PseudoPod 633: Hippocampus
Narration is by Peter Bishop, courtesy of Christopher C. Payne at Journalstone. JournalStone is a small press publishing company focusing on horror/science fiction/fantasy in the adult and young adult markets.
This story can be found in Hasty for the Dark: Selected Horrors. These terrors range from the speculative to supernatural horror, encompass the infernal and the occult, and include stories inspired by H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Aickman, and Ramsey Campbell.
Hasty for the Dark is the second short story collection from the award-winning and widely appreciated British writer of horror fiction, Adam L. G. Nevill. The author’s best horror stories from 2009 to 2015 are collected here for the first time.
The author’s thoughts can be perused here:
I was intrigued by the idea of producing a horror story without characters: a relationship between the reader and an anonymous narrator, with the latter mimicking a roving camera. This roving point-of-view was, in effect, showing the reader a form of found footage: footage of a place in which something terrible had happened. All that was left for the reader was the aftermath and the evidence: the horrors. The reader becomes a witness at a crime scene; the horrors occurred before the story began. This creates a story that only the reader can piece together within their imagination. So instead of using characters as a vicarious medium, I would just show the reader the raw footage with no middle ground. I found this form could not sustain a story much beyond two thousand words and I chose for my subject a vast but derelict container ship. From our local shores and coastal paths, I watch these Leviathans cross the horizon all the time, on their way to Plymouth. Despite their size they have small crew complements. As a location for a horror story, and in my process of getting the sea and coast deeper within my imagination, a container ship was just the ticket.
by Adam L.G. Nevill
Walls of water as slow as lava, black as coal, push the freighter up mountainsides, over frothing peaks and into plunging descents. Across vast, rolling waves the vessel ploughs, ungainly. Conjuring galaxies of bubbles around its passage and in its wake, temporary cosmoses appear for moments in the immensity of onyx water, forged then sucked beneath the hull, or are sacrificed, fizzing, to the freezing night air.
On and on the great steel vessel wallops. Staggering up as if from soiled knees before another nauseating drop into a trough. There is no rest and the ship has no choice but to brace itself, dizzy and near breathless, over and over again, for the next great wave.
On board, lighted portholes and square windows offer tiny yellow shapes of reassurance amidst the lightless, roaring ocean that stretches all around and so far below. Reminiscent of a warm home offering a welcome on a winter night, the cabin lights are complemented by the two metal doorways that gape in the rear house of the superstructure. Their spilled light glosses portions of the slick deck.
All of the surfaces on board are steel, painted white. Riveted and welded tight to the deck and each other, the metal cubes of the superstructure are necklaced by yellow rails intended for those who must slip and reel about the flooded decks. Here and there, white ladders rise, and seem by their very presence to evoke a kang kang kang sound of feet going up and down quickly.
Small lifeboat cases resembling plastic barrels are fixed at the sides of the upper deck, all of them intact and locked shut. The occasional crane peers out to sea with inappropriate nonchalance, or with the expectation of a purpose that has not come. Up above the distant bridge, from which no faces peer out, the aerials, satellite dishes and navigation masts appear to totter in panic, or to whip their poles, wires and struts from side to side as if engaged in a frantic search of the ever-changing landscape of water below.
The vast steel door of the hold’s first hatch is raised and still attached to the crane by chains. This large square section of the hull is filled with white sacks, stacked upon each other in tight columns. Those at the top of the pile are now dark and sopping with rain and seawater. In the centre, scores of the heavy bags have been removed from around a scuffed and dented metal container, painted black. Until its discovery, the container appears to have been deliberately hidden among the tiers of fibre sacks. One side of the double doors at the front of the old container has been jammed open.
Somewhere on deck, a small brass bell clangs a lonesome, undirected cry – a mere nod to tradition, as there are speakers thrusting their silent horns from the metallic walls and masts. But though in better weather the tiny, urgent sound of the bell is occasionally answered by a gull, tonight it is answered by nothing save the black, shrieking chaos of the wind and the water it thrashes.
