Bewildering Stories asks...
What Is “Somewhere Beyond the Sea”?
Bill Prindle’s “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” concludes in this issue. It’s a truly Bewildering story in the sense that it raises questions, many of which may have more than one answer. And, from some points of view, the story creates more than one conundrum.
The Challenges in issues 713, 714, 716 and 718 ask some leading questions. The Review Editors have been discussing another that we can ask only now: What is “Somewhere Beyond the Sea”? Is it a time-travel story or a ghost story? Michael’s reflections in part 10 address the question directly and show that the characters themselves are none too sure.
Why is the question important? Even fantasies like time travel and ghost stories must be self-consistent and play by their own rules; otherwise, the readers are left with “anything goes,” which logically negates any story. In “Somewhere Beyond the Sea,” we seem to have a complex overlapping of genres.
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Is the story time travel? It supplies its own precedent. In WW2, Tony Moretti dies three days before his ghost visits Michael’s father on Okinawa and communicates a warning about an attack that will come before dawn. The Clements’ role is rather different.
Some Review Editors have seen similarities between the Clements’ island and Brigadoon, the mythical Scottish village that reappears for one day every hundred years. As in Shangri-La, the inhabitants can’t leave without abruptly attaining the age they would have in the outside world. Michael comes to that realization, or one close to it, in part 10.
In part 6, Michael can read the name on Alvie’s grave marker but not the dates. The clue is clear: the readers may surmise what has happened, but it’s too soon for Michael to come to that realization.
Michael ultimately concludes that he and his father became “unstuck in time.” They spent five days on Hatch Island but returned home the day after their shipwreck. Do Michael and his father time-travel to the island on which the Clements were living more than thirty years earlier? Or do the Clements and their island reappear for five days in 1951?
Given the overlap of the time Michael and his father spend on the island and the time they return home, it seems more likely that they traveled back in time.
Whichever option one chooses, wouldn’t at least one of the characters notice anachronisms, be it only in clothing? Readers will have to accept that there might be few noticeable discrepancies between 1918 and 1951 in such an isolated place.
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Michael and his father conclude that they have lived a ghost story, as well. Film provides many stories of ghost lovers, e.g. the Japanese film Ugetsu, not to mention a host of others. The story provides a few hints:
The Clements and their animals all have names. Michael himself has three names: “Michael,” “Mike” and “Mikey.” Elsewhere, names are used only when there seems to be no other option, and a substitute would seem contrived. Michael’s parents are given no names; their dramatic function as “Mom” or “Dad” suffices.
Michael’s dialogue with the Clements is not quoted very much, except with Bess. The effect is a form of distancing within Michael’s own point of view.
Bess’s fingertips are unaccountably cold in part 3 but warm in part 6. Are the cold fingers a clue or incidental? They can’t be both. And, finally, the Clements’ grave markers indicate that they would be ghosts in Michael’s time, although the mainland library provides evidence that they were quite real in their own time.
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What can we conclude? Michael and his father time-travel back to the Clements’ island before the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. The Clements, Michael and his father are all real. Is then nobody a ghost? There is another possibility.
Speaking as the narrator in later life, Michael sums up his experience:
Unlikely as it seems, I’ve long believed even an eleven-year-old can experience the greatest love of his life with an intensity and purity he’ll never find again.
Some readers will accept Michael’s belief for the sake of argument. Others won’t be able to suspend their own disbelief. A close and instinctive friendship between 12-year old Bess and 11-year old Michael? Yes, that would be conceivable. But the kind of love that Michael speaks of? Some readers will say no; Michael and Bess are still children and are simply too young for that.
The pain of losing Bess diminished but never left me, nor did I want it to. You could say she’s haunted me, but I’ve invited her to.
As Michael says, he is haunted. And his life takes a dark turn:
When I couldn’t answer a question about our reading assignment, the teacher asked if I had read the story.
I said, “No, sir, I didn’t, because I thought it was a damned stupid story.”
Michael can hardly be talking about a story he hasn’t read; rather, he’s talking about his own life. And he’s quite prescient: he spends the rest of his days as a drifter without attachments, wandering the world with the memory of Bess.
Michael and his father only appear to be saved by the Clements. For Michael, at least, the rescue comes at a price. After meeting Bess, Michael’s life is, for all practical purposes, over. He becomes a man without a future. He’s a ghost in his own life, and a ghost has only a past.
What actually happens in the story? Michael is granted a brief vision of an idyll he might have experienced in another place and time. Beyond that, he and his father may as well have perished in the storm.
Copyright © 2017 by Don Webb