As I’m going to be taking a cruise this month, I thought it would be fun to examine some great horror tales set on the open sea. I’ve included classic masterpieces such as “The Upper Berth” and “The Derelict” as well as modern treats like “Hippocampus”.  Incidentally, two of the stories listed below (“Second Night Out” and “A Touch of the Deep”) are actually set on cruise ships. 


  1. “The Story of the Haunted Ship” by Wilhelm Hauff (1886) – After their ship goes down in a storm, a young sailor and his loyal servant are forced to board a derelict ship full of bloody corpses whose captain has been nailed to the main mast with a nail driven through his head. Each night, the dead crew come to life to reenact their final conflict. Trapped aboard this haunted vessel, the two must find a way to make landfall on a ship that always returns to the spot where they first discovered it.
  2. “The Upper Berth” by F. Marion Crawford (1894) – This is a creepy tale about a man crossing the Atlantic aboard a steam ship called Kamchatka. He stays in a cabin where the previous three occupants have cast themselves overboard soon after rooming there. During his stay, he starts to find something unnatural in the room’s upper berth. His description of the of the entity is very evocative with the protagonist describing laying his hand ahold of “something that had the shape of a man’s arm, but was smooth, and wet, and icy cold.” When it sprang against him, he described it as “a clammy, oozy mass, as it seemed to me, heavy and wet, yet endowed with supernatural strength.”
  3. “The Striped Chest” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1897) – A crew boards a derelict ship they come across finding little worth salvaging aboard. They do, however, find the body of a man who appears to have been murdered while trying to open a large striped chest. The chest has a warning on it imploring anyone who finds it to leave it unopened. Trouble follows when they take the chest onto their own ship.
  4. “The Ship That Saw a Ghost” by Frank Norris (1902) – This atmospheric tale tells the account of a sailor engaged in disreputable voyages with like-minded men on a mission to find an obscure island (referred to as B. 300) that lies deep in a rarely sailed section of the ocean which should bring them great fortune. Their ship, named The Glarus, makes the long and lonely voyage. After weeks at sea looking at nothing but water and the sun, many of them begin to feel inexplicable dread like they are being watched. Soon afterwards a rotting derelict ship is spotted in the distance. Despite the crew’s previous longing to see a change in the landscape, the eerie vessel unnerves them, and they do not wish it to pass their bow. Things get worse from that point on. Some believe this story may have inspired the great writer William Hope Hodgson.
  5. “The Derelict” by William Hope Hodgson (1912) – This suspenseful story tells of a sailing vessel that notices another ship in the distance as they emerge from a storm. The ship is obviously old and after repairs are made to their own ship, the captain, the doctor and a few others take a rowboat to investigate it. The ship they find is covered in a thick, white mold with a strange animalistic smell to it. The story unfolds in such dramatic fashion the reader’s attention is solidly engaged. This is another story that shows Hodgson’s incredible imagination.
  6. “Second Night Out” Frank Belknap Long (1933) – On a ship to Havana, a passenger gets sea-sick and sits in a chair on deck that should have been removed. He’s overcome by a terrible smell and horrible visions. In a panic he asks a steward about the chairs. The steward appears dismayed and explains that something pulls out the chairs on the second night of every voyage and sits in them. This is a fantastic weird-horror tale on the open water. Highly recommended!
  7. “The Ocean Ogre” by Dana Carroll (1937) – A ship stranded at sea encounters a lone man in a small boat full of provisions. He claims to be the lone survivor of a sunken ship. The crew brings him aboard; a decision that is later met with regret as he is erratic and spiteful. During the coarse of his time on the ship, the crew begins to discover he is an inhuman, evil creature.
  8. “Dead Men’s Fingers” by Phillip C. Heath (1985) – Set during the 1840’s, this novelette follows a whaling ship having an unproductive voyage until it comes across another ship floating derelict on the ocean. This ship is called The Reaper and it miraculously has a huge quantity of processed whale meat and oils already in its stores, but the only crewmen found onboard have been reduced to bare skeletons. Finding the captain’s log reveals a terrible fate that befell the ship after they encountered a madened whale that was covered in barnacles that are sometimes referred to as Dead Man’s Fingers.
  9. “Hippocampus” by Adam L.G. Nevill (2015) – You, the reader, move through a cargo ship that’s drifting derelict on the ocean following some unknown massacre that has recently taken place there. The carnage of the eviscerated crew members are spilled all upon it, as clues are shown to you which hint at the beasts responsible for it all. 
  10. “A Touch From The Deep” by Darin Hlavaz (2019) – This longer piece follows a bookish, lonely man who meets a mysterious woman on a cruise ship with whom he’s instantly smitten. She travels on them often, and he’s excited when he encounters her again on another on. There’s something strange about her though, and he’s warned by one of the mariners that bad things happen to the men she meets on these voyages. This is an excellent story that features a seldom used creature from Japanese mythology. (You can listen to reading of this story on episode #364 of The Tales To Terrify Podcast for free. – http://talestoterrify.com/tag/a-touch-from-the-deep/ )

Article by Matt Cowan


    1. I didn’t want to include more than one story by any author, otherwise I could have included a bunch by Hodgson. It was hard to narrow down which one to go with, so I ended up zeroing in on my favorite of his sea stories.

      1. Matt, I was surprised and most pleased to see my 35-year-old tale “Dead Men’s Fingers” receive a mention within your short list of favorite seafaring horror fiction! I’m glad you found, and enjoyed it. Now I certainly plan on digging into some of these others as well. Thank you.
        –Phillip C. Heath

      2. Greetings, Phil! I enjoyed your story very much. I found it in an old paperback Year’s Best Horror book which had been sitting on my shelf for awhile and read your story while on vacation. There’s something about terror of the high seas which makes everything extra-chilling. I’d be interested in learning if there was anything in particular which inspired that story for you? Thanks for reaching out here. It’s very cool to hear from you.

  1. Hey Phil Heath, someone who is a very big fan of yours and has tracked down as many of your stories as he can Locate has reached out and would like to contact you about one of your stories they haven’t been able to find. Is there anyway he can communicate with you?

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