Unquestionably, William Hope Hodgson ranks among the most influential visionaries of the early weird tale: like Machen, Blackwood, and Bierce, he pushed the boundaries of the genre and provided a slew of unique tropes that would inspire Lovecraft, Derleth, Bradbury, and their literary descendants. Today, he is still remembered for his four supernatural novels, his occult detective, Thomas Carnacki, and his survivalist, seafaring horror stories, often located in the weed-choked Sargasso Sea, within the boundaries of what would later be called the Bermuda Triangle.
Hodgson’s maritime horror remains among his most accessible and popular, and our anthology of his work is primarily dedicated to it. In a 2014 presentation to the University of Southhampton (which can be found in full here: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/369928/ ) Dr Alexander Hay connects Hodgson to the larger subgenre of “Maritime Horror” and considers his peculiar philosophy that so effortlessly transforms the sea into a breeding ground of abhuman terrors:
"The Sea represents many things, but one recurring subject is horror. Whether it is Ulysses driven insane by the song of the sirens as he is lashed to the main mast of his ship; Umibouzu, the sinister giant black figure that haunted Japanese fishermen and sailors; Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with its depictions of living death and doom; the shipwrecked mariners contemplating cannibalism and ‘otherness’ in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym or Peter Benchley’s Jaws, the sea has long been both source and setting for horror… This then is what I term ‘Maritime Horror’ a sub-genre which both maligns and celebrates the sea as horror or backdrop to horror…
"[What] is most significant about Hodgson, beyond his having written a great deal of maritime horror fiction, was that he was himself a former mariner, first becoming a sailor at age 14 before becoming disillusioned with life at sea and starting a career as a physical trainer and then an author after his 25th birthday… His passion for the sea was dimmed considerably by what he described as “a comfortless, weariful, and thankless life” while he himself was a volatile, even at times unpleasant individual, who encountered mixed fortunes throughout his life. For Hodgson, conflating his experiences with horror and the foreboding unknown took very little effort. Yet I would argue that this also gives Hodgson an insight and authority in regards to his subject matter that other authors lacked – for he really did obey the maxim that you should write about what you know..."
Indeed, Hodgson’s maritime writings ripple with realism – until the actual horrors appear, fantastical and otherworldly as they are. And yet, this is hardly a fault: the oceans in Hodgson’s fiction act as liminal zones where the realistic and the uncanny overlap and intrude upon one another. The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” is set in the Age of Enlightenment and its physical setting is one which has been known and navigated since Columbus: it is not the unexplored Antarctic, a secluded plateau in the dark Amazon jungles, or a subterranean cavity. It is a charted, understood, accessible stretch of water cozily resting between the cosmopolitan ports of Baltimore and Lisbon. But in Hodgson’s hands, it is a zone where carnivorous trees take on the shapes of their human victims, where mutants lurk, where octopi hold ships hostage for months – long after a real animal would lose interest – just for misanthropic spite.
Hodgson transforms realism into fantasy with a flash of the pen, leaving his readers unsure of what they are reading: Robert Louis Stevenson or Jules Verne, Herman Melville or H. G. Wells? More than any of his other stories, his maritime horror tales play generously with science fiction – more so than supernaturalism: in his Sargasso Sea Mythos, his villains are outlandish, freakish, and otherworldly, but rarely if ever are they supernatural beings. Far more often they are the hateful mutations of a sick-minded Mother Nature whose psychotic whims, sublime ugliness, and chaos stand in contrast to mankind’s self-discipline, need for beauty, and love of order. Spring boarding from the realism and naturalism of Stephen Crane and Jack London, Hodgson is no Wordsworthian romantic: he loathes Nature, fears it, and respects its homicidal instincts. Nature is no source of inspiration or awe for Hodgson – rather disgust and repulsion.
Mother Nature is the madwoman in mankind’s attic, and Hodgson’s best recommendation is that we band together, avoid exposure to the elements, and maintain a strict regimen of hygiene, nutrition, exercise, weight lifting, and celibacy – a prescription which is best illustrated in his most famous story, “The Voice in the Night,” which stars a young unmarried couple who are marooned on a strange desert island, home to what quickly proves to be a parasitic fungus that horribly consumes and disfigures them both into living mounds of grey mold.
In this article, we look at the rest of the best, however: twelve of the very best of his many excellent maritime horror stories.
