Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Boy and His…Sea Horse

“Below in the deep there's adventure and danger;
That's where you'll find Diver Dan!
The sights that he sees are surprising and stranger
Than ever you'll see on the land!”

(from Diver Dan, 1960, lyrics by Jack Sky)

Modern readers of horror may balk at such a sentimental subject:  a young boy’s loving relationship with his grandfather.  But persistence with William Hope Hodgson’s Sea Horses (1913) will reward the reader with an appreciation for the author’s artful buildup of suspense and horror.  H.P. Lovecraft praises Hodgson for his skill at “adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details.” 

But Lovecraft is also critical of Hodgson for “a tendency toward conventionally sentimental conceptions of the universe, and of man’s relation to it and to his fellows…” That criticism could certainly be leveled at Sea Horses, but Hodgson’s traditional values do not obscure what is disturbing and nightmarish about this story.  Sea Horses may be found in an excellent and representative collection of his work put out by Night Shade Books, The Ghost Pirates and Others: the Best of William Hope Hodgson (2012).

The story starts out in a light, sentimental hue, and even includes the lyrics of a fanciful ballad about sea horses.   But it soon grows progressively darker and colder, as if a warm familiar sun is relentlessly setting far across the water.  Hodgson achieves this growing chilliness and foreboding through the subtle use of details in the conversations between the grandson Nebby and his grandfather, “old Diver-Zachy.”  Scenes in the story are very carefully blocked out in order to loudly signal to the reader an impending doom that the characters cannot see coming.

For one thing, the grandfather works in a very hazardous profession, circa 1913, (or perhaps even earlier). “Grandfer” is a diver whose equipment is rather primitive and dangerous to use.  It includes a large heavy copper helmet with a long air hose connected to a hand operated pump on deck.  While the grandfather is well below the waves working on the sea bed, a crew member up on the deck of the barge must diligently supply him air by continually cranking the air pump.  The vulnerable lifeline crosses the deck of the boat and over the side, then down fathoms of water to the bubbling helmet.  Such a rickety contraption is an awesome engine of suspense.

But even more unsettling is the grandfather’s dialogue with the boy, filled with fantastic appeals to the boy’s imagination and gullibility.  Granfer has fashioned a small wooden ‘sea horse’—essentially a marine hobby horse—for Nebby to ride around on.  He lets the young boy’s imagination run free and persuades him that the sea horse is alive.  Other conversations follow as the boy asks questions about life and death and the nature of the world.  Granfer’s answers are always whimsical and playful. 

Hodgson adroitly captures the child’s thoughts and emotions, and shows a deep understanding of how a child views the world.  In particular, readers will get a clear view of the idiosyncratic ways a child interprets and discriminates between reality and fantasy—or does not.  Though the grandfather means well, in a protective, playful way, he does not share the author’s insight, or see the disturbing implications of what he tells the boy.

On a lark, Granfer takes Nebby out on the diving barge with him, and the crew is delighted.  He wants Nebby to have a good time.  It is clear that he loves the boy and cares deeply for him.  He also wants to take the boy away from the village for a little while to spare him the fate of some of his play mates, who have succumbed to a terrible disease ravaging the villagers. 

I will go no further, except to say that as a parent and grandfather myself, Sea Horses contains scenes that are unsettling and horrific.  For all his sentimentality and traditional values, William Hope Hodgson spares no one in his stories of quiet, supernatural horror.  Sea Horses may remind some readers of D.H. Lawrence’s short story, The Rocking Horse Winner (1926), another classic horror tale that features the imaginative power of a young child.

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