There is a lane between the freighter’s rear house and the crane above the open hatch. A passage unpeopled, wet, and lit by six lights in metal cages. MUSTER STATION: LIFEBOAT 2 is stencilled on the wall in red lettering. Passing through the lane, the noise of the engine intake fans fills the space hotly. Diesel heat creates the impression of being close to moving machine parts. As if functioning as evidence of the ship’s purpose and life, and rumbling across every surface like electric current in each part of the vessel, the continuous vibration of the engine’s exhaust thrums.
Above the open hatch and beside the lifeboat assembly point, from a door left gaping in the rear house, drifts a thick warmth. Heat that waits to wrap itself round wind-seared cheeks in the way a summer’s sun cups faces.
Once across the metal threshold the engine fibrillations deepen as if muted underground. The bronchial roar of the intake fans dulls. Inside, the salty-spittle scour of the night air, and the noxious mechanical odours, are replaced by the scent of old emulsion and the stale chemicals of exhausted air fresheners.
A staircase leads down.
But as above, so below. As on deck, no one walks here. All is still, brightly lit and faintly rumbling with the bass strumming of the exhaust. The communal area appears calm and indifferent to the intense black energies of the hurricane outside.
A long, narrow corridor runs through the rear house. Square lenses in the steel ceiling illuminate the plain passageway. The floor is covered in linoleum, the walls are matt yellow, the doors to the cabins trimmed with wood laminate. Halfway down, two opposing doors hang open before lit rooms.
The first room was intended for recreation to ease a crew’s passage on a long voyage, but no one seeks leisure now. Coloured balls roll across the pool table from the swell that shimmies the ship. Two cues lie amongst the balls and move back and forth like flotsam on the tide. At rest upon the table-tennis table are two worn paddles. The television screen remains as empty and black as the rain-thrashed canopy of sky above the freighter. One of the brown leatherette sofas is split in two places and masking tape suppresses the spongy eruptions of cushion entrails.
Across the corridor, a long bank of washing machines and dryers stand idle in the crew’s laundry room. Strung across the ceiling are washing-line cords that loop like skipping ropes from the weight of the clothing that is pegged in rows: jeans, socks, shirts, towels. One basket has been dropped upon the floor and has spilled its contents towards the door.
Up one flight of stairs, an empty bridge. Monitor screens glow green, consoles flicker. One stool lies on its side and the cushioned seat rolls back and forth. A solitary handgun skitters this way and that across the floor. The weapon adds a touch of tension to the otherwise tranquil area of operations, as if a drama has recently passed, been interrupted or even abandoned.
Back down below, deeper inside the ship and further along the crew’s communal corridor, the stainless-steel galley glimmers dully in white light. A skein of steam clouds over the work surfaces and condenses on the ceiling above the oven. Two large, unwashed pots have boiled dry upon cooker rings glowing red. From around the oven door, wisps of black smoke puff. Inside the oven a tray of potatoes has baked to carbon and they now resemble the fossils of reptile guano.
Around the great chopping board on the central table lies a scattering of chopped vegetables, cast wide by the freighter’s lurches and twists. The ceiling above the work station is railed with steel and festooned with swaying kitchenware.
Six large steaks, encrusted with crushed salt, await the abandoned spatula and the griddle that hisses black and dry. A large refrigerator door, resembling the gate of a bank vault, hangs open to reveal crowded shelves that gleam in ivory light. There is a metal sink the size of a bath tub. Inside it lies a human scalp.
Lopped roughly from the top of a head and left to drain beside the plughole, the gingery mess looks absurdly artificial. But the clod of hair was once plumbed into a circulatory system because the hair is matted dark and wet at the fringes and surrounded by flecks of ochre. The implement that removed the scalp lies upon the draining board: a long knife, the edge serrated for sawing. Above the adjacent work station, at the end of the rack that holds the cook’s knives, several items are missing.