12. OUT OF THE STORM /
GREY SEAS ARE DREAMING OF MY DEATH
We begin our list with two short but disturbing pieces that are so complimentary – both in their size and themes – that I think we can count them both as No. 12. “Out of the Storm” is a ghastly, nightmarish psychological snapshot of a doomed man’s final thoughts on a sinking passenger ship. The picture we get is one of humanity stripped of all order: terror-stricken mothers abandon their children in terror, the officers are drowned, the ship is tossing about aimlessly, and the narrator simultaneously rages at his fate, humbly accepts it, melts in fear of it, and finally pathetically drowns. There are no acts of heroics, bravery, or dignity. The message is a universal one: all lives end in physical weakness and spiritual isolation.
You can sense Hodgson’s genuine horror of dying at sea, and in the macabre poem, “Grey Seas are Dreaming of My Death” he very personally describes the mixed elation and dread that a sailor feels on the sea, which he casts simultaneously as a possessive, protective mother and an insane, savage predatory. He laments “I know grey seas are dreaming of my death, Out on grey plains where foam is lost in sleep, Where one damp wind wails on continually, And no life lives in the forgotten air.”
11. THE THING IN THE WEEDS
As with so many of Hodgson’s maritime tales, this one begins on the darkened deck of a ship while the night watch steer her through dangerous seas. Two mates are on the quarterdeck when they both notice an odd, otherworldly stench in the stagnant air around the weed-choked Sargasso Sea. At first they think it is a dead whale, but soon they notice something enormous and unearthly slithering under the floating mats of tangled seaweed. Then they hear a scream, and a crash, and rush to the taffrail to find one of their crewmen has disappeared from his post, with only a shattered rail and gouts of blood where he had been. But this is just the start, and their encounter with the tentacled Thing will quickly leave them less certain of mankind’s supremacy over nature.
10. THE FINDING OF THE “GRAIKEN”
A harrowing adventure story, this white-knuckle action piece follows the narrator, a recently-wealthy man, as he and his friend, Ned Barlow, take his private yacht out to sea on its maiden voyage with a small crew. A year prior, Barlow’s fiancée was lost at sea when her ship, the “Graiken,” disappeared near the Sargasso Sea. Ever since then, Barlow has seemed increasingly cracked. As they near what would later be called the Bermuda Triangle, Barlow asks to take over the navigation, and when his friend refuses, he leads a mutiny and takes the yacht over, steering it into the heart of the “vast world of seaweed” where he hopes to find survivors, and – to the narrator’s shock – they find them: in a dismasted hulk besieged by an army of ravenous octopi who are just about to slither onboard to devour the half-starved survivors.
9. THE HAUNTED “PAMPERO”
This truly bizarre and unusual werewolf (viz. were-shark) story begins with a young married couple – a newly promoted sea captain and his pretty wife – as they prepare to board his first command, the “Pampero.” Unfortunately, the ship has an evil reputation, but the young officer is eager to prove himself and waves it all off. On the thirteenth day of the voyage, a sailor is killed in an accident, and a massive storm overtakes the vessel. Three days later, they find a damaged lifeboat from the ship “Cyclops” (ironically the name of the Bermuda Triangle’s most famous 20th century victim, which would disappear 2 years after this story was printed), with a stunned survivor onboard. The captain hires the survivor to replace the fallen seaman, but he quickly alienates the crew with his odd behavior and a curious, shark-tooth talisman that arouses their superstitious tendencies.
Soon after, one of the pigs in the hold is attacked and left with what appears to be shark bite wounds, and a few weeks later, the captain’s wife is awoken in her cabin by aggressive, half-human-sounding sounds – “a queer slurring sort of noise,” muffled growls, and aroused purring – along with the sense that something is rubbing against her porthole. Looking through the glass she sees what appears to be an enormous, gaping mouth. The climax is not surprising, but is still one of the strangest, graphic, and most unforgettable of Hodgson’s tales.
8. DEMONS OF THE SEA
More like a hideous nightmare described in a journal than a story with a narrative, “Demons of the Sea” shocked and disturbed me more than nearly any other tale in Hodgson’s oeuvre. It begins – once again – with a ship’s watch trying to wrap their heads around a maritime oddity – this time, it is a submarine earthquake, which leaves the sea steaming and boiling with mud. In the meantime, the narrator is staring into the steam and fog when he is shocked by the appearance of a monstrous face – intelligent but indescribably loathsome. His mates laugh it off, but it isn’t long before they all begin hearing a series of savage bellows coming from the distance, and shortly after, a ship is spotted looming towards them in the fog.
