Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Out Of The Storm: The Apocalypse of William Hope Hodgson

William Hope Hodgson is the master of the macabre sea story. Apprenticed as a cabin boy in 1891 at the age of fourteen Hodgson spent seven years at sea before the dangers of the ocean, brutality of his crewmates and the beggarly wages paid by the ship owners forced him to seek his living ashore. For Hodgson the sea is never a benign environment, rather it is the lair of monsters and ancient terrors, phantom derelicts and the ghosts of the sea-dead rising to revenge themselves on the living. Mariners find themselves cast away on dripping, alien islands that have risen temporarily from the ocean floor or they are buffeted and blasted by spectral winds that converge from the four corners of the earth. The sea is a borderland of the soul, a liminal neither/neither place that partakes both of the sacred and the profane. A place where the boundaries that separate us from the beyond are blurred and merged, where it is possible to hear in the wash of the waves the beast rising from the deeps. Of all Hodgson’s sea stories “Out Of The Storm”, first published in 1909, stands apart in it’s abject horror. The story begins conventionally enough with a tone of Edwardian domesticity as a caller pays a visit to a scientific friend to find him receiving a message from a sinking ship via a strange telegraph-like machine. But as the narrative unfolds we are subjected to an intense and hallucinary description of a man at the point of death, mortally afraid and in the grip of dire spiritual revelation. The son of an Anglican vicar Hodgson must have been well aware of the Christian symbolism associated with the sea. The figure of the steadfast mariner who clings to his faith and is rescued from the swell, Jonah’s time in the belly of the whale and the deluge that cleansed the world of the sinful were all fitting subject for pious hymns, sermons and pamphlets but in “Out Of The Storm” the narrator sets these traditional Christian motifs of salvation and redemption, so familiar to Hodgson’s readers, at naught. Instead God is mocked and abjured and in his extremity the narrator deifies and glorifies the raging storm. Recounting the story in the first person, his language rising and falling in Biblical cadences he eventually breaks down in a frenzied denunciation of God, delivered in blood and thunder tones worthy of Blake:
Oh! God, art Thou indeed God? Canst Thou sit above and watch calmly that which I have just seen? Nay! Thou art no God! Thou art weak and puny beside this foul Thing which Thou didst create in Thy lusty youth. It is now God--and I am one of its children.
The sea itself is personified and horrified – it is foul and full of “Satanic thunder”, it mocks and cackles like “Hell from the mouth of an ass”. The storm lashed ocean is omnipotent and malevolent, thoughtless and careless, the destroyer and consumer of all. When a sailor is swept over the side the narrator sees huge monstrous jaws in the waves, hears the clash of titan teeth. We are not sure if this is metaphor or reality, has the sea come alive, is it animated and sentient, a vast thrashing many-jawed leviathan that can not be subdued? Hodgson hated and feared the sea. It is to him the ur-source of all that is wicked and blasphemous upon the face of the earth. With a message that echoes the biblical destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah the sea in “Out Of The Storm” teaches sin and fosters the procreation of the wicked. It is possessed of a creeping, insidious, infectious foulness that causes mothers to abandon their children and lovers to slash at each other with tooth and claw. As the waters rise above their heads the narrator can hear the sea calling, whispering of death and the grave until he is repulsed and sickened, “to speak of it to one of the living is to initiate innocence into one of the infernal mysteries--to talk of foul things to a child”. We are reminded of the end times, a ship of fools, brother turning against brother, the hells and wastelands of Bruegel and Bosch in which tortured, terrified people are stripped bare of their humanity and their souls laid open and ugly to await final judgement. But near the very end, with the sea-green grave gaping beneath him the narrator recants his blasphemy and clings once again to the religion of his childhood. He asks God to aid him in his mercy, begs for forgiveness, prays for death. Is this conversion genuine? Is the narrator turning to God with love – or fear in his heart? He begs the listener not to repeat his ravings because he is himself afraid of what has been revealed. Woe to you o earth and sea. There are things that are worse than death. William Hope Hodgson was killed by an artillery shell at Ypres on either 17th or 19th April 1918, aged 40 years. He was eulogized in The Times on May 2, 