Maybe this dripping thing of hair was brought to the sink area from somewhere outside the galley, carried along the corridor and up the flight of stairs that leads from the crew’s quarters. Red droplets as round as rose petals make a trail into the first cabin on a corridor identical to the communal passage on the deck above. The door to this cabin is open. Inside, the trail of scarlet is immediately lost within the borders of a far bigger stain.
A fluorescent jacket and cap hang upon a peg just inside the door of the cabin. All is neat and orderly upon the bookshelf, which holds volumes that brush the low white ceiling. A chest of drawers doubles as a desk. The articles on the desktop are held down by a glass paperweight and overlooked by silver-framed photographs of wives and children at the rear of the desk. On top of the wardrobe, life jackets and hardhats are stowed. Two twin beds, arranged close together, are unoccupied. Beneath the bedframes, orange survival suits remain neatly folded and tightly packed.
The bedclothes of the berth on the right-hand side are tidy and undisturbed. But the white top sheet and the yellow blanket of the adjacent berth droop to the linoleum floor like idle sails. There is a suggestion that an occupant departed this bed hurriedly, or was removed swiftly. The bed linen has been yanked from the bed and only remains tucked under the mattress in one corner. A body was also ruined in that bed: the middle of the mattress is blood-sodden and the cabin reeks of salt and rust. Crimson gouts from a bedside frenzy have flecked and speckled the wall beside the bed, and part of the ceiling.
Attached to the room is a small ensuite bathroom that just manages to hold a shower cubicle and small steel sink. The bathroom is pristine; the taps, shower head and towel rail sparkle. All that is amiss is a single slip-on shoe, dropped on the floor just in front of the sink. A foot remains inside the shoe with part of a hairy ankle extending from the uppers.
From the cabin more than a trail of droplets can be followed further down the passage and towards the neighbouring berths. A long, intermittent streak of red has been smeared along the length of the corridor, past the four doors that all hang open and drift back and forth as the ship lists. From each of these cabins, other collections have been made.
What occupants once existed in the crew’s quarters appear to have arisen from their beds before stumbling towards the doors as if hearing some cause for alarm nearby. Just before the doorways of their berths, they seem to have met their ends quickly. Wide, lumpy puddles, like spilled stew made with red wine, are splashed across the floors. One crew member sought refuge inside the shower cubicle of the last cabin, because the bathroom door is broken open and the basin of the shower is drenched nearly black from a sudden and conclusive emptying. Livestock hung above the cement of a slaughterhouse and emptied from the throat leaves similar stains.
To the left at the end of the passage, the open door of the captain’s cabin is visible. Inside, the sofa beside the coffee table and the two easy chairs sit expectant but empty. The office furniture and shelves reveal no disarray. But set upon the broad desk are three long wooden crates. The tops have been levered off, and the packing straw that was once inside is now littered about the table’s surface and the carpeted floor. Mingled with the straw is a plethora of dried flower petals.
Upon a tablecloth spread on the floor before the captain’s desk, two small forms have been laid out. They lie side by side. They are the size of five-year-old children and blackened by age, not unlike the preserved forms of ancient peoples, protected behind glass in museums of antiquities. They appear to be shrivelled and contorted. Vestiges of a fibrous binding have fused with their petrified flesh and obscured their arms, if they have such limbs. The two small figures are primarily distinguished by the irregular shape and silhouette of their skulls. Their heads appear oversized, and the swollenness of the crania contributes to the leathery ghastliness of their grimacing faces. The rear of each head is fanned by an incomplete mane of spikes, while the front of each head elongates and protrudes into a snout. The desiccated figures have had their lower limbs bound tightly together to create a suggestion of long and curling tails.
Inside the second crate lies a large black stone, crudely hollowed out in the middle. The dull and chipped appearance of the block also suggests great age. A modern addition has been made, or offered, to the hollow within the stone: asingle human foot. The shoe around the disarticulated foot matches the footwear inside the shower cubicle of the crew member’s cabin.
