As previously mentioned, not many people write Hodgsonian stories. It seems that every week a new anthology of “Lovecraftian” tales appears but no tome of Hodgsonian yarns! Thankfully, John B. Ford has attempted to right this horrible wrong and this is one of his most popular tales. Written with noted British author Simon Clark (website: http://www.nailedbytheheart.com/home), “The Derelict of Death” was first published by Ford’s own BJM Press in 1998 and has since become scarce and collectible. It is a tale worthy of WHH himself!
Many thanks to John B. Ford for allowing us to reprint that great story and I hope that it will lead to more Hodgsonian tales from his pen!
The Derelict of Death
Simon Clark and John B. Ford
Strange things happen at sea. Aye, and some are more sinister than the darkest imaginings of any man. Now my life draws towards its close, the remaining days I am to look upon are few — Death advances stealthily. Death has stifled my voice, and in so doing hopes to prevent the horrific memories of my brain being known by others. But still I have the ability to write down that which I witnessed in my youth, and may God give me the energy to deliver a warning — of what I have looked upon — of what is to come again. And so write I must, for there is a danger I must tell of before it is too late.
I remember the time clearly. I was eldest ‘prentice aboard the Jenny Rose, and with this I was pleased and very proud, for I had a penchant for the old windjammers, and here was one of the few still to see service. We were engaged in salvage work, picking this and that from the seabed — anything that would turn a sovereign or two: old canon, a bit of pewter, copper bottoms from sailing vessels that foundered a century or more before.
Our diver was a wiry man by the name of Dodgson who seemed more at home in the water than out of it. Normally he worked alone but on occasions I was sent down in the second Siebe and Gorman suit when there was particularly heavy lifting to be done. I can’t say I liked the sensation of waves above me rather than below, but I was a dutiful sailor and obeyed orders. Still, what a diver sees on the seabed can rattle a man’s nerves. On one of the later dives we entered the hulk of a slaver lying ten fathoms deep. There in the hold were the bones of more than a hundred African men, women and children who’d gone to the bottom still chained to the timbers, poor devils.
Well, I remember we were becalmed in the tropics, with all the lower sails up in the buntlines so as to harvest even the lightest of breezes. But there was something uncanny ’bout all that area of the ocean; something awful in the unnatural silence and stillness of the sea, and my full knowledge of all those men’s bones beneath our keel. Perhaps because of my youthful years and freshness of mind, I was more receptive than I should have been to my queer surroundings — for it seemed to me that everything about this place spoke only of Death.
One day, just after I had joined the other ‘prentices swabbing decks, I noticed young Adams was staring hard at the surface of the sea.
“What’s up, Tom?” I asked. You’ve not seen a mermaid, have you?”
“Just have a look over there, Will,” he said, pointing.
I looked in the direction he indicated, and just beneath the surface of the sea I saw a silver glistening. Then, even as I watched, I saw many small objects rising upward through the water. It looked like a mass slaughter, countless shoals of dead fish rising to the surface of the sea.
“What do you suppose is causin’ it?” asked Adams.
“I don’t know,” I replied, “maybe there’s some poison in the water or something.”
After a while our inaction gained the wrath of the Second Mate, but in noticing the morbid spectacle we gazed upon, he joined our study in amazed silence. Soon the sight came to the attention of the whole crew, but not one man was there who’d seen the like before, or could give decent explanation of it. Soon the newly swabbed decks began to steam in the heat of the blazing sun, sweat trickling constantly from the faces of the toiling A.B.s. With this, there passed through my mind the bizarre idea that we had now sailed into the waters of Hell itself.
Throughout all that day we sweltered in the terrible heat, and not one cloud was there to give us the slightest shelter. With the setting of the sun came sights of weirdness such as brought cries of exclamation from the look-out, for all the sky to Westward blazed with blood-red fire — and forming amongst it was a hideous vision. Those of us above decks stood in utter silence as the image developed. A deliberate blackness began to mix amongst the red, almost as though some invisible artist sought to corrupt the sky with evil design.
In the following seconds came a thrill of intense fear in me, others of the crew falling to their knees in fearful prayer. For in the sky had formed a blackened image, a face of absolute evil, and suddenly the black voids of the eyes opened to display the redness beyond. With this, it seemed to me we were being gazed upon and studied by two orbs of fire and appalling hatred. The First Mate turned to me with a look of puzzlement and fear upon his face.
“Will, go below and tell the Captain we have some curious atmospherics I’d like his opinion on, smart now!”
When I returned with the ‘Old Man”, I was able to stand just behind him and the Mate, thus enabling me to hear the hushed conversation which passed between them.
