“A Tropical Horror” was the second horror story Hodgson ever wrote, and the first maritime story. While it has been met with mixed criticism, it remains one of his most popular stories, is frequently anthologized, and has been adapted for radio and comic books. The story’s weakness is in its believability: even in an unfrequented and isolated stretch of sea it is hard to envision a ship being held hostage by a sea serpent for three days, but it is even harder to believe that such a hungry serpent would choose to remain on the deck of a ship for three days just for the chance to eat a dozen greasy, gamy human beings when a whole ocean of seals, porpoises, tuna, and squid flourished beneath it.
Notwithstanding, this freshman effort has remained wildly popular for its genuine tension, gruesome details, emotional realism, and comparative brevity (unlike so many of Hodgson’s stories, it is short, sweet, and simple). The theme is not new or terribly original – a group of humans, minding their business, are hijacked by a voracious sea monster with no respect for the affairs or dignity of human beings – but it has resonated in the popular imagination since it was published just after Hodgson’s first literary effort, “The Goddess of Death.”
One final word on sea serpents before we begin: there have been an astonishing 1,200 reported sightings of these slithery creatures, which are easily explained away as oarfish, lungfish, whales, or frilled sharks, but the concept of a twining, slimy monstrosity curling its way up mastheads has been difficult to sponge away from the collective consciousness of mankind. From the Leviathan to Loch Ness, there is a pervasive fascination with the idea that refuses to depart our imaginations and nightmares. For some they seem to symbolize independence or power, for others there is a darker significance to their long, muscular appearance and their invasive behavior.
Hodgson’s rendition is unmistakably phallic, complete with the violence, penetration, kinky fluids, and domination that one might associate with a scene of rape. For Hodgson, who may have been sexually assaulted during his first sea voyage, the imagery of slimy feelers probing their way into hidden, safe places is consistently recurrent in his stories. Whatever the nature of his bullying was, it caused him to become manically obsessed with hygiene and physical strength, caused him to have rocky relationships with women, and prevented him from ever being comfortable in his own skin. For Hodgson, “A Tropical Horror” may have been a very personal kind of nightmare to describe.
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.
One by one, the serpent locates huddled crew members, whose screams of pain are followed by a sucking “Glut! Glut!” as they are swallowed. Daylight comes and the sea monster lazes on the deck, sleeping, as the sun bakes the survivors and drives them mad with thirst. Some try to make their way to the exposed water barrel, but are killed by the attentive creature before they can slack their thirst. Some of the crew attempt to shoot the monster with the ship’s signal cannon, but the wound isn’t enough to drive it away, and they are eaten for their efforts.
The second day passes and Joky begins to show signs of madness. The beast has plucked more survivors from the rigging where they had been hiding, and the narrator is staggered by the sight of its massive body stretching out of the sea into the topmasts. Night falls and the narrator can no longer see the animal. In fact, everything is strangely dark. He goes towards the door and attempts to open it in hopes that the serpent has left them, but just as he is about to open it, he realizes that he is looking through the porthole into the monster’s yawning throat: its mouth is pressed longingly against the window.
Discovered, it now breaks through the glass and begins probing the room with its slimy tongue. Joky is driven insane with terror, and the beast finds kills him. Motivated to avenge his friend, the narrator grabs a hatchet and chops the tongue in half as it attempts to drag Joky’s body away. As the serpent reels in anger, the narrator falls into unconsciousness.
The epilogue comes from the ship’s log of the steamer “Hispaniola” which has come across the wreckage of the barque “Glen Doon” en route to London. The decks are lathered in blood and slime and much damage is done to the doors and topside. They find the narrator huddled with Joky’s corpse and the serpent’s half-ton tongue. The corpses of several crew members are found in the rigging, a few in the cabin, but the rest are missing. The narrator has written the previous statement to explain the ship’s condition, and the officers of the “Hispaniola” witness it and support its veracity based on the gruesome evidence.
While it is fairly easy to rank any of Hodgson’s stories as being “among his most disturbing,” “A Tropical Horror” takes that title very seriously. It has been accused of melodrama, a lack of realism, and even cataclysmic homophobia, but few have bothered to accuse it of being tame. It is an intense portrait of mankind’s vulnerability in a haphazard universe – indifferent to our aspirations, accomplishments, and ambitions, but aggressively hostile when our paths cross.
The men on the “Glen Doon” are more than sustenance to the serpent – they are playthings to be sought, caught, and punished. Its overtly sadistic behavior makes no sense from an evolutionary stand point: exposed, out of its element, and expending massive amounts of energy chasing down a dozen or so gamy, leathery sailors while the ocean below it thrives with blubbery seals, whales, and porpoises, the sea worm has virtually no reason to remain after it has claimed a few snacks – unless it is not there for food so much as for sport.
There are several angles through which this characterization can be read; in one sense Hodgson is painting a portrait of a universe more like Sheridan Le Fanu’s than H. P. Lovecraft – one less indifferent than it is malicious, less unimpressed by mankind than it is overjoyed at watching us squirm, plead, and die. In another sense – in an autobiographical sense – few critics have missed the overtly sexual nature of the serpent’s optics and behavior – the slimy, pudgy phallus probing the dark holds of the ship for innocent boys to ravage.
As I mentioned in the introduction to this story, Hodgson suffered crippling humiliation and bullying while at sea during his youth – a pattern of degradation that led to a lifelong obsession with being – as he referred to himself in letters – “muscular,” powerful, and devoted to “physical culture.” A beautiful but slight young man – short, sensitive, with dark, expressive eyes and high cheekbones – some have suggested that the cause of the bullying might have had a sexual element to it which he – unsurprisingly – never discussed.
If this is the case, then we might interpret the brutalized, snuffed Joky as the Hodgson that went to sea and never returned, and the traumatized, hardened Thompson as the Hodgson that found his way home – dazed, shaken, and transformed. Whether or not this is true, Hodgson unquestionably uses his second published story – and his first maritime horror tale – to paint a shuddery seascape of helplessness, vulnerability, and violation.