Today, a tale of a banshee heard at sea.
Hard, stormy weather followed us till near the ninetieth meridian, when we hauled up and steered more to the nor’ard. One dark, moonless night just before we got clear of the ‘forties,’ with a fresh breeze blowing and the ship running quietly along under t’gallants’ls, there occurred a most uncanny experience.
It was about four bells in the middle watch, the ‘churchyard’ watch, as the four hours after midnight is called, that it happened. We of the mate’s watch were on deck–the men for’ard, Beckett and I under the break, and Mr. Thomas pacing the poop above our heads. Suddenly, apparently close aboard on the port hand, there came howling out of the darkness a most frightful, wailing cry, ghastly in its agony and intensity.
Not of overpowering volume — a score of men shouting together could have raised as loud a hail — it was the indescribable calibre and agony of the shriek that almost froze the blood in our veins.
We rushed to the rail, the mate and the men too, and stared searchingly into the blackness to wind’ard. The starbowlines, who a moment before had been sleeping the sleep of tired men in their bunks below, rushed out on deck. Shipwreck would hardly bring foremast Jack out before he was called, but that cry roused him like the last summons. If ever men were ‘horror-struck’ we were.
Even the old man was awakened by it and came up on deck. Everyone was listening intensely, straining their eyes into the blackness that enveloped us.
A moment or two passed and then as we listened, wondering and silent, again that appalling scream rang out, rising to the point of almost unbearable torture and dying crazily away in broken whimperings.
No one did anything, or even spoke. We stood like stones, simply staring into the mystery-laden gloom.
How long we peered and listened, waiting for a repetition of the sound, I do not know. But minutes passed and still it did not come, and slowly, like men coming out of a trance, we began to move about and speak to each other again.
We heard it no more and gradually, one at a time, trickled back to foc’sle and half-deck. As far as the occupants of the latter were concerned, no one evinced any inclination to turn in and we sat around, smoking and discussing what the sound we had heard could possibly be. Nobody slept much more that night and thankful we were when the grey dawn broke over the tumbling, untenanted sea.
This was all. In bare words it doesn’t sound very dreadful, but it made that night a night of terror. For long enough afterwards the echoes of that awful scream would ring in my ears, and even now it sends a shiver through me to think of it.
Who and what it was that caused it we never learnt.
We hazarded a variety of guesses, many of them farfetched enough. The cry of a whale was suggested, but I never heard a whale utter any sounds with its throat. Some other sea-monster, somebody else thought, that only rarely comes to the surface – but this was more unlikely still. The screams of seals or sea-lions on an island beach was another hypothesis –again, the nearest land was Easter Island, six hundred miles to the northward.
Besides, the shriek we heard had certainly a human, if not a diabolic origin. Whether it was, as some imagined, a shipwrecked boat’s crew who saw our lights and in their extremity raised a sort of death scream, or whether, as others asserted, it had a supernatural origin, remained a mystery insoluble.
The passing of this goblin-haunted night marked the end of the bad weather encountered on the passage. Thereafter, as we slanted north, there grew a daily improvement. The wind steadied, the sun shone for longer intervals and the seas no more poured aboard in green and solid cataracts. Royals were set, life-lines unrigged and our salt-soaked ‘soul-and-body lashings’ laid aside.
A Gipsy of the Horn: The Narrative of a Voyage Round the World in Windjammer Twenty Years Ago, Rex Clements, 1924
In a previous Creature Feature post on a giant serpent in the sky, I pointed out a minor pattern of witnesses afloat. While there are stories of ghostly wives and mothers coming to announce their deaths to captains and crew, this is the first maritime banshee in my experience. They are more usually land-based, but share the same horrific shrieks.
Perhaps I did not read carefully enough, but no one died; the ship did not wreck. In fact, the weather improved. Was this a Southern Hemisphere banshee—bringing good fortune instead of the tragic news she might have brought above the Equator—a kind of Coriolis entity? Or merely an off-course one?
Full disclosure: I haven’t read to the end of the book so if any of you have, please let me know if this traumatic night foretold any Horror. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.