Essay: “Demons of the Sea”, William Hope Hodgson, 1923.
Like Hodgson’s “The Stone Ship”, this story features a “submarine earthquake”.
The sea is very misty and hot, at 99 degrees, with gas bubbles popping all around it.
On watch, the narrator sees a “monstrous black face” arise from the depths.
He goes off to inform the Captain, but, by the time the latter arrives on deck, the face is gone. The Captain ridicules the narrator, but he also questions him closely and tells some other men to look about in the sea.
Nobody sees anything but then, during the night watch, “a muffled screaming arose” then
a clamor as of hoarse braying, like an ass but considerably deeper, and with a horribly suggestive human note
The captain again sends people on deck to look, but they see nothing. The sounds get closer and then a ship is sighted in the mist.
It’s a four-masted bark. Movement is sighted on it. The ship is hailed, but the only response is a reoccurrence of the sound heard previously.
Another ship is seen in the fog, a packet heading towards the ships.
When the bark is about fifty yards away and coming up fast on the stern, strange creatures shaped like seals “but of a dead, unhealthy white” are seen on its deck. Rather than arms, they have tentacles with talons on their end. Their jaws move like an octopus’s.
The “brutes” crewing the Scottish Heath — now the bark’s name can be seen — and go into the water and then swarm aboard the narrator’s ship.
They are fought off, and, three weeks later when the ship arrives at San Francisco. They report their experience and a gunboat is dispatched. But, six weeks later, it returns having found nothing.
The story ends with
Whether she still floats, occupied by her hellish crew, or whether some storm has sent her to her last resting place beneath the waves is surely a matter of conjecture. Perchance on some dark, fog-bound night, a ship in that wilderness of waters may hear cries and sounds beyond those of the wailing of the winds. Then let them look to it, for it may be that the demons of the sea are near them.
They may be called demons but it seems only in a metaphoric sense. The implication is that they are some kind of natural beings linked in some way to the underwater earthquake. They are just another danger in the “wilderness of waters”, the vast mystery that covers the globe and the background for most of Hodgson’s memorable stories.