“What do you think it is, sir?” asked the Mate
“I’m blamed if I know, ” replied the Captain, astounded, but I know what it looks like! It beats anythin’ I’ve seen in all my years.”
“Perhaps it’s somethin’ to do with atmospherics?” suggested the Mate.
“Ain’t no atmospherics could ever shape themselves into something like that, Mister! Though if I’m takin’ your drift at all we’ll have to pass it off as some freak kind of weather effect due to the heat, I see the crew are takin’ it pretty bad… and it’s no surprisin’ too.”
Some short while later the Old Man stood in front of the crew, giving a short speech of reassurance. And though not one man was taken by his explanation, false front, or manufactured high spirits, still perhaps they allowed themselves a very partial belief, for Captain Reynolds was mighty respected by all, seeming like a father even to those greater in age than he.
As any shellback will tell you, it’s a fact that down in the tropics the falling of night seems to come with a great rapidity. This being so, I completed my few remaining tasks and made to go to my bunk, thus meaning to snatch a few hours sleep before the time of my watch. That night it was our watch from midnight till four, and my stint as look-out for the first of those two hours. So it was that some time approaching twelve I was abruptly wakened by Collins. Having just completed his own stint on watch, he seemed in a state of great nervousness and excitement.
“What the devil’s up with you?” I asked, quite angry at being shaken awake.
“You’ve just mentioned what’s wrong with me,” he replied, then walked away in a peculiar hurry to return to his own bunk.
As I came into full wakefulness, I noticed the temperature of the air seemed if anything, even hotter than it had been during the day. I pulled on my clothes and climbed the steps to the main-deck, once there freezing in a stance of total shock. For the redness of the sky to Westward had now defied the night, and within it, that demonic face still gazed with eyes of fire. But now a shocking change had taken place in that monstrous image, for the black void of the mouth had opened to reveal a cavern of fire.
Straightway I noticed there was more activity on deck than usual; the Second Mate gazed upon the Thing with his night-glasses, while the bo’sun leant on the taffrail, smoking and talking to Captain Reynolds in a low voice. And all of the sea remained calm and quiet, almost as though secretly listening to their words — and waiting.
After making a circuit of the decks, I walked to the break of the fo’cas’le head. Here I paced slowly to and fore, ever listening to the quiet of the sea. Always there remained the dreadful image of that demonic face peering through the night, eyes blazing with unholiness and hatred, ever seeming to gaze inside my very soul. And my hope is that my words will bring home to you the true sense of strangeness and fear I felt when walking alone through the silence, with ever and anon that unholy vision being in my sight.
Well, it would be perhaps one hour later, and as my eyes looked once more at that dreadful visage, there came to my notice a dark outline upon the surface of the sea. It was framed in contrast against that cavern of fire which, as I have just told, portrayed a mouth of flame. So I lifted the night-glasses to give further study, and with this I suddenly grew greatly afeared — for I made out the vague sight of a ship that sailed from the flames.
Without hesitation I hailed the Captain.
“Ship sighted on starboard, sir!”
“Give me the position, lad!” he demanded urgently.
“The face, sir,” I shouted excitedly, “it’s sailing from the flames of the mouth!”
I watched as Captain Reynolds lifted his own glasses to his eyes, then saw his lips mutter an oath at the sight he looked upon. By now the Second Mate and some of the men had come to stand beside me. The Mate lifted his own glasses to his eyes and proceeded to study the progress of the vessel.
“My God! she’s been dismasted by the look, no more than a derelict from what I can see. Yet she’s moving at speed. . .”
“Perhaps she’s been caught in some kind of current, sir,” I offered.
“No, she’s dead straight, lad. No current would ever carry her so straight, it’s almost as though she’s somehow set a course…”
After a while, word spread below to the sleeping crew and men began to appear above decks; fearfully they watched in silence as the derelict somehow made its way across the stilled sea. Soon the Captain came to join us on the fo’cas’le head.
“What do you make of her, sir?” asked the mate.
“She’s not right, Mister, ” he replied, looking uneasy, “not right by a long chalk.”
As we continued in our observations, it became obvious to each one of us that the derelict was on a course directly towards us. Suddenly a light flickered to life aboard her, and instinctively I trained the glasses on it. What I then looked upon chilled me to the core, for standing at the ship’s wheel was a black-shrouded figure with death-white face.
“There’s a figure at the wheel, sir!” I shouted loudly, and with my words a murmur of fear spread throughout the watching crew. But as the Captain and Mate made an effort to focus on the light, the derelict instantly filled once more with darkness. At this, the fear in me grew stronger and seemed to almost contain a personal terror, for to my mind came the thought that the ‘man’ at the wheel had somehow sensed my prying eyes, and also the open mind of youth. Thus he had purposely revealed only to me an example of the dread forms aboard the derelict.
