WHH Short Fiction: “The Call in the Dawn”

Essay: “The Call in the Dawn”, William Hope Hodgson, 1920.

This was the last of the Sargasso Sea stories published. Like many Hodgson stories, it was posthumously sold by Hodgson’s wife Bessie. As Hodgson scholar Sam Gafford said, without Bessie’s efforts “it’s likely that we would not remember Hodgson at all today”.

Like many Hodgson stories it has an alternate title, “The Voice in the Dawn”.

It is a mysterious story, definitely a piece of weird fiction, and has few of the elements of the other Sargasso Sea stories. There are no derelicts trapped in the weed, no monsters, no stranded parties – that we see.

The story starts out with a rejoinder to all those who doubt “the reality of the great Sargasso Sea”. A ship, to avoid an Atlantic hurricane (or “cyclone” as Hodgson puts it), goes near the Sargasso Sea. They come across a great island of weed and hear the cry, in the dawn hours, “Son of Man!”.

Eventually, they circumnavigate the entire island. But they find no ship trapped in the weed and find no one,

leaving the mystery of the voice to the hush of the sea and the companionship of its constant mystery.

The double use of “mystery” in that final line is odd. It strikes one, on first reading, as a bit clumsy, the sort of instance where an author is advised to seek the help of a thesaurus. I think Hodgson was attempting to suggest that the mysterious cry is just another unexplained element of the sea.

And what of that cry? The word “hush” could imply that the whole thing comes from the imagination of the narrator and ship’s captain, pareidolia of the sea lapping on the weeds. I don’t think so. “Son of Man” is very evocative of the Bible. Hodgson, the clergyman’s son, may have been thinking of Matthew 8:20:

And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.

We have just encountered a zone of the sea that is no place for men. Perhaps Hodgson is implying that the whole of the sea is no place for man “to lay his head”.

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