An extract from
he Sea Horror - it has an old-fashioned ring, doesn't it? I think, I hope, It is old-fashioned. Becoming rarer, I mean. But I wonder.
. . . . . . . . . In previous centuries, everyone was susceptible: Lascars, sturdy emigrants, the ship's doctor. Nowadays most adults are too hardboiled, so I think It usually begins with children. Or with unlettered Filipino hands in the kitchen. Anyway, someone sees It, and starts running about screaming about It. If he's not strapped down at once, or killed, his disease spreads: first to the passengers, then the crew, then the officers.
. . . . . . . . . Hysteria's the strongest form of thought. Absolute fear breaks the mind. It lets all our mental energy burst out. Then it leaps from person to person, irresistible. Picture a man in flames tumbling about a darkened theatre. First the stalls, then the orchestra, the boxes . . . . Everyone on an infected ship ends up seeing things that make them throw themselves overboard. So they do. Or the passengers murder each other. Or they murder the crew and try to steer the ship, which of course they capsize soon enough, lubbers. Sometimes the officers scuttle the ship, hoping to take the Horror to the bottom with them....
. . . . . . . . . Is It becoming less common? I don't know. Anyway, It certainly still happens. It will happen again, It will never entirely cease. It falls in mid-passage upon a ship, and the ship never makes harbour.
. . . . . . . . . You'd be amazed how many ships simply vanish. And every couple of years somebody finds a ghost ship, which is even more suspicious.
. . . . . . . . . Of course Demon Drink plays its part. And mutiny, and piracy, and other clean human events. But usually when a ship vanishes, I think it must be the Sea Horror that's done it. And sometimes there's no doubt, the authorities know. The event has to be hushed up, or you'd never get another vessel out of port.
. . . . . . . . . What is It?, you ask. Well, there's the paradox - it doesn't exist. Of course it doesn't exist. And every set of victims is tabula rasa: they've never heard of the Sea Horror before the voyage. (We take good care of that.) Yet the reports we have of It are pretty much identical. So I think there must be a particular dread of ocean that touches something specific in the human mind. When being at sea drives you mad, you go mad in a predictable way. You see the same appalling thing.
. . . . . . . . . At least, that's the most comfortable explanation.
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The sea's ghastly, isn't it? Much too wide, much too deep. Millions and millions of square miles of busy nothing. Cubic miles. Mindless, triumphant, absolutely fatal. Every mid-Atlantic wave's bigger than any ship, everywhere there are obscure bays bigger than countries. Tear up Everest by its roots, heave it into a marine trench: the ocean devours it with scarcely a burp, one almighty splash, a roar of bubbles bringing up flotsam of broken forest - suds - here and there a dead yak. Within ten minutes the sea's unruffled, it's died away to its eternal smack and heave. Business as usual.
. . . . . . . . . The sea's beyond thinking of. It's dreadful to be born on an island, even a big one like this.
. . . . . . . . . It's unspeakably horrible to be on a boat.
. . . . . . . . . How do we bear the thought of the waters all about us? It must be some particular vacancy in our imagination - we're trained to be vacant about it, I suppose, from the moment we burst from the tiny inner ocean of the womb. Trained to toy with the sea, the way snake-handling cults toy with copperheads. String-bikinis, sun-cream, glittering yachts, beaches with deckchairs for rent. Note how desperate we are to trivialise it. Because we know we mustn't look at it nakedly. That way lies madness.
. . . . . . . . . Mystics go mad from seeing God. Hollywood billionaires kill themselves from hovering over the abyss of absolute wealth, which is to say godlike independence. And everyone knows what a nice sea-view'll do, if we let ourselves really notice it.
. . . . . . . . . Imagination stocks the waters with bogies. Giant squid, sea-serpent, Nessie in her loch. Haven't you noticed there's something thin about them all? They're quaint, charming, popular with the tabloids. Soothing. It's the same with man-eating sharks and tsunamis. Mock-monsters: unreal. We dwell on them not to frighten ourselves, but to console. They hide what we're really afraid of. We don't dread the sea because it has beasties in it, we dread it because it›s the sea.
. . . . . . . . . And even that dread is a comforting veil. The sea in itself is just a looking-glass. Have you ever thought how nature must hate us: man the perverse, the destroyer? The Church says it's our rebellion that cuts the world off from God. Even if that's not true, our tyranny certainly oppresses the world. Our cunning pushes it to the edge. We're a virus within nature. The physical world abominates us. We try not to know this. In our minds, we - how can I say this? - smother things with swags of brocade. Oh look, we say (hurrying to drape our human sentiments), a tiger! A waterfall! A virus. How pretty, how sublime. We pretend Nature's there to allow such feelings.
. . . . . . . . . But the sea's too huge to be veiled. It tears away pretence. A man sometimes has to look at it. On his first voyage, say. He beholds in the ocean what we must look like: what fallen humanity seems like to nature. And since that's too horrible to bear, he invents an alien monster. He beholds the Sea Horror onboard with him. It scares him to death, but even being frightened to death by an exterior horror is better than staring into a mirror.
. . . . . . . . . You ask: But what is It like?
. . . . . . . . . You already know what It's like, Abishag. The knowledge lies deep in your mind, deeper than you dare reach. I'm not fishing it out for you, I'm not anatomising It. If you ever see It, then it'll be too late for anatomy....

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