With the passing of time the derelict grew ever nearer, and though I scanned the night-glasses over her decks constantly, still there was not another sign that the vessel was inhabited. It would be at the first sign of daybreak that she first came to be stilled in her movement. Soon after this I was ordered by Captain Reynolds to return to my bunk, for I had remained on watch longer than I should, and maybe he was somehow aware of how my nerves had become jangled at the awful vision of the face and of what I had witnessed behind the wheel of the derelict.
I slept for perhaps three hours before awakening, my skin saturated with the sweat of nightmare. When I went above decks I began to wonder if indeed half my experiences had been nightmare, for the Satanic face of flame and blackness had now been replaced by the vivid blue sky we had grown so accustom to. But looking perhaps one mile to starboard, I saw there a dark monument to the reality of the previous night’s sinister happenings. The derelict repelled the very sun; like a black blotch on the sea she seemed representative of the greatest evil. Large parts of the hull appeared to be covered with thick fungi, a testimony to the years of neglect.
As I stared at that queer ship standing on a sea of glassy calm, I was startled by what seemed a tremendous bellow in my ear.
“Mr. Dodgson! Clear the starboard lifeboat!” It was the skipper hollering orders. For a solid seafaring man not given to the horrors, I heard a tremor in his voice. And I reckon he shouted louder than he ought because he heard it himself, and was acutely aware it was plainly a tremor of fear.
Now he buried it in more hollering.
“Bo’sun, pick out a dozen men! We’re going to take a little boat ride across to that damn wreck and treat ourselves to a closer look.” He gave a grim smile through his whiskered visage. “You never know, there might be some salvage to be had from her even though she’s a queer-looking beast of a thing.”
The bo’sun pointed at me. “Jessop, lad, help Mr. Dodgson get the cover off the boat and start bailing her out.”
“Oh, and Jessop?”
“You man enough to take one of the oars?”
He turned to the crew on the main-deck.
“Men, you know I’m a damn b—–, and I don’t have a polite bone in my body, but this time instead of orderin’ I’m askin’. Hoist those hands up if you volunteer to man the lifeboat so as to take the Skipper to that devil-ship over yonder.”
He looked gravely at the faces of the men.
“There’ll be no come-backs or dirt chores for those not fancyin’ boarding her.”
The men weren’t eager, nevertheless, there was a good crop of hands.
As I hauled the canvas bib from the lifeboat and began emptying her of the flotsam and jetsam the shellbacks tossed into her when they couldn’t find cupboard space below, I let my gaze rove across to where the derelict rested like a leper’s sore on an otherwise smooth sea.
Despite that tropical heat, hotter and more humid than any Turkish bath, I shivered to the roots of my bones; for she was an evil-looking vessel all right. Let me tell you, a calm sea mid-ocean can be taxing on the nerves in its own right, stretching out greasy and flat and lifeless as some queer plain of death. But that terrible derelict was a dozen times worse. I can only describe her oblong shape, bereft of mast and rigging, as a floating coffin. There was no wheelhouse, the deck was pretty much flat with the exception of the ship’s wheel. Whatever manner of man had stood there the night before had vanished below.
But somehow I couldn’t picture that dark cowled figure with the white as death face tucking into a plate of hot grub. I didn’t doubt for a moment that he had much darker appetites to satisfy.
In no time at all we were in their lifeboat and pulling on the oars in the direction of the derelict which seemed to fair hum with a sinister mystery all of its own.
“Pull away there, men,” sang out the Skipper as he worked the tiller. “Nice and easy does it. See any life on her, bo’sun?”
The bo’sun, sitting with his hands on the prow, shook his head.
“Not a living soul, Skipper.”
“The only souls aboard that thing will be those already damned to hell,” murmured Tom beside me.
“Pipe down at the oars there,” said the Skipper. “Hark. . . does anyone hear that?”
I heard nothing above the rattle of the oars in the rowlocks and the splash of the blades in the water.
“Vast pulling, all,” sang out the Skipper.
At his order we all stopped rowing.
“Now then, does any man here that?”
We listened. From the direction of the derelict there came faint sound.
“It sounds like hogs?” the bo’sun replied in a low voice. “It’s damn queer, sir.”
“Damn queer indeed,” the ‘Old Man’ agreed. “You’d not credit any livestock would remain alive on a wreck like that.”
“Shall we go on, sir?”
“That we shall, bo’sun. We’ll bottom out the mystery of that evil-looking packet once and for all.”
It took only a few moments to cover the intervening space of ocean to the black derelict. Above us the sky was a dazzling blue. And away to our stern lay the Jenny Rose with the remainder of her crew on deck taking a keen interest in our progress.
Now the bo’sun looked back at the Skipper.