1918. OUT OF THE STORM "Hush!" said my friend the scientist, as I walked into his laboratory. I had opened my lips to speak; but stood silent for a few minutes at his request. He was sitting at his instrument, and the thing was tapping out a message in a curiously irregular fashion- stopping a few seconds, then going on at a furious pace. It was during a somewhat longer than usual pause that, growing slightly impatient, I ventured to address him. "Anything important?" I asked. "For God's sake, shut up!" he answered back in a high, strained voice. I stared. I am used to pretty abrupt treatment from him at times when he is much engrossed in some particular experiment; but this was going a little too far, and I said so. He was writing, and, for reply, he pushed several loosely-written sheets over to me with the one curt word, "Read!" With a sense half of anger, half of curiosity, I picked up the first and glanced at it. After a few lines, I was gripped and held securely by a morbid interest. I was reading a message from one in the last extremity. I will give it word for word:---"John, we are sinking! I wonder if you really understand what I feel at the present time—you sitting comfortably in your laboratory, I out here upon the waters, already one among the dead. Yes, we are doomed. There is no such thing as help in our case. We are sinking--steadily, remorselessly. God! I must keep up and be a man! I need not tell you that I am in the operator's room. All the rest are on deck--or dead in the hungry thing which is smashing the ship to pieces. "I do not know where we are, and there is no one of whom I can ask. The last of the officers was drowned nearly an hour ago, and the vessel is now little more than a sort of breakwater for the giant seas. "Once, about half an hour ago, I went out on to the deck. My God! The sight was terrible. It is a little after midday: but the sky is the colour of mud--do you understand? -gray mud! Down from it there hang vast lappets of clouds. Not such clouds as I have ever before seen; but monstrous, mildewed-looking hulls. They show solid, save where the frightful wind tears their lower edges into great feelers that swirl savagely above us, like the tentacles of some enormous Horror. "Such a sight is difficult to describe to the living; though the Dead of the Sea know of it without words of mine. It is such a sight that none is allowed to see and live. It is a picture for the doomed and the dead; one of the sea's hell-orgies--one of the Thing's monstrous gloatings over the living--say the alive-in-death, those upon the brink. I have no right to tell of it to you; to speak of it to one of the living is to initiate innocence into one of the infernal mysteries--to talk of foul things to a child. Yet I care not! I will expose, in all its hideous nakedness, the death-side of the sea. The undoomed living shall know some of the things that death has hitherto so well guarded. Death knows not of this little instrument beneath my hands that connects me still with the quick, else would he haste to quiet me. "Hark you, John! I have learnt undreamt of things in this little time of waiting. I know now why we are afraid of the dark. I had never imagined such secrets of the sea and the grave (which are one and the same). "Listen! Ah, but I was forgetting you cannot hear! I can! The Sea is--Hush! the Sea is laughing, as though Hell cackled from the mouth of an ass. It is jeering. I can hear its voice echo like Satanic thunder amid the mud overhead--It is calling to me! call—I must go---The sea calls! "Oh! God, art Thou indeed God? Canst Thou sit above and watch calmly that which I have just seen? Nay! Thou art no God! Thou art weak and puny beside this foul Thing which Thou didst create in Thy lusty youth. It is now God--and I am one of its children. "Are you there, John? Why don't you answer! Listen! I ignore God; for there is a stronger than He. My God is here, beside me, around me, and will be soon above me. You know what that means. It is merciless. The sea is now all the God there is! That is one of the things I have learnt. "Listen! it, is laughing again. God is it, not He. "It called, and I went out on to the decks. All was terrible. It is in the waist- everywhere. It has swamped the ship. Only the forecastle, bridge and poop stick up out from the bestial, reeking Thing, like three islands in the midst of shrieking foam. At times gigantic billows assail the ship from both sides. They form momentary arches above the vessel--arches of dull, curved water half a hundred feet towards the hideous sky. Then they descend--roaring. Think of it! You cannot. "There is an infection of sin in the air: it is the exhalations from the Thing. Those left upon the drenched islets of shattered wood and iron are doing the most horrible things. The Thing is teaching them. Later, I felt the vile informing of its breath; but I have fled back