Second Night Out is a classic scary story about a man on a sea cruise who encounters a hideous and grotesque apparition. It was written by Frank Belknap Long and first appeared in Weird Tales magazine in October 1933 under the title “The Black, Dead Thing”. The story also appeared in the anthologies “Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories For Late at Night” and “Ten Tales Calculated to Give You Shudders”.
It was past midnight when I left my stateroom. The upper promenade deck was entirely deserted, and thin wisps of fog hovered about the deck chairs and curled and uncurled about the gleaming rails. No air was stirring. The ship moved forward sluggishly through a quiet, fog enshrouded sea.
But I did not object to the fog. I leaned against the rail and inhaled the damp, murky air with a positive greediness. The almost unendurable nausea, the pervasive physical and mental misery had departed, leaving me serene and at peace. I was again capable of experiencing sensuous delight, and the aroma of the brine was not to be exchanged for pearls and rubies. I had paid in exorbitant coinage for what I was about to enjoy — for the five brief days of freedom and exploration in glamorous, sea-splendid Havana, which I had been promised by an enterprising and, I hoped, reasonably honest tourist agent. I am in all respects the antithesis of a wealthy man, and I had drawn so heavily upon my bank balance to satisfy the greedy demands of The Loriland Tours, Inc., that I had been compelled to renounce such really indispensable amenities as after-dinner cigars and ocean-privileged sherry and chartreuse.
But I was enormously content. I paced the deck and inhaled the moist, pungent air. For thirty hours I had been confined to my cabin with a sea illness more debilitating than bubonic plague or malignant sepsis, but having at length managed to squirm from beneath its iron heel, I was free to enjoy my prospects. They were enviable and glorious. Five days in Cuba, with the privilege of driving up and down the sundrenched Malecon in a flamboyantly upholstered limousine, and an opportunity to feast my discerning gaze on the pink walls of the cabanas and the Columbus Cathedral and La Fuerza, the great storehouse of the Indies. Opportunity, also, to visit sunlit patios, saunter by iron-barred rejas, sip refrescos by moonlight in openair cafés, and acquire, incidentally, a Spanish contempt for Big Business and the Strenuous Life. Then to Haiti, dark and magical; the Virgin Islands and the quaint, incredible Old World harbor of Charlotte Amalie, with its chimneyless, red-roofed houses rising in tiers to the quiet stars; the natural Sargasso, the inevitable last port. of call for rainbow fishes, diving boys, old ships with sun bleached funnels, and incurably drunken skippers. A flaming opal set in an amphitheater of malachite — its allure blazed forth through the gray fog and dispelled my northern spleen. I leaned against the rail and dreamed also of Martinique, which I would see in a few days, and of the Indian and Chinese wenches of Trinidad. And then, suddenly, a dizziness came upon me. The ancient and terrible malady had returned to plague me.
Seasickness, unlike all other major afflictions, is a disease of the individual. No two people are ever afflicted with precisely the same symptoms. The manifestations range from a slight malaise to a devastating impairment of all one’s faculties. I was afflicted with the gravest symptoms imaginable. Choking and gasping, I left the rail and sank helplessly down into one of the three remaining deck chairs.
Why the steward had permitted the chairs to remain on deck was a mystery I couldn’t fathom. He had obviously shirked a duty, for passengers did not habitually visit the promenade deck in the small hours, and foggy weather plays havoc with the wickerwork of steamer chairs. But I was too grateful for the benefits that his negligence had conferred upon me to be excessively critical. I lay sprawled at full length, grimacing and gasping and trying fervently to assure myself that I wasn’t nearly as sick as I felt. And then, all at once, I became aware of an additional source of discomfiture.
The chair exuded an unwholesome odor. It was unmistakable. As I turned about, and as my cheek came to rest against the damp, varnished wood, my nostrils were assailed by an acrid and alien odor of a vehement, cloying potency. It was at once stimulating and indescribably repellent. In a measure, it assuaged my physical unease, but it also filled me with the most overpowering revulsion — with a sudden, hysterical, and almost frenzied distaste.
