Review: “The Habitants of Middle Islet”, William Hope Hodgson, 1962.
This story has a set up rather like Hodgson’s Sargasso Sea story “The Finding of the Graiken” from 1913 and “The Bells of the Laughing Sally” published in 1914, but I don’t know its composition date. All those stories have men going in search of a lost ship that had their lovers or wives on them.
Here, they find the lost ship, significantly named the Happy Return, in the Middle Islet off Nightingale Island in the Da Cunha group. It is a Marie Celeste-type derelict. It’s in a cove, in good shape, and utterly deserted.
The woman missing from the ship is the love of the narrator’s friend. There’s even evidence in a marked calendar that she’s been aboard that very day. Thinking that the Happy Return’s crew is just on the island looking for food and will return shortly, Trenhern the friend and the narrator return to their ship for the night and set out at dawn to return to the derelict.
And they find the calendar again altered. Naturally the whaler, who found the vessel and brought report of it back to Trenhern before the rescue mission set out, suggests a ghost. Trenhern speculates that maybe something keeps the crew and his sweetheart off the ship in the daytime. A search of the island is made.
Standing on the cliff above the cove, the narrator sees faces in the water around the Happy Return. He realizes they are the tentacles of a devil-fish (or “sea monster, Kraken” as he says).
I’m not sure how you get from tentacle to face, but it’s the key to the mystery.
The two men stay on the Happy Return that night. The narrator, in a dream, thinks he sees Trenhern’s sweetheart show up and the two go off together.
Then he is definitely awake, roused by a scream. Neither his friend nor the woman is on the ship. The men from the main ship come to his calls. After investigation finds neither Trenhern or any of the passengers and crew of the Happy Return, the men all leave.
The last bit of the story is rather strange. The narrator, as the ship departs the cove, sees
a beauteous face came over the taffrail, and looked at me with great sorrowful eyes. She stretched out her arms to me, and I screamed aloud; for her hands were like unto the talons of a wild beast.
It’s all rather ambiguous. If it was the corporeal sweetheart, has she been dreadfully altered? Is she the devil-fish that seems to prowl around the boat at night? Or is she some sort of deadly siren-like tempter of men? She seems too corporeal for a ghost, and how could a ghost change a calendar?
I suspect all these unanswered questions may have been the reason Hodgson never got this story published in his lifetime.