“There’s a fearful stink coming from that b—– hulk.”
And truly, the smell was powerful enough to have me swallowing more than once; for it had caught the back of my throat and now clung there.
“Perhaps it’s coming from the slime?” The bo’sun nodded up at the flanks of the ship which were lathered in something I’d have described closer to fungi than slime. For it was black and silkily smooth, only bulging and curving here and there as if it had overgrown the portals and the like.
“Back-water, all,” the Skipper ordered. “Let’s have a look at her stern. Her name should at least give us some indication which port she hails from.”
We reversed our stroke, taking the lifeboat stern-ward. All the time the Captain’s big grey whiskered head looked this way and that, examining the black-coated flanks of the derelict. I glanced at the faces of the men as they now lightly feathered the oars. Their faces were strained and I saw fear writ large in their eyes. They had all smelt the stink emanating from the ship. It smelt more of the pigsty than any ship I’d ever been near before! The overpowering malty odours of swill overlaying the sharper porcine stench of swine. A hateful smell. And somehow, suffusing it all, the sweet, almost syrupy smell of human cadavers exposed to the heat of the sun.
One man pressed the palm of his hand across his mouth and screwed his eyes shut.
“Let it go man. You should never strive to keep it in.” The Skipper’s voice was kindly. My stomach heaved, too, but I wasn’t given to being ill in such a fashion, so reckoned I’d be all right.
“By Gum!” the Skipper exclaimed as he looked at the black skin of the fungi. “Have you ever seen such a thing? It’s covered the ship’s name plate. Here, Mr. Holden, pass me your oar.”
The Second Mate hauled his oar from the lock and passed it to the Skipper. Water dripped from the blade and down the shaft to wet the Old Man’s hands as he stood in the stern and scraped at the fungi. The blade of the oar made a slithery sound as he worked at the timber, loosening the black substance that had formed a skin over the ship’s name.
“It’s working loose,” he said at length. “It’s coming away in sheets. . . you know, If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this ship’s hull had been sheathed in pigskin. By Gum! look at the stuff.” He paused a moment to scratch his forehead as he stared at the sheets of black material hanging down from the timbers. “there’s even hairs growing from it. Pigskin, I say again. Although if I wrote that in the ship’s log-book I’d lose my master’s ticket with no shadow of a doubt.”
He returned to scraping the ‘hog skin’ with the oar.
“Ah…. I can see a name. It’s the. . . Oh, dear God in Heaven…”
He stopped scraping and stared hard at the name exposed beneath the black flaps of that horrible fungoid skin. I looked, too, reading the name there, and the shivers ran over my entire body. And as I read that name — once, twice, thrice — a hog-like squealing seemed to emanate from the bowels of the derelict, but far away, like, as if echoing from the depths of a cave that ran to the portals of Hell itself.
The name of the ship was Death.
At length the Skipper broke the silence.
“Rum name for a ship, eh boys?”
We nodded, mute.
“Perhaps she was a pirate ship,” Tom ventured.
“Pray that she was, lad, then she might be full to the scuppers with rubies and gold.”
There was another pause. No one, it seemed, could slip their eyes away from that painted name, which seemed to beat with such a vivid red it occurred to me that blood might run through it, just as blood runs through a vein.
“Well, bo’sun,” said the Skipper. “We won’t get rich just by ogling this little beauty, will we? He laughed. But it was a forced laugh, I judged. Forced to cover up the fear that was sweeping like a cold tide through his body.
“Asher,” he said to Tom. “You’re the nimblest. If you’ve no strong opposition to my request, will you accept the opportunity to be first on deck?”
“Aye-aye, sir.” Tom looked scared to death. But he was a game sailor, never to refuse climbing the rigging in even the foulest of seas. He seized a chain, or a cable, it wasn’t possible to tell which; for it was sheathed in that same ‘hog skin’ bristling here and there with silver hairs. Then in a trice he’d climbed up onto the deck. I thought he might have paused fearfully before climbing over the rail, but he bravely slithered over in a moment, kicking his sea boots hard.
“We held our breath. The wait wracked the strongest of nerves. My imagination had him being confronted by that thing with the white face and deathly black cowl.
“What’s keeping him?” murmured the bo’sun. He should — wait!”
Tom’s head popped over the rail. He waved.
“Anyone on board?” called out Captain Reynolds.
“Looks deserted, sir.”
The Captain rubbed his hairy jaw before looking at us.
“Well, my boyos, shall we indulge ourselves in a spot of exploring?”