As it approaches, the crew prepare to hail it, but instead, they are disgusted and nauseated by the howling creatures seen prowling its decks: their bloated, white bodies were somehow like a seal’s, but with tentacles for arms, ending in taloned hands, while their vaguely human faces were black and ghoulish, marked by an octopus-like overbite. What these beasts are, where they came from, why they have commandeered this ship, and what happens to them after they fade into back into the steam is never explained, but somehow that seems to be the entire point of the story.
7. THE STONE SHIP
One of Hodgson’s favorite motifs was the appearance of a derelict – an abandoned ship brimming with hideous mysteries – as seen in “Demons of the Sea” and other stories not included here like “The Mystery of the Derelict” (a floating wreck is found to be swarming with carnivorous rats). Another favorite theme – found in “The Voice in the Night” – is that of nature overwhelming and transforming human endeavors. “The Stone Ship” unites these in the tale of an underwater volcanic eruption, which leads to the stunning resurrection of a sunken wreck under the watch of a merchant ship’s stunned crew. As it rises to the surface and water gushes from its ports, the officers notice something odd about it: it is made entirely of stone – hull, bulwarks, decks, and masts – and yet it is floating. Intrigued, the captains sends a boat across the boiling, volcanic waters to investigate, and while their findings ultimately prove more sci-fi than supernatural, what they discover inside is memorably horrifying.
6. THE “SHAMRAKEN” HOMEWARDBOUNDER
Like “The Demons of the Sea,” “The ‘Shamraken’ Homewardbounder” is otherworldly, bizarre, inexplicable, and exceedingly difficult to forget. It opens with the eponymous merchant ship sailing aimlessly in the Pacific. Its crew are all of advanced age – the cabin “boy” is 55 years old and grey-headed – and are said to “live in the past,” having apparently chosen to abandon life on shore – including their beloved families – in a bid to avoid grief (several of the ancient mariners muse on heartbreaking losses, the deaths of children, and the distant pains that drove them to sea), but they have now decided to give it all up and return “home” – they have grown nostalgic and eager for rest. The crew radiates with energy and nervous excitement as they wonder about the possible reunions and the relief of their sadness. Peace and rest seem on the other side of the horizon. Suddenly, the cabin boy draws their attention to sky ahead of them: it is encompassed by a gorgeous wall of living flame. Dazzled by the atmospheric beauty, they sail straight for the brilliant wall of color, realizing only too late that it is a tsunami -- enflamed by the reflection of the setting sun -- serving as the harbinger of an unnaturally powerful cyclone. "Reck'n thet's God speaking," says one somber mariner as the storm howls about their ears, "guess we're on'y mis'rable sinners." Without further ado, the "Shamracken" is pulverized and its impossibly old sailors are taken up to "the everlasting portals."
5. FROM THE TIDELESS SEA PART 1
"From the Tideless Sea" is the first part of Hodgson's false document chronicle of a couple marooned on a derelict floating in the tideless Sargasso. The story begins with the ship's demasting in a vicious storm, its drifting with the slight currents of the North Atlantic Gyre, and its becoming mired in the acres of tangled seaweed. The captain has been mortally wounded, and as the crew die one by one -- some killed in the storm, some eaten by octopi -- he turns to the narrator, a young passenger, and entrusts him with the care of his attractive daughter. The weed-choked seas are teeming with killer octopi, and the narrator decides to rig up a superstructure on the ship (a tarp stretched over the deck) to keep the probing tentacles out. Before he dies, the old man marries the two survivors, and after his passing, they find themselves the reigning Adam and Eve of an Eden from Hell.
4. THE DERELICT
I’ve already said this several times, but this is truly one of the most bizarre, and most unforgettable weird tales that I’ve ever read. As with several other stories on this list, we open on a ship as it weathers the aftermath of a violent natural event – a massive tropical storm. The captain notices (another Hodgsonian trope) an abandoned ship tossing in the waves just off their beam, and – hoping to salvage the wreckage – sends a detail of crewmen in a boat to explore her. They are immediately aware that something is very off about this vessel: it appears to be well over 100 years old, and is entirely coated in a gelatinous fungal growth. Disgusted by the sight of it, the captain kicks a mound of the mold, and is shocked to see it appear to burst and bleed. Meanwhile, belowdecks the crew swear that they can hear an enormous, thumping heartbeat.