I tried to rise from the chair, but the strength was gone from my limbs. An intangible presence seemed to rest upon me and weigh me down. And then the bottom seemed to drop out of everything. I am not being facetious. Something of the sort actually occurred. The base of the sane, familiar world vanished, was swallowed up. I sank down. Limitless gulfs seemed open beneath me, and I was immersed, lost in a gray void. The ship, however, did not vanish. The ship, the deck, the chair continued to support me, and yet, despite the retention of these outward symbols of reality, I was afloat in an unfathomable void. I had the illusion of falling, of sinking helplessly through an eternity of space. It was as though the deck chair that supported me had passed into another dimension without ceasing to leave the familiar world — as though it floated simultaneously both in our three-dimensional world and in another world of alien, unknown dimensions. I became aware of strange shapes and shadows all about me. I gazed through illimitable dark gulfs at continents and islands, lagoons, atolls, vast gray waterspouts. I sank down into the great deep. I was immersed in dark slime. The boundaries of sense were dissolved away, and the breath of an active corruption blew through me, gnawing at my vitals and filling me with extravagant torment. I was alone in the great deep. And the shapes that accompanied me in my utter abysmal isolation were shriveled and black and dead, and they cavorted deliriously with little monkey heads with streaming, seadrenched viscera and putrid, pupilless eyes.
And then, slowly, the unclean vision dissolved. I was back again in my chair, and the fog was as dense as ever, and the ship moved forward steadily through the quiet sea. But the odor was still present — acrid, overpowering, revolting. I leapt from the chair in profound alarm. I experienced a sense of having emerged from the bowels of some stupendous and unearthly encroachment – of having, in a single instant, exhausted the resources of earth’s malignity and drawn upon untapped and intolerable reserves.
I have gazed without flinching at the turbulent, demon-seething, utterly benighted infernos of the Italian and Flemish primitives. I have endured with calm vision the major inflictions of Hieronymus Bosch and Lucas Cranach, and I have not quailed even before the worst perversities of the elder Breughel, whose outrageous gargoyles and ghouls and cacodemons are so selfcontained that they fester with an overbrimming malignancy and seem about to burst asunder and dissolve hideously in a black and intolerable froth. But not even Signorelli’s Soul of the Damned, or Goya’s Los Caprichos, or the hideous, ooze-encrusted seashapes with half-assembled bodies and dead, pupilless eyes, which drag themselves sightlessly through Segrelles’ blue worlds of fetor and decay were as unnerving and ghastly as the flickering visual sequence that had accompanied my perception of the odor. I was vastly and terribly shaken.
I got indoors somehow, into the warm and steamy interior of the upper saloon, and waited, gasping, for the deck steward to come to me. I had pressed a small button labeled DECK STEWARD in the wainscoting adjoining the central stairway, and I frantically hoped that he would arrive before it was too late, before the odor outside percolated into the vast, deserted saloon.
The steward was a daytime official, and it was a cardinal crime to fetch him from his berth at one in the morning, but I had to have someone to talk to, and as the steward was responsible for the chairs, I naturally thought of him as the logical target for my interrogations. He would know. He would be able to explain. The odor would not be unfamiliar to him. He would be able to explain about the chairs… about the chairs… about the chairs… I was growing hysterical and confused.
I wiped the perspiration from my forehead with the back of my hand and waited with relief for the steward to approach. He had come suddenly into view above the top of the central stairway, and he seemed to advance toward me through a blue mist.
He was extremely solicitous, extremely courteous. He bent above me and laid his hand concernedly upon my arm. “Yes, sir. What can I do for you, sir? A bit under the weather, perhaps? What can I do?”
Do? Do? It was horribly confusing. I could only stammer, “The chairs, steward. On the deck. Three chairs. Why did you leave them there? Why didn’t you take them inside?”
It wasn’t what I had intended asking him. I had intended questioning him about the odor. But the strain, the shock had confused me. The first thought that came into my mind on seeing the steward standing above me, so solicitous and Concerned, was that he was a hypocrite and a scoundrel. He pretended to be concerned about me, and yet, out of sheer perversity, he had prepared the snare that had reduced me to a pitiful and helpless wreck. He had left the chairs on deck deliberately, with a cruel and crafty malice, knowing all the time, no doubt, that something would occupy them.
But I wasn’t prepared for the almost instant change in the man’s demeanor. It was ghastly. Befuddled as I had become, I could perceive at once that I had done him a grave, terrible injustice. He hadn’t known. All the blood drained out of his cheeks, and his mouth fell open. He stood immobile before me, completely inarticulate, and, for an instant, I thought he was about to collapse helplessly down upon the floor.
“You saw — chairs?” he gasped at last.
