Essay: “The Shamraken Homeward-Bounder”, William Hope Hodgson, 1908.
This is a peculiar story.
The Shamraken is on its last voyage, a sailing ship superannuated by steam packets.
Its crewed by old men whose efficiency and long experience make up for lack of youthful vigor. They have all sailed together on the ship for forty years. The “boy” (and that’s what he’s still called) of the ship is 55 and first came aboard when he was 15.
The crew talk about what they are going to do with themselves when they leave sailing. Talk is also made of the pain and regrets of their lives. One sailor speaks of his dead wife. Another laments that he never married. They are like a family that has long experience together and affection for one another.
Modern readers may find the dialect of their speech annoying, and I was amused that, at one point, they sing what seems to be a sea chanty version of the old ballad “The Farmer’s Cursed Wife”.
A strange and beautiful red mist comes up. Eventually, they hear singing, and they are approach an arch.
It all seems like a gentle fantasy of dying and going to a better place, that they are on their way to heaven and leaving their cares for the future behind and will perhaps be reunited with dead loved ones. Then we find out that what was interpreted as a pillar of fire like the one in Exodus is the rare electrical phenomena of the “Fiery Tempest” that “precedes certain great Cyclonic Storms”. It lights a whirling hill of water.
The story ends:
Yet, he was still undecided. It was all so beyond him; though, certainly, that monstrous gyrating hill of water, sending out a reflected glitter of burning red, appealed to him as having no place in his ideas of Heaven. And then, even as he hesitated, came the first, wild-beast bellow of the coming Cyclone. As the sound smote upon their ears, the old men looked at one another with bewildered, frightened eyes.
’Reck’n thet’s God speakin’,’ whispered Zeph. ‘Guess we’re on’y mis’rable sinners.’
The next instant, the breath of the Cyclone was in their throats, and the Shamraken, homeward-bounder, passed in through the everlasting portals.
Hodgson offers little consolation that the Shamraken’s crew are bound for heaven. Theirs will just be another death at sea.
This is not the only story we’ll see where Hodgson offers a vision of the afterlife or one that seems to confirm religious belief only to have, at the last moment, a malevolent entity or force show up. If its God those sailors are hearing, He’s a fearful god.