie.  Given Hollywood’s current penchant for plundering its own dirty laundry basket for ideas (“This doesn’t smell too bad! It can be worn again!”), it’s not inconceivable that someone might attempt to remake or reboot Jaws.  With intelligent handling, it might even be possible to make a much grittier movie from the source novel, if the film-makers stuck to the paranoia of the townsfolk, the in-fighting of the men in charge, and acknowledged that the sinking of the Orca in the final scene represents a failure of modern masculinity, not a triumph.

In 2012, however, you would have to acknowledge that the shark is the victim, not the threat.  Thanks to countless expeditions following in the wake of Gimbel, the Taylors and Fox, we now know how rare and imperiled the great white shark is, how much more of a threat we pose to them than they pose to us.  After the phenomenal success of Jaws, Benchley had a second career as a shark spokesperson, advocating conservation programs and raising awareness of the fragility of marine ecosystems.  He felt guilty that he was responsible for representing great whites as man-eating monsters and, before his death in 2006, admitted

I could never write Jaws today.  I could never demonize an animal, especially not an animal that is much older and much more successful in its habitat than man is, has been or ever will be, an animal that is vitally necessary for the balance of nature in the sea, and an animal that we may – if we don’t change our destructive behaviors – extinguish from the face of the earth.[3]

Despite Benchley’s doubts, there was a positive side to raising the shark’s public profile. No other first time novel has had such an impact on cultural consciousness.  Single-handedly, Jaws brought the great white shark out of the depths and onto the Christmas list of every kid under twelve.  There’s no doubt that the power and ferocity of these creatures is terrifying, but they’re also magical, massive, sleek, killing machines, four to five million years old.  People start with the thrills and titillation of Jaws and become enchanted by the fish.  Benchley also said that he had

…derived great satisfaction over the years hearing from readers that Jaws was the first grown-up book they had read and that it taught them reading could be fun; that Jaws sparked an interest that led them to careers in marine biology… or that Jaws taught them that sharks are so cool, they wanted to become conservationists.  Every year, more than a thousand youngsters who weren’t alive when the book was published or the movie released write to tell me how worried they are about the decline in shark populations around the world and to ask me how they can help save these awesome animals that they discovered in Jaws.”[4]

That’s quite a legacy for a trashy paperback. 

Jaws is a Bad Book with a big heart, and there’s no shame in packing a copy alongside your sunscreen. It certainly has an added frisson if you read it whilst sitting just a few feet from the open ocean.

But, still, you might want to think twice about going back in the water…

What are your memories of Jaws? Have you re-read it recently?  Can you recommend any other Bad Books LitReactors might want to take to the beach?

[1] Introduction to Reissue of Jaws by Peter Benchley (Random House, 2005)

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid


About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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