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Since Hurricane Sandy is wrecking Halloween, it’s fitting that we should revel in a ghost story set at sea – Ghost Stories #20

October 30, 2012

With the confluence of a once in a lifetime storm battering the eastern seaboard and the approach of Halloween, it seems as ripe a time as ever to yak about a tale of horror set amongst roaring ocean waves. And so we have this comic, from one of the lesser Dell titles from the 1960s. Huzzah. Eagle-eyed readers who’ve been visiting this blog for a while may be having some deja vu seeing the above cover. No, that’s not John Wayne alone in a boat about to harpoon a whale. It’s an anonymous soul framed by a gaping maw, some pantywaist afraid to bear his manly chest like John. That’s all.

There are several stories in this book, but the cover tale is the one we’ll look at. It’s actually a bit of a mind-bender, and not in the good Rod Serling way, but the “I don’t think they thought this all the way through way.” More on that in a moment.

The story (with art from Frank Springer, whose art can sometimes be dodgy, but isn’t bad here) is set on that oceanic charnel house of old, a whaler. Most everyone’s knowledge of whaling comes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and that’s not so bad in this case since, though this comic isn’t about a deranged captain chasing a white whale, there’s whaley vengeance aplenty. In a storytelling inversion, it’s the whale that’s deranged and attacking a ship. To wit:

The sperm whale does mild damage before swimming off, but the pumps and repair crews are able to patch things up and keep their old hulk afloat. The captain of the vessel (Volmer) is understandably uneasy, and spends the night having odd dreams where he’s angrily pummeling a drunk crewman named Falkin:

The dream-man vows his vengeance as he drowns. When the captain awakes the whale has returned and this time be busts a hole in the hull big enough to sink this bitch:

The men scramble into the lifeboats, and a malevolent flip of the whale’s tail sends the captain into the swirling sea. There the whale makes a beeline to him:

The men do wind up killing the whale, but not before it gobbles up their skipper, and when they cut it open in the vain hope of rescuing him, they find more than they expected:

Let’s unpack this. A ship is menaced by a whale. The captain has a dream where he kills a man (it could be that Falkin was real, and Volmer was replaying something he had done, but it’s implied that this is literally dreamt– this is the impression I got at least). The whale returns the next day, sinks the ship and eats the captain. Inside the whale is a tag bearing the name of the man from the captain’s dream. So the whale was possessed by the spirit of a man from a dream and was attacking the ship before the dream happened to kill a captain who never (to our knowledge) killed anyone (except for a bunch of whales). I’m confused.

A note: At no point in this comic is the whale ever called a sperm whale, though that’s obviously what it is. In fact, it’s called a “killer” whale on multiple occasions, which is correct in one sense, but definitely wrong in the taxonomical. Shamu, of Sea World fame, is a killer whale. What you see in the scans above is not. I’m wondering if there was some reticence on the part of the folks at Dell to put the word “sperm” in a comic book, no matter the context. Maybe. The tittering of children would surely be unbearable.

Anyway. This little story doesn’t really work. Oh well. Life goes on.

Hope everyone out subject to Sandy’s wrath there battened down the hatches and is riding this one out. Stay safe.

(I feel like I should add a little “If you liked this story, here are some others that might interest you” plug, like the ones Captain Kangaroo used to give out at the end of every episode of CBS Storybreak. There’s a great book out there called In the Heart of the Sea, which is about the early 19th century sinking of the whaleship Essex by an enraged sperm whale. It’s the true story that inspired Melville to pen his classic novel, and the book tells the harrowing story of the shipwrecked men and their privations as they float about the Pacific in meager launches. Spoiler: They eat each other. It’s a good read. Okay, enough whale talk.)

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