Saturday, July 27, 2013

Meanwhile, Somewhere in the Sargasso Sea

William Hope Hodgson’s The Mystery of the Derelict (1907) is classified as one of his ‘Sargasso Sea’ stories, after the unique setting in which they occur.  The Sargasso Sea, located in the Atlantic Ocean, is unique among ocean bodies of water in having no land boundaries—its borders are roughly determined by ocean currents, the Gulf Stream among them.  The region is conspicuous for vast mats of floating sea weed, comprised of various species of Sargassum.  The seaweed provides important habitat for many different kinds of marine organisms, among them shrimp, crabs, fish, sea turtles, whales, and birds—though not for the particular creature featured in Hodgson’s tale.  The water is unusually clear down to 200 feet beneath the surface.

The area is associated with the notorious Bermuda Triangle.  Historically, there had been the popular notion that ships could become trapped by the extravagant growth of Sargasso weed.  Sailing ships were actually more likely to be delayed by the relatively calm winds and ocean currents, which is why this region was also known as the “doldrums” or “horse latitudes”.  The latter name is a reference to the unfortunate practice of throwing horses overboard to save on drinking water when ships were delayed by the absence of wind.  The Sargasso Sea has been an ideal location for supernatural or otherwise unfamiliar events to take place, and is the setting or inspiration for numerous horror and science fiction tales.

In the The Mystery of the Derelict, the four-masted sailing ship Tarawak stalls in the open sea after drifting into an area of calm wind and weak current.  The sea weed has grown especially thick here, forming thick banks that almost look like land.  The crew discovers two ships in the neighboring water, one an ancient derelict, and the other, a smaller, faster moving barque.  The other ship appears to be in difficulty, but the crew of the Tarawak can barely observe this due to the distance between the ships.

There appears to be a violent struggle aboard the smaller ship, of which the men of the Tarawak can catch only brief glimpses.  Lights are moving erratically about the deck, and there are the cracks of gunfire, which they can just barely hear when the wind dies down.  The crew assumes that there is a mutiny on board the other ship.  In view of the horror that is later revealed, the element of distance from which this terrible conflagration is observed makes the incident poignant and disturbing.  “There but for the grace of God go I.”  But also, “In space—or far out at sea—no one can hear you scream.”

Hodgson describes a vast outcropping of sea weed, which almost forms another world.  In a large rowboat, ten of the crew of the Tarawak cautiously edge up to the two mysterious boats.  One has been abandoned for a very long time, the other more recently.  The scene is reminiscent of a similar one in the movie Alien, (1979) when a party from the Nostromo lands on the planet to explore another derelict, this one an alien spacecraft.  Inside they find the remains of a crewmember that died a gruesome death. 

Another modern example is the arrival of the rescue party in Event Horizon (1997).  A starship of the same name is found in a deteriorating orbit around the planet Neptune—an appropriate marine reference—and all of its crew are dead.  What happened here? 

The discovery of a derelict, whether it is a vessel that travels the sea or outer space or even the open road, is often used to begin a tale of horror or science fiction.  In some respects, the abandoned vehicle is a metaphor for a person, what remains of him or her.  Who was this?  What happened to them?
(In Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, surely the predecessor for many stories of this kind, the old sailor who tells his story is the derelict himself.)

The men of the Tarawak first explore the recently abandoned barque, and then the ancient rotted ship, mindful of a storm that may soon strike.  It is eerily quiet, gloomy and spacious inside the old wreck, except for “a low, continuous, shrill whining…” Very soon they must flee for their lives.

The Mystery of the Derelict is one of Hodgson’s better sea stories.  One can easily imagine old sailors and shipmates sitting around a table and reminiscing about the events in this tale.  “Remember that time when we were stalled out in the Sargasso and…”  Though the incidents as they are depicted might be the stuff of tall tales, there is enough realism to give the story some plausibility and “bite.”


HiLo Books has recently re-introduced William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, originally published in 1912.  This novel, along with The House on the Borderland, and The Ghost Pirates, are three of his more famous works of fiction.  HiLo Books produces “The Radium Age Science Fiction Series”, which endeavors to re-introduce classic weird fiction from the years 1904-1933. 

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