There's been a lot of new horror fiction lately about the sea, much of it informed by the environmental crisis, but some of it obviously fuelled by the sea's transformative power and its apparently infinite store of weird creatures. Gemma Files, Cat Valente and Stephen Duffy have been just a few of the newer authors plumbing the vasty deep to good effect recently, but this anthology is a reminder that this literary fascination is nothing new.
It's an impressive selection too. Although many of these tales go back to the late Victorian/Edwardian era, this is not a line-up of usual suspects. Out of fifteen stories I'd only read one, Lady Eleanor Smith's 'No Ships Pass', and Smith's stylish tale of a magic island peopled by a cast of amoral, shipwrecked eccentrics is such an insanely good story that you'd have to be nuts NOT to include it in a collection like this. Apparently the story was also an inspiration for the TV series 'Lost', but 'Lost' would have to get up jolly early to be this good.
Not only are the stories all obscure, even the authors themselves tend towards the forgotten. The exception is sea horror supremo William Hope Hodgson. 'The Mystery of the Water-Logged Ship' is not quite up to the standard of his best tales, but it's an amusing enough exercise in proving how the natural can be even weirder than the supernatural (something Hodgson went in for a lot, though he did it better in 'The Stone Ship' for my money.)
Apart from that we're dealing with a bunch of writers who have fallen badly from favour since their heyday (mainly the first half of the 20th century). Many of the stories are good enough for this fate to feel really unfair - and most of the writers are men, so you can't even chalk their lowly status down to Patriarchy! One thing that really struck me was how modern many of the stories feel - they have a sort of emotional brutality and a sharpness of imagery not normally associated with the Golden Age of the Ghost Story. Perhaps this is partly thanks to many of the authors being former seafaring men and soldiers, who knows.
And there's some grim fare on offer: make it past the psychotic parrot of Albert R. Wetjen's 'The Ship of Silence' and the vicious clinging Sargasso Sea in Ward Muir's incredibly doomy 'Sargasso', and you've still got a smorgasbord of shipwrecks, death by drowning, death by starvation, death by sea monsters, and plenty of murdered innocents to look forward to.
Personally, I like sea monsters too much to really enjoy it when the humans win, so I'm pleased to report that there isn't too much of this in the collection. Humans are usually the foulest species out there, as exemplified in Elinor Mordaunt's epic yarn about savagely feuding brother sailors, 'The High Seas', F. Britten Austin's guilt-fest 'From The Depths' and the very odd afterlife story 'The Soul Saver' by Morgan Burke. And don't expect women and children to be cut any slack either. In the circumstances Frank H. Shaw's 'Held By The Sargasso Sea' comes as a relief - it actually has a quite moving happy ending!
I think my favourite story was Herman Scheffauer's 'The Floating Forest', which outdoes Hodgson in terms of the sense of wonder it conjures from natural phenomena (though his description of jungle life may be stretching the truth a bit..). Scheffauer writes in elegant, vivid prose and has a smashing way with imagery, so I hope this collection will go some way to restoring his reputation. 'From the Darkness and the Depths' is also particularly interesting from a historical standpoint as it speculates about creatures living on the sea bed which are invisible because they don't need to reflect or refract daylight - all very intriguing in the light of recent discoveries of transparent sea-beasts.
Altogether this is an unmissable collection for any serious fan of ghost stories, as long as you're committed to the marine theme. Ashley should give himself a pat on the back for unearthing all these lost gems.