here--to pray for death. "On the forecastle, I saw a mother and her little son clinging to an iron rail. A great billow heaved up above them--descended in a falling mountain of brine. It passed, and they were still there. The Thing was only toying with them; yet, all the same, it had torn the hands of the child from the rail, and the child was clinging frantically to its Mother's arm. I saw another vast hill hurl up to port and hover above them. Then the Mother stooped and bit like a foul beast at the hands of her wee son. She was afraid that his little additional weight would be more than she could hold. I heard his scream even where I stood—it drove to me upon that wild laughter. It told me again that God is not He, but It. Then the hill thundered down upon those two. It seemed to me that the Thing gave a bellow as it leapt. It roared about them churning and growling; then surged away, and there was only one—the Mother. There appeared to me to be blood as well as water upon her face, especially about her mouth; but the distance was too great, and I cannot be sure. I looked away. Close to me, I saw something further--a beautiful young girl (her soul hideous with the breath of the Thing) struggling with her sweetheart for the shelter of the charthouse side. He threw her off; but she came back at him. I saw her hand come from her head, where still clung the wreckage of some form of headgear. She struck at him. He shouted and fell away to lee-ward, and she--smiled, showing her teeth. So much for that. I turned elsewhere. "Out upon the Thing, I saw gleams, horrid and suggestive, below the crests of the waves. I have never seen them until this time. I saw a rough sailorman washed away from the vessel. One of the huge breakers snapped at him!--Those things were teeth. It has teeth. I heard them clash. I heard his yell. It was no more than a mosquito's shrilling amid all that laughter: but it was very terrible. There is worse than death. "The ship is lurching very queerly with a sort of sickening heave"--"I fancy I have been asleep. No--I remember now. I hit my head when she rolled so strangely." "My leg is doubled under me. I think it is broken; but it does not matter--" "I have been praying. I--I--What was it? I feel calmer, more resigned, now. I think I have been mad. What was it that I was saying? I cannot remember. It was something about--about---God. I--I believe I blasphemed. May He forgive me! Thou knowest, God, that I was not in my right mind. Thou knowest that I am very weak. Be with me in the coming time! I have sinned: but Thou art all merciful. "Are you there, John? It is very near the end now. I had so much to say; but it all slips from me. What was it that I said? I take it all back. I was mad, and--and God knows. He is merciful, and I have very little pain now. I feel a bit drowsy." "I wonder whether you are there, John. Perhaps, after all, no one has heard the things I have said. It is better so. The Living are not meant--and yet, I do not know. If you are there, John, you will—you will tell her how it was; but not--not--Hark! there was such a thunder of water overhead just then. I fancy two vast seas have met in mid-air across the top of the bridge and burst all over the vessel. It must be soon now--and there was such a number of things I had to say! I can hear voices in the wind. They are singing. It is like an enormous dirge--I think I have been dozing again. I pray God humbly that it be soon! You will not--not tell her anything about, about what I may have said, will you, John? I mean those things which I ought not to have said. What was it I did say? My head is growing strangely confused. I wonder whether you really do hear me. I may be talking only to that vast roar outside. Still, it is some comfort to go on, and I will not believe that you do not hear all I say. Hark again! A mountain of brine must have swept clean over the vessel. She has gone right over on to her side... She is back again. It will be very soon now--" "Are you there, John? Are you there? It is coming! The Sea has come for me! It is rushing down through the companionway! It--it is like a vast jet! My God! I am dr-own-ing! I--am--dr--" Top: the vessel is now little more than a sort of breakwater for the giant seas. Middle: Not such clouds as I have ever before seen; but monstrous, mildewed-looking hulls. Bottom: William Hope Hodgson in the uniform of an officer of the Great War.

1 comment:

J. Harris said...

Good story. I find the most terrifying of my own dreams to be set upon the water, usually involving a rather small rowboat and megalodons circling far below me. Giant black silhouettes. The sea is great material for the weird.
Enjoying your blog, keep up the good work! By the way-the middle picture is rather what I'd visualize when I used to listen to "When I was dead", Endvra. Love that song. Was that your voice or Pennick's? Anyway-cheers.