Not a lot of people write Hodgsonian stories. There’s an endless amount of writers who pen Lovecraftian stories. In fact, anthologies of such stories appear at such a fast rate that I can barely keep up with them. And yet, not many write what we could call “Hodgsonian” stories. Today, I’m happy to present an example of a new story set in Hodgson’s universe. This tale, written by John B. Ford, recaptures the feel of Hodgson’s Sargasso Sea and the overwhelming hopelessness of those it claims as victims. I hope you enjoy it!
If there’s anyone to blame or praise for my involvement in the small press, then it’s William Hope Hodgson. When I first read his novel THE BOATS OF THE “GLEN CARRIG” back in the late 80’s, I was at once in awe of his extraordinary visual and atmospheric talent. The first quarter of that novel, as Lovecraft once quite rightly stated, is unsurpassed in its quality of brooding menace. Suffice to say that I went on to read every story and novel of Hodgson’s I could get my hands on, and I became such a fanatic that I then attempted to emulate my hero. ‘The Cemetery of the Ocean’ was the first story I ever had printed in the UK small press, and was published in January 1996 in the Doppelganger Broadsheet. At the time I was hungry for more Sargasso tales and since I’d read all of Hodgson’s I decided to explore that weed infested sea of lurking horrors with my own imagination.–John B. Ford
The Cemetery of the Ocean
Now for three days the stormwinds had carried us into the strange areas of the ocean, hitherto uncharted. But with the dawning of the fourth day, I heard the look-out hail to Captain Johnson: “Land spotted to westward, sir!” With this, I gazed out far upon the larboard bow, and over all the horizon I saw a distinct brown mass, curiously intermingled with stretches of green. Yet still the wind had a great force, so that it carried us most rapid in this direction, and so were the crew cheered somewhat, for there had been much foolish talk that these waters were unholy, and cursed by the devil.
As the Sea Witch continued on this heading, I saw that the First Mate held a look of bewilderment, and that ever and anon he would scan the horizon with his glasses. In a little, Captain Johnson joined him, and it came to me then, as something was notably wrong, for their lowered tones held an obvious concern. Only some short while later their concerns became clear to me, for we came upon not land, but a sombre flatness of slime and weed which dominated the sea all about. With this, every man in the crew became quiet and melancholy, for as we cut further into that sea of dread isolation, we came to a realisation that fate had brought us unto that vast Cemetery of the Ocean — the Sargasso Sea.
Now, in the evening time the wind dropped almost as suddenly as it had arrived, and soon afterwards, with the falling of night, there descended an unnatural silence and sense of lonesomeness such as chilled the heart of every man. Before the darkness had completely enshrouded us, the Captain told Jake (the eldest ‘prentice) and two others, to hang lanterns from the rigging; and this we judged a very sound action, for many times we had heard tales of “Things” that dwelt within the weed.
And so it came on to be approaching midnight, and with this I was wakened by Williams (a fellow A.B.) for my duty on the second watch. For some while I stayed aft with Jenkins, and the weirdness of the night seemed to pervade us, so that we ever spoke only in low tones; almost as though afraid to break the constant eerie silence all about us. After a while I lit a bull’s-eye lantern and made to walk the decks with it. With this task completed, I walked to the fo’cas’le head rails, choosing to lean on them and contemplate the night for a while. Gazing out over the weed as far as the moonlit night would allow, the dreadful solemnness of the place began to touch my mind. In my head grew thoughts of all the dead this place had claimed in the years of the past, so that I was ever haunted by imagined presences and spirits of the night. Now, in the following seconds it seemed that my frightful thoughts had taken on a life of their own. For suddenly travelling through the awful silence came a long drawn-out moaning sound, and in my youthful mind there came the nightmare vision of some long-dead Thing crying out plaintively in the dark. Suddenly I remembered my duties and lifted the night-glasses to my eyes, straightway witnessing a group of eerie green lights that moved rapidly across the surface of the weed. At that, I followed them with the glasses, but soon they vanished behind a veil of darkness. Shortly after this the moaning sound recommenced, but this time holding a quality of fear and agony, and causing me to shudder deeply.
