Well, I’m done with The Night Land and all the works it inspired. But I’m not done with Hodgson.
Review: The Ghost Pirates, William Hope Hodgson, 1909.
When you hear the title, you might think this is a story of brutal, spectral pirates coming ashore like John Carpenter’s The Fog or some otherworldly, cutlass-clenched-in-teeth figure out of The Pirates of the Caribbean films. You’d be vaguely right but mostly wrong.
Imagine you’re a seaman on watch. It’s a calm night. The moon is out. The ship is far from shore and other ships. Then you see “the form of a man” stepping on board the ship.
Hodgson was fond of his narrators and here the sailor Jessop relates his story to an unknown party. The novel starts (well, after a sea shanty of Hodgson’s invention) with “He began without any circumlocution”.
We hear how Jessop signed on with the Mortzestus in San Francisco, a ship “right enough so far as grub and treatment went” but with a reputation of being haunted.
Whether the ship actually is haunted and what “haunted” means will be on Jessop’s mind as he relates the strange events onboard the ship. It starts with that figure climbing aboard and will go on to mysterious fights in the rigging, dead men on the deck, and a wondrous and unexpected climax.
Hodgson’s tale is fairly sparse in its escalation of tension and weirdness. He doesn’t spend a lot of time in characterization. At first, it seems that only a few men beside Jessop see anything unusual. But others may know more. Even before he boards the ship, Jessop hears of sails mysteriously loosened at night and that there are “too many shadows” on the ship. Jessop wonders if the Second Mate really does disbelieve his reports of oddities or just doesn’t want to acknowledge them.
Surprisingly, for a man who at the beginning of his literary career who publicly expressed his deep dissatisfaction about his career as a sailor, Hodgson doesn’t portray any of the common seamen or officers as brutish or unlikeable. Some will show great courage.
The unknown editor of the Delphi Classics edition I read says, in an introduction to the novel, that this is the final volume in a “loose trilogy” of cosmic horror that also includes The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” and The House on the Borderland. Hodgson, in his preface to the novel, doesn’t actually use the phrase “cosmic horror”. He does say those three books deal with “certain conceptions that have an elemental kinship”.
The Mortzestus, Jessop speculates, is on the border between our world and another dimension. In that regard, it is the same as the dwelling in The House on the Borderland. And this novel deals with dangers and wonders that cannot really be explained, just conceptualized through fumbling, inexact metaphors. The horror is not conquered or defeated. One must endure it.
And, at novel’s end, the horror must not even be spoken of or acknowledged.
If you don’t mind a welter of nautical terms, you’ll find this short novel provides moments, especially at the end, of wonder. Even with all the jargon of masts and rigging, its prose still feels the most modern of any of Hodgson’s novels.