Still catching up on recent Deep Ones discussions over at LibraryThing.
This one is in H.P. Lovecraft’s Favorite Weird Tales. Now, you might think that a tale of a menace lurking under the vast realms of the Pacific Ocean may have influenced Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”. However, the latter story was written in the summer of 1926 according to S. T. Joshi’s Nightmare Countries: The Master of Cosmic Horror, and Burke’s story appeared in the December 1927 issue of Weird Tales.
Review: “Bells of Oceana”, Arthur J. Burks, 1927.
This is an engaging weird fiction sea story. (I wonder, on reading this the second time, if David Hambling might have read it and been inspired to write his “The Devils in the Deep Blue Sea”.)
Our narrator is Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps and is on a troop ship bound for China. (Presumably, though this is unstated, this was for service in the American naval forces in China in the interwar period. Burks, incidentally, served in the Corps in both world wars.) The ship is taking an unusual route west, traveling between the usual sea lanes.
One night, around midnight, after making the inspection of the onboard sentries, he retires to his stateroom. He’s gripped by a sense of unease. He thinks someone has been in his stateroom.
He knows he has the only key to the room. He even opens the porthole window and looks, but he sees nothing. But he still is uneasy and keeps an eye on the porthole.
Then, after undressing, he sees a strange, “dead-white” face with a “thin and ironic smile”, for a moment, at the porthole.
He goes to the porthole and looks out. He sees nothing. The porthole is directly on the port side of the ship. There is no deck below, and there’s nothing to be seen in the sea.
But then he hears the sounds of bells from the ocean.
Just then his sergeant comes in. He has some disturbing news. One of the sentries has disappeared – not without a trace though. There were wet footprints leading from where the sentry was to the rail of the deck.
The sergeant, a highly decorated member of the Corps, is nervous. He thinks something weird is going, and the two go on an inspection.
They find the cold and nude body of the vanished sentry on the desk, and the narrator again hears bells.
The story emphasizes the narrator’s increasing unease. He begins to think of medieval woodcuts with tentacled monsters grasping ships and the Lorelei, the women who lure sailors to their doom with songs from the saves.
And, right then, he sees this legend in operation. He sees a sentry move toward the railing, speaking of meeting his beloved. And, in the nearby shadows, the narrator and the sergeant see a form.
A wave comes washes over the desk, and the sentry is gone.
Looking to the waters by the stern, the narrator sees a strangely muted wake. And the seaweed seems to move like tentacles towards the ship and up against it. (I, of course, wonder if Burke had read some William Hope Hodgson, but Hodgson never did anything like this with seaweed.)
And then, on deck, the narrator sees a beautiful naked woman. However, she has no legs or feet rather something like a serpent’s body. Thus, she is not an alluring mermaid. (On the other hand, her serpentine features contradict the early wet footprints. Are there two types of denizens of the deep coming aboard?)
The narrator, despite his sergeant shouting at him, can’t shoot the woman, can’t resist her allure. He goes to her and over the side.
He’s dragged beneath the ways and feels no need for escape. But, bobbing to the surface, he kisses the lips of an ice-cold corpse, I suppose of one of the sentries that disappeared.
Awakened from his enchantment, the narrator grabs a trailing line and, somehow, gets aboard the ship. His account becomes a bit sketchy then because, the next thing he knows, he wakes up in his stateroom.
The sergeant is there. And, when asked about what happened last night, the sergeant has nothing to report about any missing sentries.
Understandably confused, the narrator asks the sergeant to check on the sentries.
He returns, disturbingly reporting that two have disappeared.
And that’s pretty much the end of the story. The narrator’s main account was not a precognitive vision. Two sentries do disappear of the ship.
There is evidence that it the narrator’s account is true. His hair has evidence of being in salt water. There is a smudge on the porthole window from that face. But the rest of his account doesn’t match events at the end of the story.
This story could be criticized for some rickety logic. There’s not only the discrepancy of the feet and the shape of that woman. Why doesn’t the sergeant remember what happened that night before the narrator went into the sea?
On the other hand, as is often the case with weird fiction, the illogic makes it memorable, and this is a memorable story. I first read it a year ago and found out that I had remembered it even before a re-reading.