Saturday, August 10, 2013

What Would Jones the Cat Say?

Sometimes, at the end of a long day, you just want to sit and relax with a simple, gruesome monster story.  It is exactly what you need to avoid ruminating on worse horrors you may actually know personally.  William Hope Hodgson’s A Tropical Horror, (1905), is perfectly suited for this.

Like the ill-fated Nostromo of Alien, (1979) the merchant ship Glen Doon is far from home, out at sea somewhere near Melbourne, Australia, and on its way back to London.  The ship, a four masted barque—one of Hodgson’s favorite vessels—stalls out in a calm area, with little ocean current or wind to move the sails.  This is almost always bad.  Sure enough, by the third paragraph, the ship is attacked and commandeered by a specimen of Hydrophiinae giganticus, var. esurienti, (not actually identified as such in the story.)

The monster is familiar; a variation on “sea serpent”, but Hodgson has given it a few physical details that make it a more unique critter.  For one thing, it comes with “a vast slobbering mouth a fathom across…from the huge dripping lips hang great tentacles”.  It has evil, swinish, intelligent eyes, and when its mouth opens it displays four huge fangs.  But the most horrific aspect of the creature is its tongue, “a long, broad blade of glistening white, set with fierce teeth.”  When in use, the effect of this tongue is exactly the same as the menacing metallic proboscis of the creature in Alien.

The plot is simple and direct. It consists of the ship’s crew being eaten alive, one by one.  There are a few moments of suspense, when there is a brief trembling hope of escape from carnage.  Unusual for the time it was written, a 14 year old child is one of the creature’s victims.  Even the ship’s cat is not spared.

Here I’m reminded of Jones—‘Jonesy’ to those who are about to punctured and shredded—who is the only other survivor besides Ripley on board the Nostromo in Alien.  There is that brilliant nail biting scene in which crewmember Brett tries to find Jonesy in the dripping cavernous bowels of the ship, and finds something else.  Brett and Jonesy both scream, Brett for the last time.  There are similar scenes of suspense in A Tropical Horror, though virtually all of the action occurs up on the deck of the ship.

Hodgson’s story is told almost entirely in the present tense, which gives a sense of immediacy and tension, but strangely collapses the time frame in which the terrors occur.  (This effect may have been intended by the author.)  Unlike other Hodgson stories, this one is devoid of sentiment or moralizing.  The men on board the Glen Doon are as doomed as the mice and frogs that show up—briefly—in nature documentaries about snakes. 

Hodgson’s sea serpent is solid, muscular, “slobbering” and plausible enough.  The voracious creature is an immediate physical threat to life and limb, and one can either fight it, (not a good plan) or flee from it.  Relentless, it attacks at night as well as in broad daylight.  Of course, a monster like this activates primal fears of being eaten by large predators.

Lovecraft’s monsters on the other hand tend to be insubstantial, even abstract.  With the exception of his ghouls, and some Dagon worshiping half-breeds, his creatures are often intangible, without clear borders or locations.  They are most like the fearful entities in nightmares.  As such, they tend to be more disturbing than frightening.  They are not really all there.  (Even mighty, world-changing Cthulhu was deflated by the prow of Johansen’s ship when it pursued him from the temporarily risen city of R’lyeh.)  Lovecraft’s monsters are more conceptual, even philosophical—they seem to stand for notions like chaos, (Nyarlathotep), miscegenation, (Dagon, Cthulhu), or subversion, (Yog-Sothoth).
But in Hodgson’s A Tropical Horror, the monster is in your face, a hungry and evil critter that you have to run or hide from.  On a Friday night, at the end of a long work week, this is as complex as a story needs to be.

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