Essay: “The Sea Horses”, William Hope Hodgson, 1913.
I can’t say I’m all that fond of this story though Jeremy Lassen included it in Night Shade Book’s The Ghost Pirates and Others: The Best of William Hope Hodgson.
The problem is not exclusively the dialect the story is told in. Dialect is now a style definitely not in vogue and irritates modern readers, but I’m relatively forgiving of it. Rather, I find the story, despite its grim ending and realistic depiction of a child’s psychology and thought processes, overly sentimental.
Hodgson collected this story for his Men of Deep Waters collection, and the man of deep waters here is Grandpa Zacchy, a diver.
He sings ballads about the Sea-Horses to his grandson Nebby.
The boy’s imagination is sparked by Zacchy’s casual story and, eventually, various elaborations are spun on it. The most significant one is that, when you die, you get to go to the bottom of the sea and ride the Sea-Horses. Zacchy even makes the mistake of offering soothing consolation on the deaths from an infectious disease of many youths of the village. They will, Zacchy says, ride the Sea-Horses under the sea when they die.
Zacchy even makes a Sea-Horse for Nebby, a gussied up stick horse.
To prevent Nebby from getting sick, Zacchy takes him to live on the diving barge he operates off of. But things go awry when the rambunctious Nebby, ignoring admonitions to not mess about and crimp the airline his grandfather depends on when diving, is severely scolded by a crew member and threatened with having his Sea-Horse burned. Nebby attacks the crew member.
The angry and resolute Nebby, in the grip of “a Chaos of Determination”, won’t apologize to the crewmember as Zacchy demands. In an attempt to make him mind, Zacchy says the Sea-Horse has to go back, and he takes it below the waves. (Though he really just secures it to some weeds at the sea’s bottom.)
Nebby takes it upon himself to don his grandfather’s diving helmet and get his Sea-Horse back – with fatal consequences.
The story ends, some weeks later, with a despondent Zacchy dying at sea’s bottom. Perhaps he really hears Nebby’s voice there. Perhaps it is a delusion of grief.
The story, whether fantastical or not, is another example of Hodgson using the sea as a liminal zone, the boundary between death and life or our world and another.
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