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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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"From the Tideless Sea" (Part I.) by William Hope Hodgson

NOTES BY M. GRANT KELLERMEYER: 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

Part I.


The Captain of the schooner[1] leant over the rail, and stared for a moment, intently.

"Pass us them glasses[2], Jock," he said, reaching a hand behind him.

Jock left the wheel for an instant, and ran into the little companionway[3]. He emerged immediately with a pair of marine-glasses, which he pushed into the waiting hand.

For a little, the Captain inspected the object through the binoculars. Then he lowered them, and polished the object glasses.

"Seems like er water-logged barr'l as sumone's been doin' fancy paintin' on," he remarked after a further stare. "Shove ther 'elm down er bit[4], Jock, an' we'll 'ave er closer

look at it."

Jock obeyed, and soon the schooner bore almost straight for the object which held the Captain's attention. Presently, it was within some fifty feet, and the Captain sung out

to the boy in the caboose to pass along the boathook[5].

Very slowly, the schooner drew nearer, for the wind was no more than breathing gently. At last the cask was within reach, and the Captain grappled at it with the boathook.

It bobbed in the calm water, under his ministrations; and, for a moment, the thing seemed likely to elude him. Then he had the hook fast in a bit of rotten-looking rope

which was attached to it. He did not attempt to lift it by the rope; but sung out to the boy to get a bowline[6] round it. This was done, and the two of them hove it up on to

the deck.

The Captain could see now, that the thing was a small water-breaker[7], the upper part of which was ornamented with the remains of a painted name.

"H—O—M—E—B—I—" spelt out the Captain with difficulty, and scratched his head. "'ave er look at this 'ere, Jock. See wot you makes of it."

Jock bent over from the wheel, expectorated, and then stared at the breaker. For nearly a minute he looked at it in silence.

"I'm thinkin' some of the letterin's washed awa'," he said at last, with considerable deliberation. "I have ma doots if he'll be able to read it.

"Hadn't ye no better knock in the end?" he suggested, after a further period of pondering. "I'm thinkin' ye'll be lang comin' at them contents otherwise."

"It's been in ther water er thunderin' long time," remarked the Captain, turning the bottom side upwards. "Look at them barnacles[8]!"

Then, to the boy:—

"Pass erlong ther 'atchet outer ther locker."

Whilst the boy was away, the Captain stood the little barrel on end, and kicked away some of the barnacles from the underside. With them, came away a great shell of

pitch[9]. He bent, and inspected it.

"Blest if ther thing ain't been pitched!" he said. "This 'ere's been put afloat er purpose, an' they've been, mighty anxious as ther stuff in it shouldn't be 'armed.

He kicked away another mass of the barnacle-studded pitch. Then, with a sudden impulse, he picked up the whole thing and shook it violently. It gave out a light, dull,

thudding sound, as though something soft and small were within. Then the boy came with the hatchet.