As Sea Monster Week comes to a close, we’d like to assure everyone that it is now safe to go back into the water. But it’s not! It never will be! And that’s because there’s plenty of sea monster-related literature and film out there to consume. Now, it would be pretty hard to definitively say which sea monster things are the actually best, but I can tell you my favorites.
Dive in below (we’ll stop using these water puns real soon) and discover my recommendations for five great sea monster books and movies!
5.) The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The sheer size of the fish from The Old Man and the Sea is probably the main thing it has going for it in terms of being a fantastical beast from the deep. If you’re like me, you read this one in one sitting and were most sad when the sharks come and eat half of the damn fish away. The fish from The Old Man and the Sea is also great because of the relationship the main character has with it. They look at each other, talk to each other, and develop a thing with each other. The fish endures as a fantastical beast because Hemingway’s old man is defined by the fish. And that’s what monster stories are all about: seeing ourselves in the creatures we seek to destroy
4.) The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno
This one might not truly belong on this list, but when it comes to contemporary literary novels which are a little underrated, this is one to pick up. The story centers on a man whose life and marriage are falling apart, all while he tirelessly researches all things Architeuthis. To say that this sea monster haunts paleontologist Jonathan Casper would be an understatement as big as the giant squid itself. I’m usually not crazy about literary novels that use fantastical beasts exclusively as a metaphor, but this one really nails it.
3.) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne.
The most pervasive myth about this epic Jules Verne novel is that he “invented” submarines as science fiction. But in actuality, there was a real, teeny-tiny submarine called Nautilus built in 1800 by American inventor Robert Fulton. So, in 1870, Jules Verne named his fictional super-sub in its honor. In other myth-debunking: the famous title does not reference to how deep the submarine is under the water, but instead the distance it travels.
Other than the giant squid, the other sea monster in this wonderful book is clearly the deviously insane Captain Nemo.
2.) Moby Dick by Herman Melville
The most famous novel of all time features the pursuit of a destructive monster as the centerpiece of its epic story. The narrative concerning the pursuit of revenge against the White Whale takes on many forms, but it’s fairly easy to think of Moby Dick as a kind of sea dragon, with Ahab misconceiving himself as a sort of St. George. Moby Dick is both a bona fide beast and a real sea creature: a sperm whale, in fact. In real life, a sperm whale was allegedly responsible for the sinking of the whaling ship Ann Alexander in 1851, the same year Moby Dick was published! Melville based the events of his novel on another incident some 30 years before, when the whaler Essex was supposedly sunk by a whale near Nantucket in 1820. There are several non-fiction books about this incident, the most famous being The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale by Owen Chase. So just to recap, the only two recorded incidents of a sperm whale destroying a ship are connected to Moby Dick: one as the inspiration, and the other occurring, eerily, the same year the book was released.
1.) The Call of Cthulhu & Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft
There’s a very real possibility I wouldn’t be typing these words about sea monsters if it weren’t for H.P. Lovecraft. As our A-Z Sea Monster list reveals, the idea of monsters in the deep is very old. But the terrifying and deeply compelling nature of Cthulhu may have re-popularized everyone’s interest in sea monsters. Inspiring countless depictions and pastiches in its honor, there probably isn’t a sea monster who is more popular. Shockingly, Lovecraft himself didn’t care much for this story. Further, Weird Tales rejected it the first time it was submitted.
Check out one of our favorite Cthulhu pastiches right here from Neil Gaiman.
5.) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
This one made a big impression on me when I was a kid. I don’t actually think I’ll ever be able to get those initial images of the movie-Nautilus out of my head. I actually had a pullout poster from a magazine which depicted the model of the submarine out of the water. When I visited a real nuclear submarine called the Nautilus as a teenager, I was devastated that it looked the way it did. But wait! This should be about sea monsters. Well yes, there is a great giant squid scene. But maybe the Nautilus is a sea monster too!
4.) The Abyss
Here’s one with fairly easy selling point: aliens that live underwater. I’m not sure I know anyone who wouldn’t be at least remotely interested in a concept as inherently awesome as that. In terms of originality, it’s shocking how there really isn’t anything quite like The Abyss. The ideas in the movie are great, the film itself is perfectly cast, well-paced and totally memorable. Truly one of the best science fiction films of all time, and certainly a great sea monster flick.
3.) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
While Bill Murray is a little bit of a monster towards Cate Blanchett, the real sea monster is the Jaguar Shark. Without Esteban’s death at the fins and teeth of the Jaguar Shark, the movie doesn’t happen. I didn’t list a film adaptation of Moby Dick here, because in terms of a story about a man going after an aquatic monster for revenge, Life Aquatic does it better. (Not better than Moby Dick the novel, but better than its film versions). The absurdity of the universe created here almost makes it feel like a science fiction film. Are we on planet Earth in this one? My personal favorite Wes Anderson film, and definitely one of the best sea monster movies ever. The Jaguar Shark does remember you, Steve.
2.) The Creature from the Black Lagoon
I’ve gushed and gushed about this movie elsewhere, but suffice it to say if you’re a little kid and your favorite monster among the classic Universal Monsters isn’t the Gill-Man, then there might be something wrong with you. Scary and goofy, suspenseful and absurd, the original Creature from the Black Lagoon is still highly watchable to this day. A beautiful-looking movie with the saddest of sad monsters at its core. There’s also a guy in the movie named Mark who is a huge a**hole.
Spielberg famously couldn’t get his animatronic shark to look as spiffy as he wanted, and had to settle for fewer shots of the actual shark. What resulted is perhaps the most memorable horror movie of all time. I’ve been told recently that the cast and crew referred to the actual shark as “Bruce,” which might be more menacing than “Jaws." Now, I’m not saying Bruce/Jaws is the best sea monster of all time, just that this movie is so nearly perfect and wonderfully scary that we can’t imagine a sea monster movie that is any better. Here I’ll tip my hat to Shark Week. You’re right guys. Sharks are awesome.
Splash some water in my face below with your favorite Sea Monster books and movies!
* Aspects of this article appeared in slightly different forms on Tor.com in Genre in the Mainstream.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.