The longer the men stay, the softer the fungus grows. A gelatinous goop seems to be sweating from the fungus, and – as if it is producing a sort of defensive, digestive slime – they notice that their shoes are beginning to dissolve in it. Horrified, the crew head back to the boat – but then they are attacked by a carnivorous, amoeba-like “pseudopod” lumbering out of the hold, and not everyone will make it back to the ship alive.
3. THE BOATS 0F THE “GLEN-CARRIG” (NOVEL)
Hodgson’s most famous entry in the Sargasso Sea Mythos was the 1907 novel, “The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig” – a false document purporting to be the fragment of a transcript of a story of a shipwreck told by a survivor to his adult son. It reads rather like a seafaring survival story (cf. “Robinson Crusoe,” “Castaway,” “The Swiss Family Robinson”) told in the Twilight Zone, The Planet of the Apes, or the world of Ray Bradburry. The shipwreck itself is not described, but the novel begins “in media res” with the lifeboats drifting into the mats of sargassum. The freakish phenomena they encounter includes a forest of bleeding trees that so uncannily resemble human beings, it is understood that these are somehow tree mutants; gigantic, maneating crabs; and a race of flabby, tentacled, seal-shaped mutant humanoid vampires – the “weed men” – which suck one of the crew members dry of blood.
As they navigate the weed islands, they also encounter a ship – populated by male and female survivors – which has been stranded in the weeds for several years (one of Hodgson’s favorite tropes) besieged by a revolting swarm of "weed-men" mutants, whom they defeat after a protracted, gruesome battle. The victorious men of the boats of the “Glen Carrig” are relieved to find food, tools, and -- most importantly -- grateful women onboard, and they lose no time in repairing the boats and towing the ship back into the trade winds and out of the Sargasso Sea, never to return.
2. A TROPICAL HORROR
A merchant barque is languishing in the muggy, still heat of a tropical night, drifting in the heart of the Indian Ocean. The story’s narrator is a young apprentice who is chatting with his buddy, Joky, who is younger and looks up to him. As they scan the steaming, black seas, they are suddenly horrified by the sight of a massive sea serpent breeching over their ship. One slimy column of flesh ending in a toothy mouth surrounded by grasping tentacles, it slithers onto the deck and coils its way around the masts. The crew rush to the deck to see what has happened, and quickly run for cover. Joky collapses in terror, and the narrator drags him to the safety of the iron-doored galley, where they watch the action from a glass porthole in the door.
Together, they try to fight off the beast, but it appears to be equally cruel and hungry – wallowing lazily on the deck throughout the morning and into the next night, casually slaughtering the hiding crewmen on deck and in the rigging as they are weakened by hunger and thirst. Finally, only Joky and the narrator are left alive, but it’s days later, and the sea serpent isn’t giving up: it’s just hungrier.
1. THE GHOST PIRATES (NOVEL)
Probably the finest and most atmospheric of his nautical pieces from a literary standpoint, “The Ghost Pirates” is far, far more subtle than nearly any other of Hodgson’s seafaring stories. Like some of his non-nautical works (viz., “The House on the Borderland” and “The Hog”) it deals with more interdimensional and mystical forces and less with science fiction, per se. Instead of mutant weed-men, carnivorous octopi, or parasitic fungi, this novel deals with an enemy that can’t be rationalized by evolution and known science. It is told by the sole survivor of the ill-fated ship, “Mortzestus,” which was plagued by a series of eerie and unsettling happenings that point to a coming attack from some ill-defined, outer power.
They sense something following them, and at one point notice large, dark shadows (which seem to be the undersides of four ships’ hulls sailing on either side, in front, and behind them – but somehow upside down). Finally, the trap is complete: while the narrator is on the night watch, he is stunned to witness hoards of “ghost pirates” – grey, misty shadows of men – climb over the rail and swarm the deck. The undulating forms rush the holds and rigging, killing the men they clash with, before somehow capsizing the vessel and dragging it down to the sea – and presumably into their native dimension.
Whether the invaders are ghosts, demons, or interdimensional beings is never clarified, but we do get a sense that they belong to an invisible world that overlaps with ours – where neither party are usually aware of the other – but where weaknesses in the boundary can be manipulated, broken into, and used by aggressive inhabitants of the other realm to pillage our own.
You can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Hodgson's best weird fiction -- including his Carnacki the Ghost-finder cycle and some of his most unusual, non-maritime horror stories -- HERE!