Friday, July 19, 2013

A Cheesy Horror at Sea

With a title like Demons of the Sea, a reader has a good sense of what he or she may find in the story, not unlike the ingredients list on a box of breakfast cereal.  Even a lackluster plot can be enlivened by a few demons, and the fact that they appear at sea adds some novelty.  This story by William Hope Hodgson, from a collection called The Ghost Pirates and Others, starts out with promise.  But when readers eat their way down to the bottom of this box, they may find the prize disappointing, or completely absent.  (Where have all the cereal box toys gone, anyway?)

One of Hodgson’s generic merchant sailing ships is at sea again, but the location is not specified, though it seems to be tropical.  It is very hot.  Not only that, but the water around the ship is like bathwater, and appears to be getting rapidly warmer.  Here and there are muddy splotches in the swells, and large popping bubbles of steam.  It appears that the ship may be floating over some kind of underwater volcanic disturbance.  At one point, a couple of the sailors see what appears to be a large face rising up out of the water.  “Lord,” one of the two says, “it must be the devil himself!”  As is typical of a Hodgson story, the cantankerous captain immediately dismisses their report.

So far, so good.  The story has taken us to a remote area of the ocean where there are peculiar phenomena and a frightening apparition from the depths.  There is a quiet, tense waiting in the stultifying tropical heat.  Still no demons, but we may be getting close.

Almost everyone knows that a disturbance of the sea floor, whether volcanic, or more lately, atomic means that some colossal beast will soon be awakened to wreak havoc, first on shipping and then later in coastal cities.  Typically the monster will be either a gigantic marine creature or a dinosaur.  This is what I was expecting, having been raised on 1950s era monster movies.

To be fair, Hodgson as an author could not have known this, having perished in an artillery attack two years before the birth of Ray Harryhausen.  Harryhausen was the renowned master of stop action animation and creator of such memorable monsters as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), the giant octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), and the giant crab in Mysterious Island (1960), among others.

Night falls and a misty fog rolls in.  As with the act of descending in a Lovecraft story, the arrival of mist or fog in a Hodgson tale usually signals that bad news is on the way.  A mysterious ship is sighted through the mist, and the crew hears weird screams and sounds coming ever nearer.  They catch glimpses of the mysterious ship gliding in and out of the fog, and finally it gets close enough for them to study it with telescope and binoculars.  This takes almost forever.  The ship, “a great four-masted barque” continues its ominous approach.  “My God!” the captain exclaims.

The demons, who are manning—or creaturing—the strange ship are basically Africans with tentacles for arms, feet like the flippers of seals, and speech that sounds “as of hoarse braying, like an ass, but considerably deeper, with a horribly suggestive human note…”  Just preposterous, even for 1923, when this story was first published.  Other than ‘heat’ and ‘devil’, there seems to be no logical connection between the earlier volcanism and the appearance of these monsters.

Aside from the racist overtones implied by the physical appearance of the demons, the basic construction of these monsters reveals an essentially primitive, unimaginative creativity, at least as far as monsters go.  Monsters that are cobbled together from other familiar creatures—in this case, seals, octopi, and people—literally do not hold up or together. 

Perhaps the idea came originally from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose monster was assembled, not unlike a vintage automobile, from replaceable parts, but all of them human at least.  Perhaps the thinking is that if you switch out some of those parts with those from other known creatures, you get a more frightening monster.  This principle has been applied often in various horror entertainments.  Think of all the B movies in which the monster is basically a man with some other creature’s head or appendages.  The result is usually ludicrous and unbelievable.

One of Lovecraft’s great contributions to the horror genre was the notion that a monstrous entity can and perhaps should be wholly other, a distinctive organism or being in itself, unrelated to anything familiar or wholesome.  He artfully created fearful monsters that straddled other dimensions, overlapping here and there with ours in regions where the boundaries are thin.  Thus it is never possible for us to see them in their entirety, which makes them that much more terrifying.  Insanity is often the consequence of curiosity.

I forgot to mention that there is a climactic scuffle with ‘demons of the sea’ at the end of Hodgson’s story.  When finally in range the devilish creatures leap off their ship—why did these sea monsters even need a ship in the first place?—and swim across to attack the human crew.  The wind picks up, filling the sails, and the human crew is able to flee the demons without a single fatality.  A report is later filed in San Francisco and a gunboat is dispatched to investigate, but nothing is ever found and who would care?

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