The steward leaned toward me and gripped my arm. The flesh of his face was completely destitute of luster. From the parchment-white oval his two eyes, tumescent with fright, stared wildly down at me.
“It’s the black, dead thing,” he muttered. “The monkey face. I knew it would come back. It always comes aboard at midnight on the second night out.”
He gulped and his hand tightened on my arm.
“It’s always on the second night out. It knows where I keep the chairs, and it takes them on deck and sits in them. I saw it last time. It was squirming about in the chair — lying stretched out and squirming horribly. Like an eel. It sits in all three of the chairs. When it saw me, it got up and started toward me. But I got away. I came in here and shut the door. But I saw it through the window.”
The steward raised his arm and pointed.
“There. Through that window there. Its face was pressed against the glass. It was all black and shriveled and eaten away. A monkey face, sir. So help me, the face of a dead, shriveled monkey. And wet — dripping. I was so frightened I couldn’t breathe. I just stood and groaned, and then it went away.”
“Dr. Blodgett was mangled, clawed to death, at ten minutes to one. We heard his shrieks. The thing went back, I guess, and sat in the chairs for thirty or forty minutes after it left the window. Then it went down to Dr. Blodgett’s stateroom and took his clothes. It was horrible. Dr. Blodgett’s legs were missing, and his face was crushed to a pulp. There were claw marks all over him. And the curtains of his berth were drenched with blood.
“The captain told me not to talk. But I’ve got to tell someone. I can’t help myself, sir. I’m afraid — I’ve got to talk. This is the third time it’s come aboard. It didn’t take anybody the first time, but it sat in the chairs. It left them all wet and slimy, sir — all covered with black, stinking slime.”
I stared in bewilderment. What was the man trying to tell me? Was he completely unhinged? Or was I too confused, too ill myself to catch all that he was saying?
He went on wildly. “It’s hard to explain, sir, but this boat is visited. Every voyage, sir — on the second night out. And each time it sits in the chairs. Do you understand?”
I didn’t understand clearly, but I murmured a feeble assent. My voice was appallingly tremulous, and it seemed to come from the opposite side of the saloon.
“Something out there,” I gasped. “It was awful. Out there, you hear? An awful odor. My brain. I can’t imagine what’s come over me, but I feel as though something were pressing on my brain. Here.”
I passed my fingers across my forehead.
“Something here — something —”
The steward appeared to understand perfectly. He nodded and helped me to my feet. He was still self-engrossed, still horribly wrought up, but I could sense that he was also anxious to reassure and assist me.
“Stateroom Sixteen D? Yes, of course. Steady, sir.”
The steward had taken my arm and was guiding me toward the central stairway. I could scarcely stand erect. My decrepitude was so apparent, in fact, that the steward was moved by compassion to the display of an almost heroic attentiveness. Twice I stumbled and would have fallen had not the guiding arm of my companion encircled my shoulders and levitated my sagging bulk.
“Just a few more steps, sir. That’s it. Just take your time. There isn’t anything will come of it, sir. You’ll feel better when you’re inside, with the fan going. Just take your time, sir.”
At the door of my stateroom, I spoke in a hoarse whisper to the man at my side. “I’m all right now. I’ll ring if I need you. Just — let me — get inside. I want to lie down. Does this door lock from the inside?”
“Why, yes. Yes, of course. But maybe I’d better get you some water.”
“No, don’t bother. Just leave me — please.”
“Well — all right, sir.” Reluctantly the steward departed.
The stateroom was extremely dark. I was so weak that I was compelled to lean with all my weight against the door to close it. It shut with a slight click, and the key fell out upon the floor. With a groan I went down on my knees and groveled apprehensively on the soft carpet. But the key eluded me.
I cursed and was about to rise, when my hand encountered something fibrous and hard. I started back, gasping. Then, frantically, my fingers slid over it, in a hectic effort at appraisal. It was — yes, undoubtedly, a shoe. And sprouting from it, an ankle. The shoe stood firmly on the floor of the stateroom. The flesh of the ankle, beneath the sock that covered it, was very cold.
In an instant I was on my feet, circling like a caged animal about the narrow dimensions of the stateroom. My hands slid over the walls, the ceiling. If only, dear God, the electric light button would not continue to elude me!
