There are some stories that come across as inevitable. They feel obvious, not because you know exactly what is about to happen, but because as soon as you’ve read a paragraph it feels like there was no other way for the story to continue but the path it took. This is not to say the story is running on clichés, just that every narrative and stylistic choice is not only satisfying, but seems common-sensical in retrospect. Editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer refer to this story as ‘effortless’, which is perhaps a neater way to put it.
As it’s a horror story (or at least one with a strong current of unease), it opens with a small remote beach hotel run by George Hume and his wife. It is the off-season – there is a heavy relentless rain outside – and the hotel is empty except for the Franklins. The Franklins always come this time of year, dour and quiet and formally dressed, and after eight years they are still an enigma to George.
The writing throughout this piece, incidentally, is also what you might call ‘effortless’, economic and unadorned prose that nevertheless conveys the mood with clear images. Take the opening of the third scene:
That night, George discovered that he could remember nothing of the spy novel he was reading, had forgotten, in fact, the hero’s name. It was as though he had stumbled into a cocktail party in the wrong neighborhood, all strangers to him, the gossip meaningless.
And this leads to another image that seems such a sensible, obvious course for the story to take. It’s a common device in supernaturally tinged fiction for a mysterious character to walk through a heavy rainstorm, without hat or umbrella, and remain bone-dry. (This is probably a lot more common in film and TV, where keeping actors wet is much more complicated than leaving them dry.) As such a feat is impossible, the visual transmits a sense of awe/horror/confusion, depending on whether the character is good, bad or ambiguous.
Yet far more unnerving, this story shows, is the converse. The Franklins go to the beach, and when the return they are absolutely sodden, hair plastered tight to their scalps. And, for the moment, the only possible explanation is offered by Mrs. Hume, who saw them at the beach:
“It’s like they were waiting for something to come out of the sea. Like a vigil they were keeping. I’ve thought it before, but the notion was particularly strong today. I looked past them, and there seemed no separation between the sea and the sky, just a black wall of water.” Mrs. Hume looked herself in the dresser’s mirror, as if that might clarify matters. “I’ve lived by the ocean all my life, and I’ve just taken it for granted, George. Suddenly it gave me shivers. Just for a moment. I thought, Lord, how big it is, lying there cold and black, like some creature that has slept at your feet so long you never expect it to wake, have forgotten that it might be brutal, even vicious.”
And while fear of the sea is not new, a well-chosen simile is a powerfully memorable thing. While seeming like a perfectly sensible descriptor in retrospect, of course.
And from here the story escalates, with a horde of dead things washed up on shore, and one of the Franklins is found drowned, and it turns out those formal clothes conceal a mass of blue arcane tattoos… but I think that’s enough to whet the appetite.
The Ocean and All Its Devices by William Browning Spencer
Availability: print, e-book
Word count: 7,000
First published: Borderlands 4, edited by Elizabeth E. Monteleone & Thomas F. Monteleone, 1994, Borderlands Press
Where to find it: The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror Eighth Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, 1995, St. Martin’s Press
The Ocean and All Its Devices, collection, 2006, Subterranean Press
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, 2012, Tor
The Book of Cthulhu II, edited by Ross E. Lockhart, 2012, Night Shade Books