WHH Short Fiction: “On the Bridge”

While I’m done with William Hope Hodgson’s novels, I’m not done with his short fiction. I’m going to review all of it.

I’m going to do it somewhat differently than usual. I’ll be reviewing one story each post instead of an entire collection. There’s a couple of reasons for that. People seem to like the posts on a single short story. The second is that many of the Hodgson’s collections I own have a lot of stories in them. Reviews of them would be long.

That brings up the question of which Hodgson collection you should buy if you want to read a particular story. There are a lot of them out there.

If cost is no object, buy the five volume The Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson from Night Shade Books. You can get it in either e-books or trade paperbacks or, if you want to spend lots of money, the now out of print hardcover editions. (I foolishly did not buy them when they came out. I was collecting Night Shade’s series of Clark Ashton Smith.) That series has all of Hodgson’s novels, abridgements done for copyright purposes, and all his short fiction including some that was first printed in the 1970s through 1990s. That latter is important because those works are not in the public domain and not in cheap e-book editions. The Night Shade series also provides information on where and when a work was first published.

Delphi Classics’s The Complete Works of William Hope Hodgson has some biographical material and some of Hodgson’s poems. It also has all his novels and most of his short stories except the ones not in public domain. It’s the best value for your money as far as Hodgson collections go. It does have at least one mistake in categorizing a Hodgson work as non-fiction when it isn’t.

Another good value is Wildside Press’s The William Hope Hodgson Megapack. You get most of Hodgson’s short stories in the public domain (no Captain Gault stories though) and all of Hodgson’s novels except The Night Land. You also get commentary on Hodgson by H. P. Lovecraft and Darrell Schweitzer. Also included is Hodgson’s most famous poem (and the best of his I’ve read): “Grey Seas Are Dreaming of My Death”.

What I’ll do with each review of a story, is put up the covers for the collections it’s available

Review: “On the Bridge”, William Hope Hodgson, 1912.

This is an interesting work. It’s a hybrid of story and an imaginative essay.

It starts out with a note and a dedication:

(The 8 to 1 watch, and ice was in sight at nightfall)

IN MEMORY OF

April 14, 1912.

LAT. 41 deg. 16 min. N.

LONG. 50 deg. 14 min. W.

Many readers will recognize that as the date the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg. And, yes, it was at those co-ordinates at 11:40 PM.

So, the reader expects this is going to be a Titanic story. (Incidentally, those were the co-ordinates the Titanic gave in its distress signal. They are about 13 miles west of the site of the wreck, but, of course, Hodgson wouldn’t have known that.)

It’s told in the second person and is about an officer on the bridge watching for ice and the strain he feels knowing that failing to sight an iceberg puts a great many lives and a great amount of property at risk.

It’s then you realize you are not reading a story set on the Titanic or an alternate history about the ship. You are reading about a ship that, through watchfulness, avoided the berg. The story opens at 9 PM, so the implication this is the same iceberg the Titanic hit at a different point in time and space.

Hodgson does a good job making you feel like that officer. You curse as the porter opens the door and blinds him with light and order the door shut and return to “the dreadful strain of watching”.

You are, perhaps, only a young man of twenty-six or twenty-eight, and you are in sole charge of that great bulk of life and wealth.

You watch for

some hidden island of ice in the night . . . some half-submerged, inert Insensate Monster-of-Ice.

In the “ten thousand other bursts of sea-light” on the waves, you see one “particular burst of phosphorescence”.

And “there is that infernal ice-smell again, and the chill that I have called the Chill-of-Death”.

You order the ship hard to starboard (The Titanic went hard to port).

The monster bows swing to port, against the might background of the night…. The seconds are the beats of eternity . . . ‘Thank God!’ For she has swung clear.

Next day a thousand passengers play their games and read their books, and talk their talks and make their usual sweepstakes, and never even notice that one of the officers is a little weary-looking. . . .

And a certain man has no deaths to the name of his father’s son. . . .

You have trusted him unthinkingly with your lives; and not once in ten thousand times has he ever failed you.

And that’s Hodgson point: there are thousands of times when competent and diligent men on watch prevent an accident and the ship gets through.

Hodgson ends the story with a rhetorical question of the sort he uses a lot in his stories: “Do you understand now?”

Hodgson was, of course, writing about the days of great ocean liners, but his point remains the same in our day of air travel.

When it first appeared, the Titanic disaster was very fresh in the public’s mind. The story appeared less than a week after the sinking in the April 20, 1912 issue of Saturday Westminster Gazette No. 5899 as “The Real Thing: On the Bridge”.

It seems very probable that, in addition to being able to sell quickly a piece drawn on his naval experience and reputation, Hodgson meant this as a heartfelt piece reminding the public that disaster, in ocean travel, was made an exception by the work of many anonymous but diligent and competent men.

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More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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