From the Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea – Review
By David Schuster
“Ships stick to narrow and clearly defined lanes as a rule. There are tremendous areas where I suppose vessels only wander once in fifty years, or perhaps never go into at all and never have been”. So says the character of Old Billings in the first of Mike Ashley’s collection of short stories, From the Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea.
That thrill of the unknown is central to the theme of this book, from the British Library’s excellent ‘Tales of the Weird‘ series. ‘The Ship of Silence’, from which that quote comes, was written in 1932 and, whilst the world has changed a lot, the deep waters really haven’t. Very recently, whilst diving the Blue Hole in Belize, Richard Branson commented: “While the ocean covers more than 70 per cent of the Earth, more than 80 per cent of it is unmapped, unobserved and unexplored.” The possibilities of adventure and horror therefore remain as real as in the days of sail and steam, when these stories were written.
From the Depths comprises 15 works from different authors, spanning the period 1891 to 1932. Life on the sea can never have been easy, and very much harder in the early days of the Navy. These differences to modern life are starkly highlighted by some of the casual references made by the characters within the book: “It was a customary thing for Captain Morbond to do this, to select some weakling of the crew to browbeat and taunt and abuse”, says the protagonist in ‘The Soul Saver’.
Recreation too was rough; “We’d been talking for perhaps three hours, and between us had put away less than a pint of rum,” he says later in the same story. Against such a backdrop it’s no wonder that people and ships disappeared astoundingly often, on which subject there are two very different treatments of the Sargasso Sea. This was thought to be a weed-clogged area in the North Atlantic, where ships could become stranded. Whilst this is now known not to exist it’s no more unlikely than the Pacific trash vortex, which we know to be true.
Each chapter is preceded by a page of information about the author, and some of these mini-biographies are extremely interesting in themselves. For example, there’s Frank H. Shaw of whom I’d never heard, but who is thought to have written at least seven thousand short stories! There’s also Morgan Robertson, whose most famous work, ‘Futility: The Wreck of the Titan’ (not part of this collection), appears to predict the sinking of the Titanic fourteen years beforehand, and whose death was as mysterious as his life.
The narratives are extremely varied, ranging from the expected, such as ships discovered mysteriously empty of crew in ‘The Mystery of the Water-Logged Ship’ and monstrous creatures in ‘From the Darkness and the Depths’. There’s some haunting tales of revenge, both with neat twists, in ‘The Black Bell Bouy’ and ‘The High Sea’. Then there’s the much stranger ‘The Soul-Saver’ and ‘No Ships Pass’. Mike Ashley, who edited the collection, draws well observed comparison between the latter and the TV series Lost. For my money it’s better, and worth the cover price alone. My favourite of all though is ‘Devereux’s Last Smoke’ which moves from Jeeves and Wooster gentleman’s club jollity to something much more sinister.
This is a book to read in the comfort of your arm chair on a cold winter’s evening, but perhaps not on that Caribbean cruise you have planned.
‘From the Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea’, edited by Mike Ashley, is published by The British Library, £8.99 paperback