WHH Short Fiction: “From the Tideless Sea”

Yes, it’s the first post of 2020, and it’s business as usual. MarzAat does not do recaps, reflections, or resolutions.

Essay: “From the Tideless Sea”, William Hope Hodgson, 1906.

I suspect, after selling The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” and before it was published in 1907, Hodgson thought he was on to a good thing with the whole idea of the mysterious Sargasso Sea where ships are snagged for decades, even centuries, in masses of seaweed and strange monsters lurk. He didn’t even use the name Sargasso Sea in the novel, but he definitely did later in the popular series that started with this story.

It wasn’t Hodgson’s first short story sale, but it was the first piece of weird nautical fiction.

I suspect this story was written shortly after Hodgson finished The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” which Sam Gafford says, in “Writing Backwards: The Novels of William Hope Hodgson”, was completed on September 25, 1905. It was the last of Hodgson’s novels to be written, but, at the time this story was published, none of Hodgson’s novels had seen print yet.

The name and circumstances the Homebird finds itself in are very similar to the Seabird’s in that novel.

As in The House on the Borderland and The Night Land, we have another one of Hodgson’s found manuscripts. This one is discovered very well encased in a floating cask picked up by a schooner.

The manuscript, by Arthur Samuel Philips, tells about the first two years of the Homebird, on which he was a passenger, trapped in the Sargasso after being damaged by a hurricane. (I assume it’s a hurricane, but Hodgson uses the term “Pyramidal Sea”, presumably the low-pressure eye of a hurricane).

At first, under sail and being towed by men in boats, the ship tries to free itself. But something moves under the weeds, a sinuous something waving against the sky before returning beneath the waves. The men in one boat are pulled into the sea.

The Homebird’s crew encounters another stranded ship. It’s been strangely altered, a whole superstructure added to its deck.

On Christmas night, the narrator hears strange sounds on the Homebird. (Hodgson’s almost always does a nice job communicating menace through sound in his stories.) A man disappears from the deck. Great eyes are seen in the weed, “some dread Thing hidden”.

And then, finally, we see our monster, a giant octopus. And now the narrator knows why that abandoned ship had put extra walls on its deck

The monster takes all the crew eventualy, and Phillips builds similar fortifications on the Homebird.

Months go by. The ship’s captain, seeing how protective the narrator is of his daughter, asks him to marry her. He does. She becomes pregnant, and they have a child. The captain dies eventually too.

Phillips and his wife have only enough preserved food on board to last, at best, 17 years. Philips says “The loneliness of the vast Weed World had become an assurance of doom”.

And Philips’s account, after relating how he got his message out of the Sargasso via balloon, ends.

We return to our opening frame and find out it’s been 29 years since the Homebird was reported lost.

Hodgson wasn’t the first to use the Sargasso Sea as a place of mystery and where ships get stranded, but his treatments of that idea are probably the most remembered.

There is a bit of an autobiographical note in the story.

Phillips, recounting a Christmas Day meal aboard the Homebird says:

One of them ventured aft at dinner time, and offered me a slice of what he called ‘plum duff.’ He brought it on a plate which he had found in the galley and scoured thoroughly with sand and water. He tendered it shyly enough, and I took it, so graciously as I could, for I would not hurt his feelings; though the very smell of the stuff was an abomination.

In a journal of one of his sea voyages, Hodgson said plum duff was “awful stuff”.

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