"...the sea is another world and one of which we should be wary."
When I'm on vacation, books that require a lot of thought are off the menu. When I'm laying under a seaside palapa, listening to the sound of the waves while sipping a foo-foo umbrella drink, the last thing on my mind is wanting to think, so I pack accordingly. Among the others that ended up in my suitcase, I brought this book, From the Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea, my second foray into the British Library Tales of the Weird. It is my favorite kind of ahhh-time compilation, a mix of horror, ghostly tales, the supernatural, and pure unadulterated pulp, with stories ranging from 1891 to 1932. There are a few entries here written by authors already known to me: William Hope Hodgson, F. Austin Britten, Elinor Mordaunt, Morgan Robertson, but for the most part, it seems that Ashley has put together the work of a number of writers I'd never heard of. Such is my joy in reading these tales -- not only are they fun, dark, and in some cases, actually frightening, but they've been rescued from the depths of obscurity to be enjoyed all over again.
British Library Publishing, 2018
Not wasting any time at all in setting the tone for what's to follow, Ashley presents us first with Albert R. Wetjen's "The Ship of Silence" from 1932. The narrator of this story doesn't waste time either, giving us a hint about what's coming as he sits with a group of friends aboard a ship in a Brazilian harbor "drinking long, cold gin tonicas and talking of the sea in general and of ships that had vanished into its mysterious immensity." But it's his own experience after coming upon an abandoned ship out of San Francisco that makes for the best and most chilling yarn of them all. As he relates, "It is a curious thing -- but I swear I had had gooseflesh all over from the first moment I put foot on the Robert Sutter's main deck." I had gooseflesh just reading this one, so I knew right away I was going to be in for a great time.
|doomed ships after having been stuck in the dense weeds of the Sargasso Sea, from globalsecurity|
Wetjen's is only the first of fifteen stories, and I have to say that out of these there were only two which if you'll pardon the expression, didn't really float my boat. There is a wide range of tales being told here covering everything from encounters with bizarre sea creatures, the sheer horror of being stuck in the thick weeds of the Sargasso Sea and being unable to move on, shipboard and other hauntings, clairvoyance, revenge (human and otherwise), and then some that can only be put in the category of strange weirdness.
The table of contents is as follows:
"The Ship of Silence," by Albert R. Wetjen, 1932
"From the Darkness and The Depths," by Morgan Robertson, who also wrote The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility (1898) which supposedly prefigured the sinking of the Titanic. That one I have on my shelf, but haven't read it yet.
"Sargasso," by Ward Muir (1908), one of my favorites and certainly one of the most atmospheric of all of the stories in this volume.
"Held by the Sargasso Sea," by Frank Shaw (1908) another favorite that just creeped me to the bone
"The Floating Forest" by Herman Scheffauer (1909), in which a ship's captain and his wife get more than they bargained for in a shady deal
"Tracked: A Mystery of the Sea" by C.N. Barnam (1891), which reveals the British fascination with spiritualism
"The Mystery of the Water-Logged Ship" by William Hope Hodgson (1911). Ashley notes of this one that he could have selected from a number of stories by Hodgson that take place on the sea, but ultimately he chose this "little-known story." It had me going for a long, long time.
|from culture trip|
"From the Depths," by F. Austen Britten (1920). After having read Britten's "Treasure of the Tombs" in Ashley's Glimpses of the Unknown, I picked up a copy of his volume of strange tales On the Borderland (1922) which contains this story. Creepy doesn't begin to describe this one, which like "The Murdered Ships" by James Francis Dwyer (1918), takes place after just shortly after World War I.
"The Ship That Died" by John Gilbert (1917) is the account of "the last chapters of a strange story," that haunted me long after I'd finished it.
"Devereaux's Last Smoke" by Izola Forrester (1907) is another hair-raising tale, this time set on a cruise ship.
In "The Black Bell Buoy" (1907) Rupert Chesterton explains exactly what is it about this bell-buoy that made it become such an "emblem of bad luck" that even though a reward is offered to bring it in, "most of the skippers ... would as soon have thought of hooking on to it as of taking Davy Jones for a messmate."
|from Sputnik News|
"The High Seas" by Elinor Mordaunt (1918) is the story of two brothers, one of who has murder on his mind, but must wait for the right moment ...
Ashley says that he believes "The Soul-Saver" by Morgan Burke (1926) is "the most unusual story in this volume," and I have to agree. This may just be my favorite story in the entire collection, but sadly to say anything about his one would be to spoil so I'm staying quiet.
Last but in no way least is Lady Eleanor Smith's "No Ships Pass" (1932) in which a shipwrecked sailor finds himself washed up on a lush, tropical island, but there's a catch. I was so impressed with this story (and its horrors) that I bought a used copy of Smith's Satan's Circus (Ashtree, 2004) so I could read more of her work.
From the Depths is great fun and perfect for vacation reading, but also perfect for anyone who loves old pulp, the supernatural, and in some cases, straight-up horror stories. I am so grateful to Mike Ashley for putting this volume together and bringing these tales to light. In his introduction, he says that this book is probably not the best thing to read on a cruise, but I can see myself at night, tucked up safely in bed somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, reading it in the dark with only a book light and letting my imagination run completely wild. Recommended. If the rest of the British Library Tales of the Weird series is as good as this one and Glimpses of the Unknown, I will be a very happy camper when they finally arrive, and probably even happier once I've read them.