Saturday, June 8, 2024

Sea Curse

Robert E. Howard earned $17 when he sold his story “Sea Curse” to Weird Tales. The magazine published the story in the May 1928 (Vol. 11 Number 5) issue with a Curtis C. Senf cover. This selection falls into the category of Howard's horror/weird stories and has been featured in dozens of publications over the past 94 years including Marchers of Vahalla (Sphere 1977), The Howard Collector (Ace 1979), and Shadow Kingdoms (Wildside 2004). My reading of the story is from a paperback titled Eons of the Night, published by Baen in 1996 with a Ken Kelly cover.

“Sea Curse” is set in the small coastal village called Faring. Howard used this same town for his stories “Restless Waters” (pub 1969, aka “The Horror at the Window”), “Out of the Deep” (pub. 1967), and his poem “A Legend of Faring Town” (pub 1975). Don't be thrown off by the impression that these stories are somehow connected. They aren't. The characters are specific to just the story and never spill into the other tales.

The story begins as readers learn of old Moll Farrell, a rumored witch that has very little to say to anyone, minds her own business, and makes a living from gathering clams and driftwood while raising her young niece. This is a fishing town, which brings lots of weathered sailors in and out of the harbor. Unfortunately, two of the very worst hang around Faring – John Kulrek and his pal Lie-lip Canool. Off-page, Kulrek rapes and kills Moll's niece, casting her broken little body into the raging sea. 

After a few days, the young girl drifts to shore, cold and lifeless. Word quickly makes it to the village and they all run to the coastline. Standing over the dead girl, a drunken Kulrek raises his drink and says, “A health to the wench's ghost!”. Immediately, Moll Farrell screams a curse on Kulrek with the main point being addressed to Canool:

“You shall be the death of John Kulrek and he shall be the death or you! You shall bring John Kulrek to the doors of Hell and John Kulrek shall bring you to the gallows-tree! I set the seal of death upon your brow, John Kulrek! You shall live in terror and die in horror far out upon the cold grey sea!”

Kulrek and his small crew set sail at dawn on a long voyage. Months later, Canool arrives in town and tells the village that Kulrek deserted ship in Sumatra after a fight with the skipper. 

Later, the narrator of the story, a “harum-scarum” lad (no name provided) and his friend Joe are out in the water in a thick white fog. They hear the sounds of a large boat, but can't make out the direction. They spend hours drifting through the fog honing in on the sound of the oars. They finally locate a gloomy rotten galley and climb aboard the rickety planks. I won't ruin the surprise for you, but they discover a horrifying sight that ties into Kulrek's desertion and departure from Canool. Moll Farrell's curse comes to fruition in a terrifying climax.

I can't say enough great things about this Robert E. Howard horror story. While the idea of a curse being wielded to avenge the loss of a loved one or friend is overused in these types of stories, the format works perfectly for this eerie tale. Howard's writing is so descriptive with the veiled sea, grey fogs, and the shivering end of the wharf. I love the way he presents the story's most emotional and moving aspect, the grisly discovery of the young girl. He does it in such a smooth, elegant way that hits like a fist on a hollow coffin:

“All the while beyond the shoals, we heard the never-ceasing droning of the heaving, restless grey monster, and in the dim light of the ghostly dawn Moll Farrell's girl came home. The tides bore her gently across the wet sands and laid her almost at her own door. Virgin-white she was, and her arms folded across her still bosom; calm was her face, and the gray tides sighed about her slender limbs.”

That is just such a powerful description that contrasts with the loud-mouthed drunken rage of the girl's killer. As Moll Farrell screams the curse, Howard digs in deep with rage and despair clashing with insults and warnings for the two sailors. It's nothing short of brilliant. 

If you love nautical stories, then you'll be seduced by the coastal atmosphere of Faring and the chill of this ghostly seaside tale. Highest possible recommendation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

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