I was left behind in the boat with the Second Mate. One after another, the Captain, bo’sun, followed by the rest clambered up the sheathed chain and onto the deck. Shielding my eyes against the glare of the sun, I stared upward. Their was precious little to see. A head of our crew, now and then, would pop over the rail. I heard the voices of the men, but couldn’t make out what was being said; save that by the tone of the voice there I could deduce there were wonderful — or terrible — things to see.
“What do you think’s up there?” I asked the Second Mate.
“He swore. “How the blast should I know? I don’t have a twenty foot long b—– neck, do I?”
I nearly forgot my rank and swore back. The tension of waiting as the others explored that strange and terrible ship was all but overpowering. As it was, a sudden scream made me forget the man’s sarcastic wit entirely.
Both our heads tilted up. Of course we saw nothing. But now screams shimmered on the air in a series of dreadful peals. This time it was the Second Mate that shot me a startled look and asked, By heaven, what’s happening up there?”
I reached out to the sheathed chain ready to scramble up and join in the fight, but the Second Mate stopped me with a trembling hand.
“No Jessop! There’s murder going on up there!”
“The Captain’ll handle it… the Captain will handle it, lad”
The way he repeated the statement suggested to me that the man didn’t believe what he himself had said. We stood in the lifeboat and listened to the screams. It was only a moment or so before the commotion faded, trailing off as men succumbed one by one. For what seemed a long while we waited there, our little boat resting on the greasy surface of the ocean. The shadow cast by the black derelict was strangely cool, almost icy.
Presently, the Second Mate called to the Captain; then to the others by name. There was no answering reply. The ship was silent again; a deathly quiet that didn’t brook any kind of noise; for there was a sense that anyone making a sound would be pounced on, as a cat pounces upon a mouse. Soon, even the Second Mate, famed for his cat o’ nine tails tongue, fell silent.
He dipped his hand into the sea and wiped water across his face as if to refresh his jangled nerves. Then taking a deep breath he looked at me and said in a whisper, “They’ve gone, lad.”
“But we could–“
“No, Jessop. Listen to me. If whatever’s on board can snuff out ten hearty sea dogs in less than two minutes, what chance do just the two of us stand? Take your oar, Jessop, we’re going back to our own ship.”
He silenced my protest before it even began with a fierce glare. I took my place at the oar. Without another word between us we rowed back to the ship, and I wondered what fate had befallen the Captain and nine men of the Jenny Rose.
On the orders of the First Mate we were all doled out a tot of rum to help darn the fibres of our ragged nerves. I was relieved of my watch duty and ordered to rest in my bunk. Naturally, I could not sleep and lay there listening to the creak of the ship’s timber’s. I knew that with the disappearance of the Captain the First Mate had taken charge and he and the Second were chewing the fat over what should be done next.
I, for one, wished our old packet possessed a big enough deck gun to blow the death ship out of the water. As it was, I reckoned they’d soon hoist every inch of sail and try to get away with all possible speed, which wouldn’t have been much; for there was still hardly a breath of wind beneath those sultry, tropical skies.
I lay there in my bunk, feeling the trickle of sweat on my forehead. In my mind’s eye I saw the Skipper and the rest of the boarding party on the deck of that grimly named ship, Death, and how they struggled with whatever slithered from the hatches below… And I was drifting into an uneasy doze when I felt a hand on my arm. Turning my head, I saw a death’s head swathed in black cloth, the hand was mere bones, a spider scuttled from the thing’s eye-socket. I opened my mouth to scream out to sweet Jesus in His mercy to–
“Jessop. . . Jessop? Easy there, lad. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
I opened my eyes, my heart pounded.
It was the First Mate shaking me free of my nightmare.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, scared.
“Don’t worry yourself, lad. Are you fully awake?”
“We need your help, Jessop.”
“Need me? Why, sir?”
“Now then, I’m told you’ve used the diving-suit before, is that right?”
“Why, what’s wrong?”
“You know the diver, Mr. Dodgson, boarded the derelict with the Captain and we have to consider him lost, too. Now, lad, if you’re willing.” He looked at me levelly. I need you to take a look under our keel, because something seems to have a hold of the ship. Something that seems to have no intention of letting us go.”
Within the hour I was being winched overboard in the heavy diving-suit. It was a heavy brute of a thing to wear; for it had lead boots, lead weights on the belt and more lead weights against my breast and back. And on my head was the great brass collar on which was screwed the ball of the diving-helmet, also wrought from brass.
It was all I could do to stand on my own two feet on the little timber frame swaying this way and that above the deck. Now, peering through the glass view plate I could see the men of the Jenny Rose standing on deck looking up at me. The Second Mate gave me a thumbs up sign, which is the kindliest gesture I’ve ever seen him make. And there was old Butterbuck and Frenchie working the bellows. Right away, I could hear the hiss of air coming through the valve somewhere just behind my head. A couple of men pushed the platform as it swung on its cable and then I was over the ship’s rail.
