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