Soon Captain Johnson and the First Mate had taken to the decks.
“What’s going on, Holton?” asked the ‘Old Man’, his eyes shrewdly searching the night for any sign of ought untoward.
“There’s something not right out there, sir!” I said. “It looked like a host of emerald lights were skimming over the surface of the sea.” And this was how best I could explain to the Captain what I had witnessed, but he made no reply and only looked very grave.
“Blast our luck for ending up in this damned place,” answered the First Mate, “the only sure thing is that what you saw was nothing holy.”
Soon afterwards, Captain Johnson announced to the crew that every ‘dog watch’ would be doubled, and so it was, that I spent the rest of my watch in the company of Jake. Most of this time was spent in quietness, except for once when Jake said he heard something slithering close by us upon the weeds, but myself I heard nothing.
After completing my ‘timekeeping’, I then went below to my bunk. The remainder of the night was uneventful for me (for I am a slave to sleep) but I was told by Masson (the Second Mate) that there had been further happenings. It seemed that during the last watch before daybreak, many of the green lights had been spotted heading in direction straight for the Sea Witch, but before the look-outs had any time to raise an alarm, the lights had simultaneously disappeared from view. A short while later the vessel had been rocked twice, violently from beneath, but then had come sunrise and an end to the queer events of the night.
Next morning, we broke our fast upon the main-deck, while Captain Johnson spoke to us with urgency. And as he spoke, it transpired he had ascertained the Sea Witch was now stuck fast within the weed, and had no chance of escape without the arrival of another great gale. Still, he spoke with much optimism, mentioning we had food and water enough for two months, and by this time a storm would surely come to free us. But beneath his front I recognised a clever man who sought to quell the growing panic of the crew.
To end his short speech, he mentioned the possibility of a small rowboat being able to cut through the weed, and asked for two volunteers willing to make a try for open waters, thus alerting the world to the fate of the Sea Witch. Of the crew, four of us raised our hands, and one of them being Masson, (the Second Mate) he was asked who he would like to accompany him. With this, I was selected, for I was young and strong and my skill at the oars known to all. So we loaded the rowboat with canisters of water, a case of dried fruit, and an ample supply of ship’s biscuit.
The boat was lowered, and then we set off, moving arduously through the weed; our oars making continual sogging sounds as we lifted them from the choked surface of the sea. After what seemed like hours of rowing, we stopped to rest for a while, our arms aching sorely with the effort required. It was then for the first time that I felt a sense of alienation and vulnerability like I had never before known, and looking back towards the horizon, a chord of fear struck deep within me, for I saw that distance had now taken the Sea Witch beyond our sight. It came to me then how easy it would be to lose our direction in this sea of lurking horrors.
As the hours of back-breaking rowing passed on, the darkness slowly began to gather about us once more. Suddenly Masson cried out to me that he could see the outline of a small island in the weed. I looked over my shoulder into the fast growing gloom, but being unable to make out anything except a small land mass and occasional dark shadowy shapes, I picked up the beam torch and aimed its light outwards in a wide sweeping arch. Immediately our ears became filled by the inhuman moaning sound of the previous night. But what could have caused it? In the torchlight I had seen only failing vegetation in the shape of stunted trees and bushes. Again I swept the light over the island, but this time something made me focus upon one of the trees. With this sight I gasped in horror, for contained within the trunk was the pallid white flesh of a deformed human face; its mouth opened wide as it joined in a chorus of sorrowful, tortured moans.
For a moment I froze in a state of unbelieving shock, but in the next instant Masson knocked the torch from my grip, quickly turning it off. In hushed tones he told me to look towards the horizon, and there I saw masses of the green lights I had witnessed the night before. The lights appeared to skim over the surface of the sea, and suddenly a great fear took us, for we saw they grew in size, and so therefore moved rapidly in our direction.
“Perhaps they’re those corposant lights people talk about, sir?” I asked, trying my best to keep any sign of fear from telling in my voice.
“Whatever it is, lad, it’s nothing I’ve ever seen before, and we need to get ourselves into a new position pretty sharpish!”
