"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, August 5, 2022

"Hippocampus" by Adam Nevill (2017)

Readers unfamiliar with "Hippocampus" may prefer to read the below only after reading the story.

Such strange cargo

"Hippocampus" explores the aftermath of horror visited upon the crew of a modern cargo ship at sea. Were it not so up to date and graphic, "Hippocampus"  might be set on a derelict Demeter or Marie Celeste

Nevill's prose probes exteriors and interiors: wide shots, medium shots, then close-ups for the most unpleasant sights. Present-tense pushes the reader ahead of the author: observations precede assumptions. Turning corners or opening doors, we are not allowed to proceed slowly.

Perhaps because there are no crew left alive when "Hippocampus" begins, Nevill employs anthropomorphism. Lines like "the ship has no choice but to brace itself," and "masts appear to totter in panic" draw attention to themselves. So do the lines about a brass bell's lonesome clang, and: "The occasional crane peers out to sea with inappropriate nonchalance, or with the expectation of a purpose that has not come." My favorite describes engine blower intakes as "bronchial."

Since Nevill is a professional writer, and mentions his extensive editorial experience in the story notes to his collection Hasty for the Dark: Selected Horrors (2017), I assume the anthropomorphism is intentional. The ship is still under way, but off course and making for clustered lights on a lonely coast. 

*   *   *

"Hippocampus" does at certain points echo William Hope Hodgson and certain nautical pulp stories. 

In the captain's cabin:

     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....

     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....

"Hippocampus" does not explain why or how. It barely hints at who or what.

In his story notes, Nevill writes:

[....] Enigma is vital to horror, but I never fail to be surprised at how many readers of horror find no value in this quality. Ten minutes of reading reviews on Amazon could leave a writer of enigmatic horror feeling unloved, unappreciated and lonely.

The value of the enigmatic in "Hippocampus" is in what it requires us to anticipate, and look back upon. Horror readers, fortunately, are used to such strange cargo.


4 August 2022


Hasty for the Dark: Selected Horrors.  by Adam L. G. Nevill (2017)

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