WHH Short Fiction: “The Sharks of the St. Elmo”

Review: “The Sharks of the St. Elmo”, William Hope Hodgson, 1988.

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

This is a very peculiar and interesting story that put me in mind of German agent Arnold Deutsch who, before World War One, was allegedly involved in smuggling Chinese bodies back to China from America so they could be buried.

This story is told by a Captain Dang, but, despite there being another Hodgson story with a similarly named captain, there seems no connection to that story.

Captain Dang recounts an earlier voyage of his on the St. Elmo running between San Francisco and China.

The ship’s engines broke down, and it was surrounded by thousands and thousands of sharks, some gigantic. The sharks seemed almost intelligent and were attracted to the ship.

Eventually, the ship got its engines running but at a slower speed. The sharks still followed, rubbing against the ship.

Dang got the idea that the sharks, at night, are almost calling people to jump overboard. One man, Jellott, does.

We again hear a line like one in Hodgson’s “The Mystery of the Missing Ships”: “Oh yes, there’s queer doings at sea, though they do say nothing ever happens on the liners.”

Dang told Captain Moss that there’s dead men aboard somehow attracting the sharks.

Dang looked at the cargo manifests.

The Captain began singing “Fifty dead Chinamen all in a row!” (An alternative title for the story, incidentally.)

To put an end to the “Jonah business” on board, Dang took fifty hogshead barrels out of the hold. Inside each was a dead Chinaman.

Well, they were not actually dead. One started to move. Indeed, they were all alive.

They were members of a political society who wanted to “get rid of their present figurehead”. Agents of the Chinese government drugged them all and put them in barrels. (This implies the “political society” was affiliated with the government.) On reaching China, they were to be executed.

However, there was also a conspiracy to release the men with several Chinese in the crew, and they may have sabotaged the enemy to slow the trip.

The formally casked Chinese are returned to San Francisco, and the sharks disappeared.

News of the event, as is often the case in a Hodgson sea story, hushed up.

The whole mystery of the sharks’ connection to the Chinese is unexplained, just another example, as noted at the end of the story, of how the sea is

a queer place. A mighty big, queer, blue mysterious place, and the mysteries that it holds will never be known this side of Eternity.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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