The contents of the third crate have barely been disturbed. In there lie several artefacts that resemble jagged flints, or the surviving blades of old weapons or knives of which the handles are missing. The implements are hand-forged from a stone as black as the basin that has become a receptacle for a human foot.
Pictures of a ship and framed maps have been removed from the widest wall, and upon this wall a marker pen has been used to depict the outlines of two snouted or trumpeting figures that are attached by what appear to be long, entwined tails. The imagery is crude and childlike, but the silhouettes are similar to the embalmed remains laid out upon the tablecloth.
Below the two figures are imprecise sticklike figures that appear to cavort in emulation of the much larger and snouted characters. Set atop some kind of uneven pyramid shape, another group of human figures have been excitedly and messily drawn with spikes protruding from their heads or headdresses. Between the crowned forms another, plainer figure has been held aloft and bleeds from the torso into a waiting receptacle. Detail has been included to indicate that the sacrificed figure’s feet have been removed and its legs bound.
The mess of human leavings that led here departs from the captain’s cabin and rises up a staircase to the deck above and into an unlit canteen.
Light falls into this room from the corridor, and in the half-light two long tables, and one smaller table for the officers, are revealed. Upon the two larger crew tables long reddish shapes lie glistening: some twelve bodies dwindling into darkness as they stretch away from the door. As if they have been unzipped across the front, what was once inside each of the men has now been gathered and piled upon chairs where the same men once sat and ate. Their feet, some bare, some still inside shoes, have been amputated and are set in a messy pile at the head of the two tables.
The far end of the cafeteria is barely touched by the residual light. Presented to no living audience, perversely and inappropriately and yet in a grimly touching fashion, two misshapen shadows flicker and leap upon the dim wall as if in joyous reunion. They wheel about each other, ferociously, but not without grace. They are attached, it seems, by two long, spiny tails.
Back outside and on deck, it can be seen that the ship continues to meander, dazed with desolation and weariness, perhaps punchdrunk from the shock of what has occurred below deck.
The bow momentarily rises up the small hillside of a wave and, just once, almost expectantly, looks towards the distant harbour to which the vessel has slowly drifted all night since changing its course.
On shore, and across the surrounding basin of treeless land, the lights of a small harbour town are white pinpricks, desperate to be counted in this black storm. Here and there, the harbour lights define the uneven silhouettes of small buildings, suggesting stone façades in which glass shimmers to form an unwitting beacon for what exists out here upon these waves.
Oblivious to anything but its own lurching and clanking, the ship rolls on the swell, inexorably drifting on the current that picked up its steel bulk the day before and now slowly propels the hull, though perhaps not as purposelessly as first appeared, towards the shore.
At the prow, having first bound himself tight to the railing with rope, a solitary and unclothed figure nods a bowed head towards the land. The pale flesh of the rotund torso is whipped and occasionally drenched by sea spray, but still bears the ruddy impressions of bestial deeds that were both boisterous and thorough. From navel to sternum, the curious figurehead is blackly open, or has been opened, to the elements. The implement used to carve such crude entrances to the heart is long gone, perhaps dropped from stained and curling fingers into the obsidian whirling and clashing of the monumental ocean far below.
As if to emulate a king, where the scalp has been carved away, a crude series of spikes, fashioned from nails, have been hammered into a pattern resembling a spine or fin across the top of the dead man’s skull. Both of his feet are missing and his legs have been bound with twine into a single, gruesome tail.
About the Author
Adam L.G. Nevill
Adam L.G. Nevill was born in Birmingham, England, in 1969 and grew up in England and New Zealand. He writes horror novels and has two collections of short fiction, including Some Will Not Sleep, winner of the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection. Several of his novels are currently in development for film and television and in 2016 Imaginarium adapted The Ritual into a feature film. Adam lives in Devon, England. (more…)
About the Narrator
Peter Bishop is a British national and a native Londoner. He’s lived in New York (Long Island) since the mid-90’s. He is able to record your project in his own professional studio, or if required, he can easily travel to a designated studio in the New York metropolitan area.