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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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William Hope Hodgson's From the Tideless Sea: A Detailed Summary and Literary Analysis

Aside from “Carnacki the Ghost-Finder,” Hodgson is probably most famous for what has been referred to as his Sargasso Sea Mythos – a series of horror stories set in the still body of water which he viewed as the ultimate setting to illustrate the heartless cruelty of Nature: a slimy, weedy, primordial quagmire rotating grimly like a great, deadly clock in the heart of the North Atlantic. The world’s only sea without a coastline, the Sargasso is 700 miles wide and 2,000 miles long – a clockwise rotating body of water bordered by four of the North Atlantic’s most powerful currents: the Gulf Stream to the west, North Atlantic Current to the north, Canary Current to the east, and the Equatorial Current to the south. The waters of the Sargasso are notoriously still and quiet: a peculiar deep, but translucent blue, you can see up to 200 feet down into its depths. Named after the dense mats of golden-brown sargassum seaweed that grow in patchy mats over its surface, the Sargasso became notorious as a graveyard of ships marooned in its still waters, earning the nickname “the Horse Latitudes” when a Spanish ship travelling to the New World – stalled during a calm – was forced to kill and dump the bodies of their horses to preserve water. In “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Jules Verne outlandishly described a wild landscape of endless weeds choking the rotting hulks of dozens of ships from four different centuries. In spite of this grim reputation, the Sargasso Sea was not the romantic horror that we usually picture: the sargassum is omnipresent, but it floats in heavy patches, not in endless sheets, and while the waters fenced in by the Atlantic currents were indeed uncommonly still, there was always enough wind to push them forward – slowly but surely.

Overlapped by the territory known as “the Bermuda Triangle,” the Sargasso Sea is has become tangled in the sinister mythology of that territory outlined by lines traced between Florida, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico. The Triangle is famous for its mysterious disappearances, but even before it developed a distinct lore (starting in the early 1950s), the Sargasso Sea was notable for several bizarre incidents involving derelicts – a favorite theme of Hodgson’s – found abandoned in the weed-choked, cobalt blue waters. Most notable are the cases of the French merchantman, “Rosalie” – found abandoned in 1840 – and the “Ellen Austin,” an American schooner which found an unnamed derelict in 1881. In a plot worthy of Hodgson, the “Ellen Austin’s” captain sent a crew to man the mystery ship, parted ways, and later reencountered the vessel – once more abandoned, the new crew having vanished. The first of Hodgson’s Sargasso Sea tales was “From the Tideless Sea,” describing the decades-long imprisonment of a ship in the weed-gagged waters. Scientifically speaking, Hodgson’s plot is ludicrous – especially in the age of steam, when – wind or no wind – freighters could chug across the Sargasso with no trouble whatsoever, but his story etched itself into the collective imagination of human culture: to this day, the common depiction of the Sargasso Sea is a vast, weedy wasteland cluttered with rotting hulls and populated by grotesque monsters: giant crabs, man-eating octopi, lurking krakens, and immense ships’ rats. Hodgson was not making a scientific description of the Horse Latitudes, but painting an impression of mankind’s relationship to Mother Nature: a treacherous, dehumanizing, merciless crone.

"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. They quickly conceive a child and find themselves responsible for its survival in a maritime hellscape. Aware that they have seventeen years worth of preserved food left on board, the couple build a fire balloon, place the manuscript telling of their trials inside it, and hope that it finds its way to a passing ship. The story is framed by the discovery of the heavily barnacled remnants of the balloon being discovered by a group of sailors who find the manuscript -- and despair to realize that it was written twenty-nine years prior...

