CLUBHOUSE: Review: “Operation Orkney” by William Meikle

OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

Operation Orkney – by William Meikle

Publisher:

Note: William Meikle is a prolific Scottish author who has lived for many years in Newfoundland. He’s published more than eighty novels, novellas and anthologies, plus numerous audio books and short stories. Many of his works are in the style of Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson and Conan Doyle, thus tapping into the pre-existing fandom for those popular writers. If you like their works, you’ll enjoy his homages to them. For example: Lovecraft wrote “The Dunwich Horror.” Meikle has written “The Dunwich Terror.” I am a fan of Lovecraft, have read all his fiction, yet nevertheless enjoy pastiches produced by such as Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Brian Lumley, and… William Meikle. In short, Meikle is on to something. I imagine he makes a decent living from his writings.

He has also written a number of military/adventure works in his own voice. These detail the adventures of a UK military outfit, the S-Squad, specializing in defeating supernatural beasties. This, I believe, is the 13th In a series where they have fought everything from Mongolian Death Worms to Dinosaurs in the Congo, plus, of course, the Loch Ness Monster. There have been other works, even films, dealing with these creatures. Consequently, again, Meikle is tapping into a pre-existing readership.

“What is the secret of successful marketing?” is a question many authors are desperately flinging about these days. Many have asked ME for goodness’ sakes, as if I know the answer. I mean, I’m currently working on a novel which has zero market value as far as I can tell, and if I ever get it published I’m going to have to rely on the “luck of the draw” to get it read at all. Meikle, it seems to me, is doing the exact opposite. His readership is trigger happy. They will automatically leap upon any book that resembles the sort of thing they love to read. Beginning authors would do well to consider his approach to the conundrum of producing sales.

Of course, it is not enough to merely copy. Such attempts fall flat. What fans of a given author want in their pastiches are original works “in the style of,” plots and characters that their favourite authors might have written if they had lived a bit longer, variations on a theme, something both innovative and familiar. In a sense, they’re anxiously searching for a new pair of comfortable slippers, albeit different in appearance but just as comfortable as the pair they’re used to. This type of fan can be legion, and faithful. Well worth catering to.

In the case of the S-Squad series, however, it’s more a sub-genre fandom rather than a particular author fandom that is the target readership. To cite a single example, if you grew up reading the “Star Spangled War Stories” comics in which American Marines battled dinosaurs in the Pacific, you’ve been primed for this book series. The movie “Aliens” is another example. What they have in common are squad-level combat against monsters. Point is, in order to be successful, a novella like “Operation Orkney” has to pass the “Ripping Good Yarn” test. It has to fit the formula to appeal to what the readers want, but it also has to be fun. It has to entertain. The reader has to enjoy what they are reading. So, how does “Operation Orkney” do in this regard?

Premise:

To paraphrase Ed Wood Jr. and the script he wrote for his infamous “Plan Nine” movie, “The Orkney Islanders are dead, murdered, and something’s responsible!”

Review:

 The book begins with the S-Squad being briefed about a problem potentially falling within their purview. The authorities aren’t certain there actually is a problem, so only two individuals will conduct the initial reconnaissance, with the rest of the squad available as back-up if need be. The intrepid pair are Sargent “Wiggo” Wiggins and Private Wilkins. The latter is the principle point-of-view character. He’s a bit annoyed because he was badly wounded in the last op and busted back to private to boot. Still, he’s willing.

They meet Seaton, an elderly cryptozoologist they’ve dealt with before, or, as Sargent Wiggo  puts it “Oh no, not you again? It’s fucking Twilight Zone time, is it?” Seaton responds in kind. After all, no matter how the others denigrate his expertise, he had been right about the Loch Ness Monster. Reminding them of that always shuts them up and convinces them to pay attention.

Seaton, Wiggo and Wilkins are flown by chopper to Orkney where they meet up with an Innkeeper named Jerry who has some concerns. Problems at an obscure fishing village. The four of them drive there and meet some of the problems. Time to call backup.

One of the core basics of this novella is the relationship among the soldiers. They don’t seem to like being briefed. As if they don’t want to think about what lies ahead. In fact they seem more interested in where they can lay hands on cigarettes and beer. Trading insults is common too. It appears their attitude is not “OMG, we’re facing monsters!” so much as “Here we go again. Why can’t we get a break and spend more time in the pub?” If anything, they seem bored.

But then, they have been through a heck of a lot. Twelve previous adventures. I suspect there was a lot of character-establishing detail in the first few, but by this novella Meikle is concentrating on reacquainting the readers with the soldier’s loveable traits in order to emphasise the familiar and make the reader feel comfortably at home with the camaraderie of the S-Squad. Puts me in mind of Doc Savage and his admirable gang of misfits. No need to explain Monk in any of the sequels, for instance. Readers just wanted to know how Monk was going to  surprise them this time. That’s how a writer exploits familiarity with the characters. Meikle  handles this technique well.

