Seductive, unpredictable and dangerous, the fatal allure of the sea has cast its spell over human dreaming since long before the time of Homer. Even now, as oceans acidify and fill with suffocating plastic, reefs die a slow death from pollution, acidification and rising sea temperatures, and innumerable marine creatures come under worldwide threat, the old magic has not vanished.

The sea is the master image of C.G. Jung’s collective unconscious and the ancient evolutionary home of the human species – half-forgotten but ever-present. There’s even a part of the human brain, hidden deep within its folds above the cerebral aqueduct, that a psychologist once told me is in effect a tiny internal ocean filled with fluid.

Philip Hoare is one of the new generation of writers who have kept alive and transformed the long and honourable tradition of writing about the sea. He started his literary career writing about human exotics – all dedicated exponents of period decadence – including Stephen Tennant, Noël Coward and Oscar Wilde.

After a transition embracing mildly eccentric histories of a Victorian millenarian sect and a military hospital, both situated near where he lives in Southampton, Hoare wrote the prize-winning Leviathan, or the Whale and The Sea Inside. Both were inspired in part by his intense love of sea swimming in wild conditions, winter or summer.

His latest oceanic venture draws together the seemingly disparate strands of this crabwise progression. It is partly a personal memoir of his experience of the sea in all its harshness and violence, and partly a discursive literary essay covering writers who have written of the sea and, sometimes, have drowned in the grip of their watery obsession.

Hoare glories as much in the ocean’s harshness as in the amazing variety of its creatures – mammal, bird or fish. His eye for coastal detail is forensic, from the venous patterns left in the sand by a retreating tide to a wave-smashed sea wall. The sea appears as a womb of life and a bringer of death. Beauty and terror go hand in hand. “The sea does not care,” he writes repeatedly.

Its sudden violence finds an unsettling echo in his actions. After admiring the ‘vitrified’ beauty of a dead avocet washed up on the shore, he wrenches off the bird’s head without warning. No explanation, no excuses. He takes home the skull of a drowned deer, planting it in soil and imagining that the antlers will somehow sprout into branches. He makes no attempt to elude the stings of jellyfish in Bantry Bay, gladly putting up with the pain until it fades.

The presiding spirits are Shakespeare’s The Tempest and its incantatory speech ‘Full fathom five thy father lies’, and Herman Melville’s celebrated tale of Ahab and his haunted pursuit of the Great White Whale, Moby Dick – which also prompted Hoare to initiate an online reading of the entire novel, each chapter read by a different individual, famous or not so well known.

One other familiar hovers over the narrative: David Bowie as the brooding alien Newton in the seventies film The Man Who Fell to Earth. He is perhaps the focal ‘falling star’ of the title, reappearing as Icarus in Bruegel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and as Ariel, Prospero’s reluctant servant and the poet Shelley’s nickname.

Hoare steers us through a broil of literary vignettes. It’s tempting to describe them as ‘water-colours’, but they are too dense with detail. Both those great Romantic immersives, Byron and Shelley, are given full play, from the early years to their trajectories as outsiders and seditionary artists, to their dangerous devotion to water.

For Byron, being born with a caul, a club-foot and twisted legs made water “the only place where he could be himself”. Famous for swimming the Hellespont, he died of a fever at Missolonghi planning an attack on the Turks. Shelley, pursued by sinister portents, could not swim. His fate was “foretold by water”, and he drowned in a sudden storm sailing in the Gulf of Spezia.

Virginia Woolf is here, her work in To the Lighthouse and The Waves prefiguring her drowning in the river Ouse, her pockets filled with stones. So is Sylvia Plath, poet of ‘Suicide off Egg Rock’, born on the eastern seaboard of the US and dead by her own hand in London’s Primrose Hill. Likewise Elizabeth Barrett Browning – who endured the drowning of a beloved brother at Torquay – along with Wilfred Blunt, Henry David Thoreau and many others.

Hoare revisits the subject of two of his biographies, Wilde, a strong swimmer in his youth, and Tennant, who kept the taps running in his bath to show off his beach collection. Others, less celebrated but equally interesting, make an appearance – David Thomson, author of The People of the Sea, who documented belief in Selkies, mythic creatures that were viewed as half-human, half-seal; and the Stevenson family of lighthouse builders. Hoare even visits a museum to examine the showy costume Lord Nelson was wearing when he died.

Mingled with the narrative are friends and acquaintances of the author, such as Pat, a former Manhattan socialite who deserted the glittering whirl to build her own wooden house in Cape Cod, which rattles and squeaks in every gust of wind. Yet Hoare is always drawn back to his own precise and sometimes startling observations, as if by an undertow.

A Freudian might suggest that Hoare is toying with a death-wish, but things are not so simple. He observes of the sea: “It is the only place where I feel at home, because it is so far away from home. It is the only place where I feel free and alive, yet I am shackled to it, and it could easily take my life one day, should it choose to do so.”

As the response of the planet and the oceans to global warming grows seemingly more violent, even angry, Hoare’s sentiment reflects a larger truth. Hurricanes, tsunamis and rising sea levels are part of this change, a reminder of the sea’s potential for destruction on a much larger scale. To disregard our oceans’ health any longer would indeed be suicidal.

As a former punk, Hoare is well placed to explore the histories of outsiders who share his obsession. This is not a linear book, for it is full of eddies and cross-currents; but its unpredictable tidal flow has thrown up something genuinely rich and strange. And, also, in an oblique fashion, unexpectedly timely.

Hugo Davenport is a freelance writer.