The platform turned a point or two and I could see the black derelict that was the well-spring of all our troubles. It just sat there on the sea, looking as if it could draw all that is bright and good out of the world and into its foul heart. And at this time I thought of the Captain and my mates, and I wondered again about the beastly end they’d met there.
The men on the derrick pulleys let me down toward the sea. Now, it is a truth that many sailors can’t swim; for they have a real dread of the sea, knowing not only it can stifle the life out of you in the twinkling of an eye, but every shellback has heard tales of what manner of things swim through deep waters, and most have seen them with their own eyes — man devourin’ sharks, eels with teeth like bandsaws, squid with tentacles as long as a steamer and possessin’ a beak that can nip a man in half.
As that greasy water swirled over the platform and around my boots, I felt that same wave of horror that I always did on a dive. I hated the press of the water against the vulcanised rubber suit. It was like a hundred hands gripping around my legs. Instinctively, I always held my breath as the water swirled up and up; for I was certain that it would gush in and drown me.
Well, the sea slapped against the glass face plate of the helmet, and suddenly the afternoon sunlight had vanished to be replaced by the dappling light plays of sunbeams filtering down through the waves. And there I was in the submarine world. The air whistled through the valve with all the laboured sounds of an asthmatic old man. With the ocean surface just a foot or so above my helmet, and looking like a wrinkled silver sheet, I peered round. There was nothing much to see in the ocean; for it just shaded off into a turquoise mist. Feeling lighter now as the buoyancy supported the weight of the suit, I made a half turn on my platform so I could see the keel of the ship and maybe discern what held her in place. I waited a moment for a gush of bubbles to pass so I could get the whole picture.
What I saw sent sheets of ice through me. I pushed my face forward against the glass plate, my eyes bulging, my heart thudding. For there, gripping the bottom of the ship like a massive sucker was an amorphous piece of flesh. Pulpy and white it was; almost the shape of a wine glass, with the wide mouth clamped onto the keel as if the creature sucked at the timbers. Beneath it, it became fluted, growing narrower and narrower until a stem little thicker than my own waist ran down into the deeps to be lost in the misty haze.
What manner of creature was it? It reminded me of a lamprey eel that can batten onto a man’s chest and suck him dry. But this creature ran the full length of the keel. And there were no eyes, nor any other features that were discernible. I took a moment or so to check if the axe was still in place in my belt, then I gave the line three sharp tugs. That was the signal to lower me deeper still. It occurred to me if I could perhaps find where the root of this creature bonded itself to the ocean bed, then perhaps I could hack it through and so free the ship.
The platform descended.
Now the water darkened. The ship with the strange growth suckered to the bottom seemed far, far away. Down, down I went. My ears ached as the pressure increased, and repeatedly I had to tug the line to signal the need for more air. On the deck the bellowsmen would be working like navvies to feed the suit.
At twenty fathoms I saw the seabed. The stem of the thing that had battened itself to the Jenny Rose ran down into what I took to be an area of weed maybe seventy by thirty feet. A second stem ran into it also. Although I could not determine exactly where it went, I guessed it was connected somehow to the derelict named Death. This is where the horrors got there teeth into me and wouldn’t let go. Because that’s when I really saw what that shape was on the seabed. I cried out to be saved though I knew no-one could really hear me. I was alone at the bottom of the ocean, and what terrors I encountered there I would have to face alone.
For that shape on the seabed was not a crop of kelp — but a face. A Satanic face. It was all a blend of flame reds and blacks that were deeper than any black I’ve ever clapped eyes on ‘afore. Fear paralysed me. I couldn’t tug the line to order the winch men to stop lowering me. So down I went. Right down into the midst of that Satanic face. The mouth was a cavern of fire; the eyes blazing with unholiness and hatred; the forehead a slab of leprous growths. And all around it, haloing that unholy head were the silvery bodies of dead fish killed by whatever foul poisons emanated from its accursed form.
At last I reached out my gloved hand to reach at the communication line. I intended to signal to the winch man to stop and haul me up with all God-speed. Instead my hand found the supporting cable of the platform and I yanked uselessly at that. I only noticed my mistake when it was far, far too late. For, in less space than it takes for a man doomed to the gallows to cry out, I was plunged into the orbit of the demonic eye.
Strange though it may seem to read this description of mine. But that eye consumed me. Though there was no eyeball in the face, some pulpy, bulked thing opened and admitted me therein. I was like a morsel being swallowed by a hungry dog…. In a welter of water and dead fish and weed, I found myself dropping into a chute that carried me yet further downward with dizzying speed.