There’s a practical benefit of having the soldiers openly disdain info dumps.  When Seaton breaks into a singsong chant to convey an ancient myth, the squad members groan and complain. They do this every time something is explained to them. All they want is short, sharp, and concise information on what they need to kill and where can the beasties be found? They don’t care what motivates the enemy, or want to hear the history behind the creatures preying on humanity. They don’t want to listen to lectures. They want action, so they can get it over with and find a decent pub. The readers are pretty much of the same mind. They tend to share the soldier’s impatience.

How is this a benefit? Simple. Meikle doesn’t disguise or hide info dumps. He embraces them. He makes character-interaction confrontations out of them, makes them entertaining. A great way of conveying a heck of a lot of information. And interesting information at that. I’ve never before read how a Mermaid has sex with an almost-willing land-lubber. Not as much fun as Disney might hint at. Something to avoid, actually. Kind of nasty.

Fact is Meikle has taken full advantage of many myths pertaining to fish-people, ranging from Mermaids to Sirens to Silkies, combining all the attributes into a coherent whole. At times the imagery is Lovecraftian, and occasionally reminiscent of Hollywood B movies. At one point Seaton gets frustrated trying to explain the threat they’re all facing because one particularly dense soldier can’t visualize what they’re up against. So, Seaton asks if the soldier has ever seen “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.” “Yeah, on the telly.” “They’re something like that.” “Oh, I get it.” Not actually true, but close enough. Meikle enjoys slipping in pop-cultural references now and then. It’s all part of the fun.

Even better, to someone like me who enjoys archaeology, Meikle draws in famous sites on Orkney such as Skara Brae, a Neolithic stone village that had been perfectly preserved in sand dunes, which features surprisingly sophisticated stone shelving and benches created over four thousand years ago. Assuming the myths reflect a local reality, then it is inevitable Skara Brae and similar prehistoric ancient monuments on Orkney were intimately associated with the sea folk. Which is why a delightful battle takes place here.

Delightful in the sense that S-Squad is in danger of running out of ammunition while they buy time for Seaton to find the pictographs he is convinced will give him the key to victory. This tests the patience of the soldiers almost beyond what they can bear. They are well aware, given that the archaeologists who excavated Skara Brae went over everything with a fine tooth comb, that it is unlikely Seaton is going to find something they missed. Needless to say, they keep pestering him to hurry up. And he refuses to be rushed. A standard scene in many a horror movie, but one that always works in ramping up the tension. In this case, infused with both threat and humour.

This is by no means the final battle. The creatures are not simply monsters. They are part of the spirit world, the hidden world, the realm of the Faeries, and therefore not quite as susceptible to bullets as mortals would prefer. Courage, discipline and guns are not enough. Knowledge is vital. In that sense Seaton is more useful than Sargent Wiggo, but the Sargent does make a handy-dandy research assistant in terms of preventing Seaton from being torn to pieces while doing his needful research. Come to think of it, every professor needs interns of that calibre. But I digress.

A later battle takes place at a venue which came as a great surprise to me, totally unexpected, but in hindsight perfectly logical. If you can take the premise to heart, everything makes sense and is perfectly credible. To some extent the sheer amount of action disguises the fact that this is a carefully crafted story taking full advantage of the diverse strands of myth, legend, folklore and archaeology which Meikle has woven together. Pleasingly unexpected for what I first assumed would be primarily a gung-ho military adventure with mythological elements added for mere flavour. In fact there’s enough material in this book to found a cult or even a religion.

Of course, in general, new wave paganism does incorporate many ancient British Isles belief systems. But I can see the contents of this novella as a basis for a narrowly-focused niche cult. Just as modern Druids draw attention to Stone Henge (which predates ancient Druidism by thousands of years) perhaps a few devotees of Meikles composite creatures could aid Orkney tourism. Just an idle thought. Just trying to get across how Meikle’s research and creativity makes the absurd premise rather convincing. This is much more than a “shoot-‘em-up” action book. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and, in a creepy way, surprisingly spiritual.

 CONCLUSION:

 Back on September 6, 2019, I reviewed William Mekle’s collection “Into the Black: Tales of Lovecraftian Terror.” I had this to say:

“His writing style belongs to the “Plain Glass” school. Though often precise and vivid, it doesn’t get in your way but allows you to see the story beyond and immerse yourself in the experience of witnessing it unfold. Very cinematic and pleasingly fast-paced. Makes it easy to sit back and enjoy the story.”

This also applies to  “operation Orkney.” I can easily envision it being made into a movie. It is indeed “very cinematic” in nature. Probably a B movie to be sure, but maybe… if certain elements came to the fore… it has possibilities.

Is it a “ripping good yarn?” Yes, it is. Rousing good fun. I enjoyed it.

Find Operation Orkney here:  < Operation Orkney >

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