There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

What Pongo had to tell: The Night Sea-Maid Went Down by Brian Lumley

I purchased the Barnes and Noble anthology Sea-Cursed: Thirty Terrifying Tales of the Deep in June 1994. Tales of the sea (William Hope Hodgson, C.S. Forrester, Nicholas Monsarrat, Alastair Maclean, Patrick O'Brian, Hammond Innes) have been perennial pleasures.

The only story I can remember reading from the book is Conrad's "The Brute," which I've enthused abjectly about here.

This month the Facebook Group Alone With the Horrors is featuring a nautical theme. Which recalled Sea-Cursed to mind. Sadly, my copy is long lost, but a little online detective work turns up locations for nearly all the stories.

The Night Sea-Maid Went Down

Lumley is a problematic writer for me. He seems to have been self-taught, and was apparently adopted early, like Ramsey Campbell, by Arkham House. What he lacks in appetite for complication, he makes up for in pastichist gusto. I don't actively despise pastiche, but the stars have to be right to enjoy it.

I read a little Lumley thirty years ago. I have completely forgotten The Burrowers Beneath (1974). Demogorgon (1987) leaves a positive echo; did it take place in Greece? Necroscope (1986) was a fun spy-vampire thriller in a style reminiscent of John Gardner. I never read any more Harry Keogh stories.

"The Night Sea-Maid Went Down" (1969) is crippled by retrospective first person narration, which lets the air out of a promising story taking place on a North Sea oil rig. Lumley does not (or cannot) create much nautical or engineering verisimilitude. A lubberly tone prevails.

....Now, you’ll remember that right from the start there was something funny about the “site” off Hunterby Head. The divers had trouble; the geologists, too, with their instruments; and it was the very devil of a job to float Sea-Maid down from Sunderland and get her anchored there; but nevertheless the preliminaries were all completed by late in September. Which, where I’m concerned, was where the trouble started.

We hadn’t drilled more than six-hundred feet into the sea-bed when we brought up that first star-shaped thing. Now, Johnny, you know something?—I wouldn’t have given two damns for the thing—except I’d seen one before. Old Chalky Grey (who used to be with the “Lescoil” rig Ocean-Jem, out of Liverpool) had sent me one only a few weeks before his platform and all the crew, including Chalky himself, went down twelve miles out from Withnersea. Somehow, when I saw what came up in the big core—that same star-shape—well, I couldn’t help but think of Chalky and see some sort of nasty parallel. The one he’d sent me came up in a core, too, you see? And Ocean-Jem wasn’t the only rig lost last year in so-called “freak storms”!

there was a certain member of the team who saw what was coming and got out before it happened—and it was mainly because of the star-shaped things that he went!

Joe Borszowski was the man—superstitious as hell, panicky, spooked at the sight of a mist on the sea—and when he saw the star-thing…!

It happened like this:

We’d drilled that first difficult bore through some very hard stuff down to a depth of some six hundred feet when a core-sample produced the first of the stars.

Now, Chalky had reckoned the one he sent me to be a fossilized star-fish of sorts from some time when the North Sea was warm, a very ancient thing; and I must admit that with its five-pointed shape and being the size of a small star-fish I believed him to be correct. Anyway, when I showed the Sea-Maid star to old Borszowski he nearly went crackers. He swore we were in for trouble and demanded we all stop drilling and head for land right away. He insisted that our location was “accursed” and generally carried on like a mad thing without attempting to offer anything like a real explanation.

....before Davies’ accident, there was that further trouble with Borszowski. It was in the sixth week, when we were expecting to break through at any time, that Joe failed to come back off shore-leave. Instead he sent me a long, rambling letter—a supposedly “explanatory” letter—and to be truthful, when I read it I figured we were better off without him.

The man had quite obviously been cracking up for a long time. He went on about monsters (yes, monsters!), sleeping in great caverns underground and especially under the seas, waiting for a chance to take over the surface world. He said that those stone, star-shaped things were seals or barriers that kept these beings (“gods”, he called them) imprisoned; that these gods could control the weather to a degree; that they were even capable of influencing the actions of lesser creatures—such as fish, or, occasionally, men—and that he believed one of them must he lying there, locked in the ground beneath the sea, pretty close to where we were drilling. He was afraid we were “going to set it loose”! The only thing that had stopped him pressing the matter earlier (when he’d carried on so about that first star-thing), was that then, as now, he believed we’d all think he was mad! Finally, though, and particularly since the trouble with the fish, he had had to warn me. As he put it: “If anything should happen, I would never be able to forgive myself if I had not at least tried.”

....I’ll never eat fish again.

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