Monday, November 11, 2013

1. In a Town by the Sea

Sea Curse, by Robert E. Howard was first published in the April issue of Weird Tales in 1928.  While not one of his better stories, it still shows the impressive range of his imagination.  Howard was capable of writing effective stories using a variety of settings and genre traditions, often hybridizing forms or creatively manipulating readers’ expectations.  To mention just a few examples, in earlier posts there was discussion of werewolves in France and West Africa, an avenging entity from the Cthulhu mythos, a supernatural life extension technique used by an obscure tribe of Native Americans, and a fatal encounter with a Freudian dream snake.

Unlike many other stories by Howard, Sea Curse contains relatively little violence or action.  There is a murder and an execution, but these events are well off stage.  The narrative is fairly straightforward:  the sea side town of Faring suffers the abuse of two rough sailors named John Kulrek and Lie-lip Canool.  They beat up the men at the local tavern and dishonor the young women of the town.  One young maid is found drowned in the surf, and the two ruffians are implicated in her death.  The maid is the beloved niece of Moll Farrell, the resident crone who is also most likely a witch. 

Moll Farrell utters a fairly specific curse against the men. Being a professional in such matters, the curse is ultimately effective.  Not much suspense here, but plenty of atmosphere.  The story is told by an unnamed narrator who was a boy at the time the events of the story transpired.  He has a minor role in the tale.  About a year after the witch’s imprecation, he and a friend, while rowing across the nearby bay one misty, foggy evening, discover a slow moving derelict ship headed toward the town. 

They board the vessel—and wish that they had not.  This is the most interesting and least predictable part of Sea Curse.  It will remind some readers of the haunted boats in several of William Hope Hodgsons’s stories, (whose most effective stories occur at sea).  The original inspiration for such spectral ships is probably Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Another unique aspect of the story is the location of the most dramatic scenes.  They all occur on the shoreline, where land meets sea.  The witch Moll Farrell makes a living gathering clams and salvaging drift wood along the beach.  Her home is a little hut on the sand, “so close that in high tide the waves came almost to the door.”  The body of her dead niece is literally brought to her door by the tide.  The hooligans are confronted by Moll Farrell on the beach, and evidence of the effectiveness of her curse also arrives there from across the water. 

So this is one of those ‘thin’ places, a permeable border between two realities.  Concretely it is the demarcation between land and sea.  Figuratively it is the line between what they represent:  life and death.

Faring Town must have been a difficult place to reside in—sort of a Wild Wild East.  Howard later wrote a poem called A Legend of Faring Town, published posthumously in 1975.  It is a pretty grim legend.  A reclusive single mother, now in her old age, is unjustly accused of infanticide by the hysterical townspeople. There is a kind of echo or parallel relationship to the one depicted in Sea Curse between Moll Farrell and her niece.  No one could ever accuse Howard the poet of trite or saccharine verse.  His poetry is almost uniformly dark, morbid and violent.

Another “Faring Town” story is Out of the Deep, published posthumously in 1967.  This will be the subject of the next post.

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