Then came darkness; my head being flung against the inside of the helmet scattered my senses. So it was something I took to be a dream when I at last opened my eyes to find myself sitting in a cavern lit by blood-red light.
I was not alone, I saw. Captain Reynolds was helping me to my feet. I saw the concern writ large in his eyes. His bellowing voice made it to my ears through the bronze globe of my diver’s helmet.
“Jessop! Is that you in there?”
Still dazed I nodded.
He slapped me on the arm, pleased to see me. Immediately, I reached up to unscrew the helmet from the metal collar, but the Captain shook his head, alarmed I should try such a thing, as if it was shot through with folly and danger.
“No! No, Jessop. Keep the helmet in place.”
But by now the air felt stifling in the helmet; for I saw that my air hose had become broken during my passage into this demonic face. Clumsily I clutched at the glass face plate and unscrewed it, not thinking for a moment whether the air would be bad in that blood-red cavern.
At last the glass face plate came away in my hand. I breathed deeply and gratefully; for the air, though warm, humid, and cloying with swinish stink, seemed breathable.
“Skipper,” I panted. “I was sure you were dead. Are the others–“
“The others, boy. They’re right behind me.”
I looked over his shoulder. In a line stood the rest of the men who’d boarded the derelict that morning, including the bo’sun and Tom. Their faces were grave, but there was no panic; for these were brave men; men of iron.
“Skipper, how did you find yourself down here? You do know that you’re beneath twenty fathoms of water?”
“Aye, lad, we guessed something of the like.”
My heart swelled with pride. I was overjoyed to see the skipper and his men safe, and to know that the Skipper had mastered himself and was no longer afraid.
“What we must do now, lad,” said the Skipper in that same low voice, “is get you away from this devil and back to safety.”
“No, surely, skipper. We must all escape. Look, I have my axe.”
“No, lad. We will be staying here.”
“Here?” Puzzled, I looked from face to face. “Why?”
The Skipper gave a grim smile. “Because I reckon we are beyond saving.”
“Skipper . . .”
“Take a closer look, boy. We aren’t quite what we seem.”
I looked from his face to his body. I saw the same barrel-chested man. Nothing was amiss. I looked down at his legs; from his legs to his booted–
Then I saw what he meant.
“Skipper . . . My good lord!” I cried with horror. “What has it done to you?”
For, there, I saw that the Skipper’s feet — and all the men’s feet! — were sunk nearly to the knees into a material that was as red as the inside of a mouth. A skin-like substance that appeared to be flushed with blood not only encircled their legs, but had become one with their flesh.
“We are part of it now, lad,” said the Skipper in a way that was not panicked or terrified.
He explained what had happened. How they’d climbed on board the derelict and how they’d been rushed by black-shrouded figures with faces of death. Only these figures hadn’t moved like men, they’d budded from the decks in the way that sea anemone tentacles spring from the body. The fight had been brief, for these unholy forms were attached by black, flesh-like stems to the deck of the ship, and had simply seized hold of the Skipper and his men. In an instant they had melted and flowed over the men as press-gangs might slip their victim into a sack.
There the men had found themselves drawn down through a slippery membrane-like tube, down into the ship, then down into unknown depths. At last they had come to find themselves here, their legs rooted sickeningly into the vivid red floor.
“Take a look round at this place,” said the Skipper. “This has happened many times before.”
I did as he asked.
I saw no figures rooted as far as their knees like these men. But I saw heads lying on the floor. In parts they covered it like the cobbles of a street. And each head I looked upon was alive! Sad and frightened eyes gazed on me and seemed to silently plead for help, while others sobbed quietly to themselves, with tears of blood slowly trickling from eyes of endless suffering. Occasionally pale lips would open and give rise to a moan of awful torment, this triggering the same response from every other head. And with this I feared for my very sanity, for the whole thing was like some terrible vision from the darkest nightmare realm.
It seemed to me that men had melted there and flowed, then set firm once more, so that heads, faces, eyes protruded from the floor. I saw ears with gold rings, bearded faces, bald heads, some still wearing bandanas, even one old gentleman in spectacles, though only the top half of the head protruded from the red mass.
“You see,” the Skipper told me. “We are being slowly consumed.”
“But you can’t stay here to be eaten alive!”
“This is our fate now, boy.” He gave a grim smile. “Now leave us be so we can make our peace with the Lord.”
“But I can’t leave, sir.”
“Yes, you can. Until your bare skin touches this red stuff, it can’t get a hold of you.”
“No, sir, I meant–“
“And no, you cannot help us either. Now, go while you still have the opportunity.”
“Replace the face plate, Jessop. That’s an order.”
Grudgingly, I monotoned, “Aye-aye, sir.”
The skipper watched me gravely as I screwed the face plate back into the helmet, then he mouthed the word: Go.
