Well, this week’s discussion over at the Deep Ones group on LibraryThing, was a story I nominated.
I almost feel like I should apologize, but the group seemed to like it better than I did it. I nominated it, of course, because it is a piece of fantastical fiction set during World War One.
Review: “The Lusitania Waits”, Alfred Noyes, 1918.
Alfred Noyes is not a name generally associated with weird fiction, but he did write some ghost stories. However, he was a popular poet, his most famous work being “The Highwayman”.
Our story starts out with three old skippers, all in their seventies and retired for five years, meeting, as usual, at the White Horse Inn. Sure, the war has given them something to talk about, but Captain Kendrick, now a parish councilor, likes to talk about the newest edition of the Gazette, a weekly newspaper run by Macpherson.
Commenting on Macpherson, Kendrick remarks,
‘There’s a rumor that he’s a freethinker. He says that Christianity has been proved a failure by the war.’
This was the story’s high point for me: a contemporary example that World War One weakened European Christianity.
Captain Morgan, the group’s intellectual and a defender of Macpherson, says he’s not a freethinker. Civilization will just have to try Christianity again after the war.
Captain Davidson takes a pragmatic view. It’s their countrymen out on the sea tonight “trying to kill Germans”, and it’s necessary. The Germans are doing the same. There’s still a place for Christianity in “modern civilization”.
Davidson says the war has upset Macpherson. Why, he’s even taken to writing “poytry” for his paper. This is the start of a good-natured ribbing of poetry and poets by Noyes.
Kendrick stands by his opinion of Macpherson given his latest poem, “Fishers of Men”. (And, of course, Noyes actually gives us a poem with that title.) It does, though, “seem to rhyme all right” admits Kendrick.
The talk then turns to the local naval base wanting more trawler skippers. Morgan says he’s already spent 50 years at sea. Davidson notes the life of the trawler skipper and their crews is “hard on the women”.
Kendrick then notices a picture in the paper of the medal Imperial Germany struck to commemorate its sinking of the Lusitania. The men discuss the horror of the ship, and Germany celebration of the death of so many civilians.
Morgan asks Kendrick if the German sub that sunk the Lusitania was ever caught.
Kendrick is about to comment on that when he hears a snatch of song from outside. Violating blackout regulations, they take a peek. It’s “poor old Jim Hunt”, bellowing out a song, moving his arms wildly, and walking as if drunk.
Kendrick sadly notes the transformation of Hunt, a “terror for women and the drink” until he was rescued from the water after by a German submarine after it sank the trawler he was on. The Germans smacked him over the head with a metal bar when he wouldn’t answer questions.
But Hunt answered no questions and doesn’t drink anymore. He just walks around singing now in bad weather.
A man like Hunt, says Kendrick, doesn’t go crazy after spending a night in a U-boat and “floating about a bit”. Now all Hunt does is sing that hymn, but, right after he returned to port, he told Kendrick what happened. It’s at this point after a charming, but unnecessary prologue, the story starts in earnest.
Kendrick goes on:
And this is what he said. ‘I been down,’ he says, half singing like. ‘I been down, down, in the bloody submarine that sank the Lusitania. And what’s more,’ he says,’ I seen ’em!‘
It was Christmas Eve that his trawler was sunk. Hunt could hear carols being sung on shore. The Captain of the sub didn’t like it, and ordered the sub emerged.
That captain was the very man who captained the submarine that sank the Lusitania.
Hunt asks the captain if the Kaiser gave him the medal for a Christmas present. That got him hit again with the iron bar. The Germans seemed to go mad at his question.
The crew listens to something “like trapped weasels.” All Hunt can hear is gentle tappings on the outer hull as if “little soft hands” were doing the tapping.
The Captain goes pale and says something in German.
Then, 60 fathoms down, they hear a “thin little voice” announcing “Christmas Eve, the Waits, sir!”. (“Waits” are Christmas singers.)
The Captain yells a question: “Who’s there!”.
The voice answers “The Waits, sir. The Lusitania, ladies!”
The Captain thumps an officer on the head with his medal and orders the sub to immediately surface.
But it won’t rise.
And all around them
there was a kind of low sweet sound all round the hull, like a thousand voices all singing together in the sea:
“Fear not, said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind.
Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.
And then the tapping gets louder. It sounds as if hundreds of “drowned hands” are tapping on the hull. And their “loosening bolts and pulling at hatchways”, and water starts coming in the submarine.
The crew starts putting on their breathing tanks to escape to the surface. They’re not even paying any attention to Hunt.
When they open the hatchway, he follows them. Hands seem to grab and hold him for a moment.
And then, in the water, Hunt sees them:
hundreds and hundreds of ’em, in a shiny light, and sixty fathom down under the dark sea— they were all waiting there, men and women and poor little babies with hair like sunshine….
They grab Hunt but let him go.
But not the Captain. They grab him, and pleasantly say “Won’t you come and join us? It’s Christmas Eve, you know.” And they don’t let go.
Hunt surfaces and is picked up by a trawler.
Kendrick ends his tale, and outside Hunt is still singing a carol:
A Savior which is Christ
And this shall be his sign.
Davidson speaks up and says there doesn’t seem to be much “Christ about any of this war”.
Morgan’s not so sure.
Macpherson said a striking thing to me the other day. ‘Seems to me,’ he says, ‘there’s a good many nowadays that are touching the iron nails.’
The men get ready to leave. Hunt’s tale has changed their minds. Davidson is going to see a naval secretary if there is anything he can do in the war. And so will the rest despite their wives not liking it.
It’s a patriotic tale, but, to my mind, ultimately not much more than a tale of ghostly revenge. Arthur Machen’s “The Happy Children”, also inspired by the Lusitania episode, is a more memorable tale, and I’ll be looking at that in the future.
Noyes’ title, of course, turns out to be a pun of sorts.