Friday, July 12, 2013

Albatross




The theme of infection or contagion is common in horror and science fiction.  Parasites, viruses, alien microbes, and rapidly multiplying extraterrestrial life forms have all played havoc with human populations. 

Lovecraft, despite poor health and lifelong hypochondria, did not actually dwell much on strange malevolent diseases—at least not on a personal, individual level.  For him, infection or contagion were at the social, even national level.  Society as he cherished it was here and there succumbing to idolatrous cults that were spreading their venomous practices, or else surrendering to relentless hereditary horrors passed down generations.  Lovecraft’s preoccupation with idolatry, corruption, and miscegenation comes out of his New England Calvinism; his is a Puritanism without salvation.  For spiritual illness and anxiety, there was no cure, not even comfort—only vigilant waiting.
 
A different approach is in view in William Hope Hodgson’s The Voice in the Night (1907).  The version I have is in a collection of the author’s work called The Ghost pirates and Others: The Best of William Hope Hodgson, (2012), published by Night Shade Books.  The story was made into at least one film, a Japanese adaptation called Matango, Fungus of Terror, also known as Attack of the Mushroom People (1963).  This is a very strange movie, but effective.  Themes of addiction and betrayal, lightly touched on in the original, are amplified in the movie.

In Hodgson’s story, a schooner somewhere in the north Pacific is hailed by another boat.  Mist and darkness keep the vessel invisible from the narrator and his crew.  “It came again—a voice curiously throaty and inhuman, calling from somewhere upon the dark sea…” The caller asks them to put away their lamps before he will approach, adding to the mystery.  He and a woman who is with him are desperate for food, and the sailors on the schooner are generous to him, floating a box of provisions over to the other vessel.  But he will not come close to them, nor board their ship.

Later, the strange caller returns across the water to thank and bless the men on the schooner for their kindness.  He feels that it is “God’s wish that we should tell to you all that we have suffered…”  In the misty darkness, invisible to the schooner’s crew, he proceeds to tell the story of what happened to him and his fianc√©. 

Abandoned at sea when their ship is destroyed in a storm, he and the woman drift for days on a small raft.  Their doomed ship was called the Albatross.  Hodgson has placed this name in the middle of his story as a kind of archaic hypertext—click on it and you will find it refers to the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  In the poem, an old sailor tells how his ship was followed by the giant sea bird, which brought good fortune to the crew as they struggled through icy seas at the South Pole.

                In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
                It perched for vespers nine;
                Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white
                Glimmered the white Moon-shine.

                “God save thee, ancient Mariner!
                From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
                Why look’st thou so—With my crossbow
                I shot the Albatross.

Disaster follows for the ancient Mariner’s crew, who blame him for all the misfortunes he caused by killing “a bird of good omen”.

Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

So the Albatross, originally a blessing, becomes a curse.  There are several interesting parallels between the classic poem and Hodgson’s story, including references to an impending wedding, severe hunger and thirst, a curse and faith.

Hodgson’s ‘Voice in the Night’ continues his tale:  the couple finds themselves washed into a large shallow lagoon.  They find an abandoned ship, which they search for provisions.  Here and there, over the surface of the ship are “odd patches of that queer fungus”, which they clean away to make lodging for the night.  But the fungus is strangely resilient, and soon returns.  That is because this is no ordinary fungus but a spiritual blight.  It begins to invade their belongings.  They flee in a small boat to a nearby island—and find “that here the vile fungus, which had driven us from the ship, was growing riot.”

On the island, the extravagant growth of the fungus has taken bizarre gigantic forms resembling trees, fingers, and…humans.  Some of the fungal masses appear to move or quake.  Worse, the man and the woman find the fungus beginning to grow on their own bodies, and can barely resist eating the stuff.  “Yet, our drear punishment was upon us:  for, day by day, with monstrous rapidity, the fungoid growth took hold of our poor bodies.”  This is a queasy allusion to the Garden of Eden, the forbidden fruit, and its impact on Adam and Eve.  The fungus seems to be a physical manifestation of the ineradicable presence of sin. 

They are doomed.  But they have isolated themselves and told their story to would be rescuers in order to prevent others from suffering their fate.  The kindness and generosity of the schooner’s crew has provided them a last human meal, to stave off the inevitable conversion to a nonhuman life form.  There is a haunting scene at the end where the schooner’s crew can just barely make out the doomed man, rowing his boat back through the mist to the island, where he and his bride-to-be will soon meet their end.

Coleridge has his ancient Mariner say:

                I pass, like night, from land to land;
                I have strange power of speech;
                That moment that his face I see,
                I know the man that must hear me:
                To him my tale I teach.

Hodgson’s story is disturbing and creepy.  It also contains love, compassion, sacrifice and faith.  Indeed, these form the ultimate antidote to the horrible fungus, and may yet save the rest of us. 

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