Letters to Lovecraft is our newest genre-blending anthology of original fiction, and to ring in the new year for our readers we’ll be posting excerpts from each of the stories. We close out this week with a salty sea story from Robin D. Laws, a yarn that takes us all the way from the Portsmouth docks to a sun-drenched atoll in the South Pacific. Nice as that may sound, though, this desert isle is less Gilligan’s Island and more William Hope Hodgson by way of Clive Barker…
At Cape Verde, the Dido left African shores for the open ocean. With nothing but water in all directions, and sky above, Will let himself fall into an automatic state. At night he might briefly be visited by the urge to sob, and, in dreams, Elizabeth once or twice came to him to remind him that she once had lived. But all in all, the spell the voyage was meant to have on him took hold. It blurred time for him as they reached South America, paralleling its coast from Brazil down south to the Horn. As they approached this place of fabled navigational peril, Edward, who as protocol demanded had been keeping company with his fellow warrant officers, resumed his presence in Will’s daily routines. Lazy days would end when they hit the storms. Booms would bend and shatter. Masts could fall. Lynas was the ship’s doctor, but the Dowlands, uncle and nephew, were doctors of the ship. On its health, the lives of all depended.
Yet the Horn, in its caprice, withheld all but the mildest of its assaults. The Dido sailed up South America’s western coast after only three days of repair work.
After the ship turned at Peru into the open Pacific, a shift in mood intruded on Will’s isolation. The tang of coming violence Will perceived at Portsmouth resurfaced. Throughout the voyage Codrington had conducted himself as any sailor could wish, neither cruelly punitive nor dangerously lax, yet the men regarded him with increasingly sullen apprehension. Crewmen whispered together, stopping when Will neared. He thought to go to his uncle, but needed greater grounds for it. As a warrant officer, Edward would be obliged to report the obscurest hint of mutiny.
Halfway between Peru and the islands, fever swept the ship. A third of the crew, the Dowlands luckily excluded, fell ill with it. Rumor spread that it was the plague; Dr. Lynas called all hands on deck to assure them otherwise. A landsman died and was buried at sea. The other victims were laid up for a week or so — except for Codrington, who could not shake it and remained abed, ceding command to the main master, a taciturn man named Tozey.
Lynas caught Will staring at the captain’s closed cabin door and startled him by sneaking up behind him and breathing a rum fog into his ear: “Worried, young Dowland?”
Will made an awkward spectacle of himself, turning toward the surgeon even as he backed away. “Hoping the captain recovers, doctor.”
“As am I, surely. It blots a surgeon’s résumé, to lose his captain, no matter how arbitrarily.”
“Could it be something in addition to the fever?”
“You’re a medical man now, Dowland?”
Will couldn’t understand why he was still talking, but he was. “Nothing was… for example, introduced into his food?”
“Are you asking me, young Dowland, if the captain has been poisoned?”
“Just a funny hunch. Maybe I have a touch of fever myself.”
“I’ll come round later to examine you,” said Lynas, as Will slipped away.
About an hour later, his uncle came to him, features stony. “The doctor tells me you think Codrington has been poisoned.”
“I have no cause to think that,” Will stammered.
“That is good. Because he hasn’t. Coincidentally. Simply lingering fever, nothing more. Which is as fine a sign that Providence smiles upon us as any I could foresee. For his sake, Will, hope he stays that way. For yours, wait and see. Soon you’ll receive the gift I brought you all this way for. And then you’ll understand. Until then, be smart and wait and watch…”
For the rest, get Letters to Lovecraft from Stone Skin Press.
Robin D. Laws’s most recent works of fiction are his collection of Chambers-inspired weird stories New Tales of the Yellow Sign and the fantasy novel Blood of the City. Other novels include Pierced Heart and The Worldwound Gambit. As creative director for Stone Skin Press, he has edited such anthologies as Shotguns v. Cthulhu and The Lion and the Aardvark. He is best known for his groundbreaking roleplaying game design work, as seen in Hillfolk, The Esoterrorists, Feng Shui and HeroQuest. He is one-half of the Golden Geek Award–winning podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, and can be found online at robindlaws.com.