Quickly we took up the oars and began to head for a position behind the island, but it was only a few strokes later when Masson told me to cease rowing and remain still for the sake of my life. Almost paralysed by fear, we watched as the lights grew ever nearer, and soon it was when the full extent of horror was revealed to us. For suddenly the ‘trees’ of the island no longer moaned, but screamed aloud with cries of pain and terror. We looked closely, and in the moonlight saw the phosphorescent green bodies of an army of giant sea lizards that swarmed the island. I watched in horror as their giant jaws closed around the trunks of the trees, and listened as the screams of pain turned to gurgled chokes of death. And in all this time we did not move a muscle, but only looked on in horror at the great savagery of the lizards.
Now, when the slaughter was at last over, it was with relief that I saw the lizards slipping back into the weed-covered sea and heading back in the direction from whence they came. But still there remained with us a feeling of unease; and so we rowed away from the island deep into the night, for there had been something about the whole affair which greatly haunted the mind.
As we rowed, we began to find it increasingly hard work; it seemed the weed thickened about us the further we ventured outwards towards open waters. And so, being in a wearied state, we settled down to two or three hours sleep before dawn. But even in those few hours of rest our sleep came to be disturbed, for at times we heard movement amongst the weed, and aiming the beam torch outwards, saw the sight of a great devil-fish framed within the light. At that, we killed the light and in a state of great fear rowed to a new position, for the thing could have brought us to a watery grave with one blow from its mighty tentacles.
With the first light of day we commenced rowing again, and in a solemn, misty sunrise we occasionally saw the dark and shadowy outlines of derelicts; ships that had long lain immobile within the weed. And even in this poor light it was possible to tell that these ships were of a great age, so that it was a solemn thought to think of all the lonesome years that time had passed over them, and very sombre was I when I thought of the crews that could have done nothing save await their own deaths.
As the day wore on, the mist quickly burnt up and an oppressive heat came down from the sun of a clear blue sky. The air seemed to have about it a hard-to-breathe quality, and I became concerned about Masson, who was now struggling greatly with the rowing and taking water much too quickly. Sometime later I noticed another derelict, and the sight of this one filled me with much interest, for it was of a modern type. Seeing it would be of no great departure, we decided at once to head towards it, as we badly needed rest and shelter from the sun.
Pulling the boat alongside, I noticed a green growth of fungi which had begun to grow on the hull, but still this did not prevent me from reading the name of the vessel, and with a great excitement I read the name Vanity Fair. The Vanity Fair had gone missing six months earlier, and everyone had thought her to be a victim of the storms of the Atlantic, but here she was in the Sargasso. Could anyone still remain alive? We boarded by way of a rope ladder which hung down loose over the side, and as we gained the decks I shouted loudly to attract any sign of life, but no reply came to meet us.
It was as we walked the main-deck that the stench first came to us — the stench of decay. We came to the area of the cargo hold, and saw that the sliding double doors had been smashed right through. Looking downwards, I saw the worst sight of my life. The crew had obviously been under attack from some nameless horror of the weed, and had wrongly chosen the cargo hold as the safest place of refuge. The bodies of the men covered the entire area of the floor; the flesh had mostly been ripped from every man, but their skulls still appeared frozen in a state of agonised, silent screams. We could stay on board no longer, better at least to die in the effort of escape than to await the fate of these men.
It is three days now since we left the Vanity Fair. I sit here writing this account, although I know it will probably never be read. Masson is now unconscious and I cannot revive him. The sun continues to blaze down and our water supply is very low. The weed is now too thick to row through. All I can do now is hope… hope and pray!
William Holton, 1877.
EXTRACT FROM THE LOG-BOOK OF THE ‘GOLDEN STAR’ :
July 18th 1877.
After the storm, a small rowboat was sighted by the look-out. Aboard were found two men, one long-dead and the other a youth of nineteen in a state of high delirium. The survivor has now taken water and was able to inform us that both men were of the Sea Witch — a ship lost fourteen days ago to the vast Sargasso Sea.