Now, it came to me that I would have to obey the Skipper’s order, not only from obedience to him, but also from a need to tell the others what had befallen the boarding party. And in doing so I had hopes that they would find a way to smash into this submarine cavern and free the men of the Jenny Rose.
At that moment I felt the Skipper tug my sleeve. His eyes shot me a warning look and he said something I failed to hear through the thick helmet. Nevertheless, one glance back painted a clear enough picture of the danger. Moving quickly, yet smooth as ice-skaters, were those damned figures in black with skull faces. Whether they moved independently of that red floor surface or were in fact part of it, I cannot say. Save for one certain truth: they were coming to lay their hands on me.
I shot one look back to the Skipper. He nodded at me; for I reckon he was grateful to me for comin’ this far and strivin’ for a way to save him and his men. Then I was off. I moved as quickly as I could in those lead boots. The weight made it impossible to run at speed. And more than that, I had to run across those slippery cobbles that were composed of human heads. How many I trod on and broke in my lead boots I do not know.
As I loped forward into the cavern I pulled free my axe; for ahead my way was sealed by a membrane of white. I slashed at it with the axe, breaching a hole through which I could wade. Everywhere, faces peered from the floor and even from the walls: their rolling eyes, big and round, watched me stumbling past. These were once men such as I, or had been once. But they, too, had been sucked down to the devil face on the seabed.
When I walked on the areas of red floor that were free of the doomed men’s heads, I felt it clutch at me as if I was stepping into molasses. Once I brushed a wall with my elbow and it rippled and sucked onto me. Pulling myself free was no real difficulty but I knew if my bare skin had touched it, it would have sucked onto me hard and never let go. A black garbed figure loomed out from a side chamber and grabbed at me. The hands looked as if they were mittened in white skin, showing no splay of fingers. I felt the palms suck onto my chest; the death’s head face stared into mine; its dark eyes hog-like and glaring pure evil. With a swipe of my axe I cut the monster down. Then I ran on.
Ahead lay another membrane like a tautly stretched curtain. With a great downward sweep I cut it from top to bottom, and this time a wall of water rushed in at me. I’d breached the outer skin of that demonic Thing. Instantly the water swirled up to my helmet and I was beneath the sea again. At that moment I remembered my air supply hose and been severed. In the space of five seconds I dropped the axe then pulled off my lead boots, my weight belt, my breast and back weight.
With the suit inflated with air, albeit foul air, it was as light as a cork. In a geyser of bubbles I rocketed upward. The speed was dizzying. That demonic face receded…. I looked up to see the under-surface of the ocean hurtling toward me. Then a great series of pains spiked me through from head to heels and I plunged into unconsciousness.
There my yarn comes to its final rest.
Aye, I reached the surface — half suffocated, yet alive. And when I had no help from the men of the Jenny Rose I managed somehow to swim to her and haul myself onto the deck. But what of the crew?
Gone. Every man jack of them.
Although in a terrible state, with the bends boiling the blood in my veins, I realised the entire ship’s company must have been drawn through the fleshy stem which battened itself to the keel of the Jenny Rose, and thereafter sucked them down to the devil face on the seabed, as an ant-eater sucks ants from their nest.
In a thousand agonies I managed to wriggle out of the suit. It was a miracle the bends didn’t kill me there and then on the deck; for I had rocketed to the surface far too rapidly. Deep sea divers should be raised to the surface slowly, with the necessary regulatory halts, so as to work the compressed gas from their bloodstream. I felt the joints of my arms and legs lock up; my torso became as twisted as the trunk of an olive tree; the bends even found the part of my brain which services human speech and cruelly busted it. I never spoke a word from that day to this.
Like I said, my yarn is done, but my agonies were not. Suffice to say, I saw the black derelict retreat into the fiery face that came once more to briefly rest upon the sea. I then lay comatose in my bunk until a passing steamer put a party on board and found me. I have nought to relate how a man such as I — a human derelict, you might say — has survived these last forty years; save that it was by virtue of the Christian charity of the good Parson Willis.
I’ve posted various accounts of the loss of the crew of the Jenny Rose to the Admiralty House and Lloyds’ of London, quoting exact longitude and latitude, and fair begging them to warn ships away from the area. I’ve received no reply and conclude they dismiss my words as some old shellback with a tot or two too much rum in his belly. But this morning Parson Willis read to me from the Times, as is his good and honourable custom, whiling away half an hour with a crippled mute such as I. He read to me of ships reported missing in a part of the tropics I know only too well.
Good men have gone down.
And now, I daresay, they are satisfying the appetites of that one Thing which was made by neither man nor God, but which beats with a hell-fire heart all of its own, somewhere deep on the ocean floor.