Eventually my hands encountered a rubbery excrescence on the smooth panel. I pressed resolutely, and the darkness vanished to reveal a man sitting upright on a couch in the corner — a stout, well-dressed man, holding a grip and looking perfectly composed. Only his face was invisible. His face was concealed by a handkerchief — a large handkerchief that had obviously been placed there intentionally, perhaps as a protection against the rather chilly air currents from the unshuttered port. The man was obviously asleep. He had not responded to the tugging of my hands on his ankles in the darkness, and even now he did not stir. The glare of the electric light bulbs above his head did not appear to annoy him in the least.
I experienced a sudden and overwhelming relief. I sat down beside the intruder and wiped the sweat from my forehead. I was still trembling in every limb, but the calm appearance of the man beside me was tremendously reassuring. A fellow passenger, no doubt, who had entered the wrong compartment. It should not be difficult to get rid of him. A mere tap on the shoulder, followed by a courteous explanation, and the intruder would vanish. A simple procedure, if only I could summon the strength to act with decision. I was so horribly enfeebled, so incredibly weak and ill. But at last I mustered sufficient energy to reach out my hand and tap the intruder on the shoulder.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I murmured, “but you’ve got into the wrong stateroom. If I weren’t a bit under the weather, I’d ask you to stay and smoke a cigar with me, but, you see, I — ” with a distorted effort at a smile I tapped the stranger again nervously — “I’d rather be alone, so if you don’t mind — sorry I had to wake you:’
Immediately I perceived that I was being premature. I had not waked the stranger. The stranger did not budge, did not so much as agitate by his breathing the handkerchief that concealed his features.
I experienced a resurgence of my alarm. Tremulously I stretched forth my hand and seized a corner of the handkerchief. It was an outrageous thing to do, but I had to know. If the intruder’s face matched his body, if it was composed and familiar, all would be well, but if for any reason —
The fragment of physiognomy revealed by the uplifted corner was not reassuring. With a gasp of fright I tore the handkerchief completely away. For a moment, a moment only, I stared at the dark and repulsive visage, with its stary, corpse-white eyes, viscid and malignant, its flat simian nose, hairy ears, and thick black tongue that seemed to leap up at me from out of the mouth. The face moved as I watched it, wriggled and squirmed revoltingly, while the head itself shifted its position, turning slightly to one side and revealing a profile even more bestial and gangrenous and unclean than the brunt of its countenance.
I shrank back against the door in frenzied dismay. I suffered as an animal suffers. My mind, deprived by shock of all capacity to form concepts, agonized instinctively, at a brutish level of consciousness. Yet, through it all, one mysterious part of myself remained horribly observant. I saw the tongue snap back into the mouth; saw the lines of the features shrivel and soften, until presently, from the slavering mouth and white, sightless eyes, there began to trickle thin streams of blood. In another moment the mouth was a red slit in a splotched horror of countenance — a red slit rapidly widening and dissolving in an amorphous crimson flood. The horror was hideously and repellently dissolving into the basal sustainer of all life.
It took the steward nearly ten minutes to restore me. He was compelled to force spoonfuls of brandy between my tightly locked teeth, to bathe my forehead with ice water, and to massage, almost savagely, my wrists and ankles. And when finally I opened my eyes, he refused to meet them. He quite obviously wanted me to rest, to remain quiet, and he appeared to distrust his own emotional equipment. He was good enough, however, to enumerate the measures that had contributed to my restoration and to enlighten me in respect to the remnants.
“The clothes were all covered with blood — drenched, sir. I burned them.”
On the following day he became more loquacious. “It was wearing the clothes of the gentleman who was killed last voyage, sir — it was wearing Dr. Blodgett’s things. I recognized them instantly.”
“But, why — ?”
The steward shook his head. “I don’t know, sir. Maybe your going up on deck saved you. Maybe it couldn’t wait. It left a little after the last time, sir, and it was later than that when I saw you to your stateroom. The ship may have passed out of its zone, sir. Or maybe it fell asleep and couldn’t get back in time, and that’s why it — dissolved. I don’t think it’s gone for good. There was blood on the curtains in Dr. Blodgett’s cabin, and I’m afraid it always goes that way. It will come back next voyage, sir. I’m sure of it.”
He cleared his throat.
“I’m glad you rang for me. If you’d gone right down to your stateroom, it might be wearing your clothes next voyage.”
Havana failed to restore me. Haiti was a black horror, a repellent quagmire of menacing shadows and alien desolation, and in Martinique I did not get a single hour of undisturbed sleep in my room at the hotel.