Preparing the Ghost
An Essay Concerning
The Giant Squid and
Its First Photographer

Matthew Gavin Frank
(Liveright Publishing)
  • The total arm length of the giant squid can reach over forty feet for the females, thirty for the males. This includes the eight tentacles, the two arms, and the mantle (the head).
  • These babies can weigh up to 600 pounds. The penis can grow to thirty-five inches.
  • Only about 700 hundred or so have been caught. Other specimen come from the stomachs of sperm whale, who value the squid as a tasty if somewhat lengthy morsel.
  • The eyes of the squid are most strange, have unsettled sailors who caught them, pulled them up to their boats, and suddenly thought they were looking at a long-headed, droopy human with a few too many arms --- an underwater Long Tall Sally as it were. The giant squid has the largest eyes of any sentient creature on earth, often reaching a foot. I am not saying that the eyes can reach their feet (although their feet can and do reach their eyes, since the tentacle can be thirty feet long). But also that I am not saying that their arms can grow feet. I'm talking feet as in inches, not feet as in Fat Waller's pedilict primitive.

    Get it? Got it? Good!

    §   §   §

    Preparing the Ghost is reasonably short and absolutely charming. Frank is most interested in the Architeuthis, but shares knowledge with us about many other odd facts that can be found in squidery. Such as that when American restaurant folk decided that it was time to push squid onto the menus of the Four Seasons and other lah-di-dah restaurants, it was thought best to change the name to the Italian version, calamari. "Squid" is one of those innately disgusting, retch-making words, like "ointment" or "greasy" or "mucous" or "warr" ( or for that matter, "bladderwort") so it had to be demoted.

    The name-change worked and squid can soon, like fish, lobster, clams, oysters and crab look forward to the day when they've become an endangered species. Meanwhile, squid or whatever they are called are flooding the tables of restaurants, "encased in breading and deep-fried with a dipping sauce" as the author puts it.

    Frank tells us that baby squid don't do very well in captivity. They are called "paralarva" and are about the size of a cricket. But unlike crickets, who seem to thrive in captivity and make lots of noise, the squid

      lose their minds and the ability to communicate, grow angry and depressed and confused, and begin to cannibalize each other before committing suicide in a variety of manners --- scrambling their own brains, kamikaze-style, over and over against the walls of their holding tank, or, in some documented cases, actually throwing themselves out of the tank, drowning in our air and on the linoleum.

    Would you believe a writer making up such foolishness? I mean ask yourself, what have we to lose if we buy into his tale: that a bunch of squidlets can form a kamikaze squad and can bang themselves to death against a glass wall?

    As you may have suspected, Frank turns out to be a terrific Paul Bunyan style tall-tale teller. He spends part of a whole chapter on pain. Did the giant squid captured in 1874 just off the coast of St. Johns, Newfoundland feel pain when the fisherfolk chopped off one of its tentacles? And can we ever truly convey the sensation or pain to others of our kith and ken?

    He cites the pain of Eskimos, who, it is said, feel "increasing heat as painful," more than, say, the rest of us, and that Italians call for "immediate relief of pain by any means, such as drugs." He lists thirteen different ways of saying Ouch! including,

    • In France, they say, Aie!
    • In New Guinea, they say, Udei! Udhiao!
    • In Japan, they say, Itai!
    • In Hindi, they say, A'uca!
    • In Latin, they say (or said), Heu!
    • In Arabic, they say, Guoy-ha!
    • In Azerbaijani, they say, Uf!
    • The giant squid, of course, says nothing, merely lies dying, its color fading . . .

    It's true, at least according to our impeccable source, Matthew Gavin Frank. And by the time that you get to this point in the book where we learn the supposed facts about the particular word adopted by different cultures to gasp when in agony, omitting of course what many of us say when we pound our left digit with a Christly eight-pound flat-head hammer, viz., Oh, shit!

    Q.: And what do my Mexican neighbors say when the bang their toes against the root of the ficus growing up through my sidewalk?

    A.: Not "Guoy-ha!" but "Pinche chingadera!"

    Not on his list.

    The author also quotes Lloyd Hollett as saying that "butterflies can ease our pain," and notes that "many people regard butterflies as symbols of rebirth," and suggests that when we die if we want to notify our families and friends that everything is copasetic there where ever we end up, we can maneuver a Monarch to land on someone's pinkie as a sign. Two friends of mine have agreed that when the one or the other pops off, the code word to be sent to the lone survivor is "Boojum!" If you don't get it, see Fig 1 above, being one of the biggest baddest boojum trees in Baja.

    §   §   §

    By the time you get far enough into Preparing the Ghost, you will have figured out that Frank may be a little dotty, but is also a genuine kick-in-the-pants writer. He is fascinated by Rev. Moses Harvey, who, upon hearing of the capture of a giant squid there off the coast of Newfoundland got to the beach in time to look it over as the fishermen were attempting to pull it ashore. The creature was white and missing a tentacle, but in good enough shape for Harvey to take the trouble to get the seventy-two foot monster somehow into the bathroom of his house, where he hung it on a large drying apparatus.

    Now, Frank being Frank (and frank), not being able to see the monster himself, decided to see the next best thing . . . that is, the bathroom in St. Johns where this particular squid had been hung out to dry. So he flies there and locates Harvey's old house and goes to visit the current owner, Arthur Gough. It's a mini-drama, all by itself smack dab in the middle of this tall squid-story.

    Frank knocks at the door . . . and "I think I am seeing ghosts, and I can't imagine what Arthur Gough thinks he's seeing, as he shakes the cobwebs from his head, blinks fiercely as if coming up for some dark watery place to the cruelty of the sun." The back-and-forth between the two of them, plus an historical study of the proper name "Gough" goes on for pages, and is well worth the candle.

    Of all the silly books I have read in my many years as a reviewer, this one may take the cake (and the candle). So much that when I am up to it, I want to ring up Frank and invite him to come and bedevil me if he wishes just as he did poor old Arthur.

    And, hell yes: he can see my bathroom any time he wants --- acknowledging that it probably has a far less beguiling history than the one where they hung the squid there in St. Johns, but it's his for the asking. As long as he writes about it and any of my foibles he may find noteworthy. I'm not much into octopus but he might like to take a peek at my rare French engravings or some of my other personal dainties.

--- Pamela Wylie