WHH Short Fiction: “The Bells of the ‘Laughing Sally'”

Essay: “The Bells of the Laughing Sally”, William Hope Hodgson, 1914.

This is the first D.C.O. Cargunka story and does not deviate as far from Hodgson’s usual subjects and themes as “The Adventure of the Claim Jumpers” did. It’s a nautical adventure, and there is what seems to be a haunted ship.

The story opens with Cargunka’s bartender, Jensag, normally mild mannered, interrupting Cargunka while he plays a phonograph record of “The Fate of the Laughing Sally”. In fact, Jensag smashes the phonograph which, of course, in addition to his rudeness, results in Cargunka giving him the chance to defend himself before he thrashes him. The interruption comes while Cargunka is peeling potatoes while looking at, as usual, Lord Byron poems, and making some notes on the good rhymes of the song. (We also discover that he secretly uses curlers in his hair to make it like Byron’s.)

We find out that the singer of the song, Stella Bavangal, disappeared about a year-and-a-half ago on a sea voyage captained by the miserly and strange Captain Barstow. Stella was Jensag’s wife.

Cargunka gets a tip where the ship may have wrecked and takes Jensag along to look for his wife. But there is another motive – one shared by nearly all the protagonists in The Luck of the Strong collection where this story was reprinted, treasure hunting.

Barstow liked to horde his money, and Cargunka thinks his horde can be salvaged.

The Laughing Sally is found inside a reef and close to shore near one of the (fictitious) Vardee Islands.

The ship seems deserted. It’s certainly not seaworthy. The high tide covers it.

But, around dusk, the Laughing Sally’s bell is heard. Cargunka and his men go to investigate. The bell doesn’t even have a striker in it.

They camp on shore. Jensag wanders around yelling for his wife and singing. The sound of the bell is heard again, seemingly in response to the “The Fate of the Laughing Sally.” The ship is investigated again with the only conclusion that the sound is coming from the ship somehow. Some of the crew talk darkly about a deadman’s bell.

Cargunka isn’t impressed, and he isn’t leaving without any money. Putting on a diving suit, a crew member, Durrit, investigates the flooded hull. However, soon after he goes down, his life rope starts to run out. Cargunka rescues him. Durrit doesn’t offer any explanation other than that he felt a pain between his shoulderblades. He goes back. A similar thing happens again.

Cargunka decides he’s investigating himself. He goes underwater packing a handgun.

The crew above see a commotion in the water, and Cargunka comes up holding a naked body. It’s Captain Barstow, thought dead all these years. Well, he does die shortly after that. Cargunka shot him three times underwater.

Then the men camped on the shore show up singing “The Fate of the Laughing Sally” and a small men in tow who turns out to be Agnes aka Stella, Jensag’s wife.

Then we get the rest of the story. Agnes holed up in a cave on the island to stay hidden from Captain Barstow who went mad when the Laughing Sally went down with all his money. Barstow dived on the wreck repeatedly to retrieve his money all the while monomaniacally ringing the bell to mark the hours of the watch and, perhaps, to scare any nearby ships away. The geometry of the sunken ship allowed for an air pocket for Barstow to hide in and whack the ship’s bell with a piece of wood.

Cargunka even finds some of Barstow’s money in the end and gets a sort of hint from Agnes that, like Byron, Cargunka is a “devil wiv the wimmin”.

So, like some of the Carnacki stories, we have a seemingly supernatural mystery explained in natural terms. Like Captain Gault, Cargunka is concerned with money though he doesn’t share Gault’s cynical view of women.

It’s an all right story. I think Hodgson’s explanation for the mystery is a mite strained though.

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