Classic tale of horror at sea brought chillingly up to date

Classic tale of horror at sea brought chillingly up to date


Dead Men Stood Book_L
Photo: Bloomsbury
The Dead Men Stood Together
By Chris Priestley
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 978 1 4088 4173 0

Chris Priestley, the modern master of understated Gothic horror, takes the title of his latest novel from a 1798 narrative poem called The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This classic poem tells the terrible story of a voyage where a ship and her crew are swept off course and blown into the icy extremes of the Antarctic Ocean. An albatross appears and leads the ship out of the ice, but one of the sailors shoots the bird. The other sailors get very angry, and tie the dead body of the albatross around the neck of the sailor who killed it.

Conditions get worse, and one by one all the crew members die, apart from the sailor who killed the bird. Eventually the ship encounters a ghostly vessel drifting towards them. On board is Death, arriving to collect the souls of the dead sailors. The lone survivor now has to face a fate worse than death as punishment for killing the albatross.

Priestley's extremely spooky novel is his own version of the tale. The original poem is long and sprawling, but here Priestley distils the essence of the story into a tight and stylish page-turner that grips with icy fingers.

In a harbour town, many years ago, a nameless boy lives with his widowed mother. Although his father perished at sea, the boy dreams of getting a job on a ship and sailing to exciting lands. When the boy's uncle, an experienced sailor, comes to visit, he is full of exciting stories of his adventures. There is nothing the boy's mother can do. The boy sets off with his uncle to seek his fortune. He has no idea of the horrors waiting for him.

Soon after the ship has sailed, the uncle makes enemies of the captain and crew. The ship is blown into the frozen Antarctic, and the boy's uncle shoots an albatross that appears to be guiding the ship out of the ice. As the ship sails on into even more treacherous waters, death and ghosts are waiting to drive all on board to the edge of madness. Slimy creatures crawl out of the sea and a phantom vessel appears out of the fog. Can the boy and his uncle survive the horrors that suddenly surround them?

When you start to read a Priestley novel, you know that chills and shivers down the spine are never far away. The author doesn't serve up his horror with gore, blood or violence but with atmosphere and understated dread. Here he is on top form, serving up unease and shudders as only he knows how.

John Millen can be contacted on

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