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. The shipwreck itself is not described, but the novel begins “in media res” with the lifeboats drifting into the mats of sargassum. Here they encounter a stranded ship besieged by mutated, maneating “weed men,” whom they defeat after a protracted, gruesome battle. One year previously, Hodgson wrote “From the Tideless Sea,” beginning his obsession with the weed-choked gyre. While most of the Sargasso stories are less fantastical than “Glen Carrig,” all share the same heavy atmosphere, dreary optics, and desert-like descriptions. Hodgson was not the first man to mythologize the Sargasso Sea: Columbus famously encountered it en route to the West Indies, and some sources claim that his men feared being tangled in the weed (a ludicrous fear, it turned out: even the prow of a small wooden caravel would slice through sargassum like a warm knife through butter). Jules Verne would describe it as a weed-gagged expanse with the hulls of antique wrecks floating just below the surface, observable by the submersible “Nautilus.”

Perhaps inspired by Verne, writers Julius Chambers (1896’s “In Sargasso”) and Thomas A. Janiver (1898’s “In the Sargasso Sea”) predated Hodgson with novel-length works that established the folkloric vision of a green, shaggy shipping graveyard of the North Atlantic, what L. Sprague de Camp called “an impenetrable tangle of weed holding fast the remains of ships of all ages from Spanish galleons on.” But Hodgson saw it as more than a spooky freak of Nature: to him it became what one writer calls “a distinctly supernatural ‘borderland.’” So many of Hodgson’s works of horror do indeed revolve around liminal zones and borderlands where the Natural and supernatural realms blur into a sinister, crepuscular murkiness. It was Hodgson – primarily through “From the Tideless Sea” and “The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig’” – who made Chambers and Janiver’s romantic adventures into an established mythology believed by many to be either factual or an exaggeration of facts. Aside from the floating weed mats – which drift in broken up patches, not in vast meadows – the uncanny clarity of the unusually blue water, and the tendency of the winds to be particularly weak in that zone, none of the fantastical imagery he has helped to popularize are accurate. There may indeed have been a couple dozen or so ships or yachts which became becalmed in the Sargasso, and perhaps half a dozen were abandoned there by impatient crews, mutineers, or survivors of disaster, but the primary reason that the North Atlantic Gyre is identified with tangled derelicts and ghost ships is because of its geography. It is situated in the middle of the busiest shipping lanes in modern history – the triangular corridors between the resource-rich Western Hemisphere, Africa, and Europe – and is girded by the Atlantic’s most powerful currents, which empty their refuse into it. Jules Verne romantically describes timber from the American heartland – having fallen into the Mississippi, rushed to the Gulf of Mexico, and collected by the Gulf Stream – floating amidst the refuse of four continents in the trash heap of the Atlantic.

Of course, abandoned ships (especially ships carrying buoyant cargos of timber from Canada and New England to Europe – essentially unsinkable once abandoned) were ditched in these currents, and many were found bobbing in the Sargasso, sometimes streaked with green weeds, dismasted by weather, and caught dead in a region with neither currents nor wind to propel it. Such sights were reported with sensational gusto in papers and sailors’ berths, leading to Hodgson’s imaginative world of desperate immobility. But his conception – which he took proud ownership of, calling the Sargasso Sea his “birthright” and “hunting ground,” when angrily denouncing another writer of setting horror stories there – proved immortal. The trope has reappeared in science fiction, fantasy, adventure, and horror films, comics, and stories ever sense. Most notably in the theories of Charles Fort and his successors, in Edward Corley’s 1978 “Sargasso,” multiple episodes of multiple incarnations of “Star Trek,” 1968’s unabashedly Hodgsonian “The Lost Continent,” memorable episodes of “Johnny Quest,” “The X-Files,” and “The Venture Bros,” the 1925 children’s adventure book “Don Sturdy in the Port of Lost Ships,” the Doc Savage book “The Sargasso Ogre,” and far more comic books than I will ever be able to list adequately. While Hodgson was not the first to introduce this fanciful and evocative image – of an endless landscape of rotting hulks from five different centuries overrun by vast growths of shaggy weed (hanging from the yards like Spanish moss, spilling down the gunwales, and climbing up the rigging like cobwebs), sometimes hiding the existence of aggressive octopi, giant crabs, or mutated weed people – he was right about one thing: it remains his birthright, and all modern incarnations of the Dread Sargasso Sea owe Hodgson a debt of gratitude.

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