WHH Short Fiction: “The Derelict”

Review: “The Derelict”, William Hope Hodgson, 1912.

This is justly considered one of Hodgson’s greatest short stories, probably second only to his “The Voice in the Night”. Like that story, it’s a tale of fungal horror.

The story opens up very much like one of those club stories though the narrator actually delivers it in the “smoke-room of the Sand-a-lea running across the North Atlantic”.

The subject of the discussion is the mysteries of the “Life-Force”. The doctor who relates the main story argues it is like electricity or fire – forces that aren’t understood, need specific materials to manifest, and are of the “Outer Forces”. (That latter bit is curiously similar to something you’d hear in one of Hodgson’s Carnacki stories, but this is definitely not like one of those.)

By way of an example of what he means, he tells a story from his days as a ship’s doctor. (The length of time it takes before he starts telling it may annoy modern readers.)

After the Bheotpte was damaged in a storm in the Indian Ocean, repairs were started on the ship. A couple of miles away a “rum-looking” derelict ship is spotted.

Besides the narrator, we have three main characters, all of a type. The Captain is courageous if illiterate. The First Mate has some learning. The Second Mate is cultured and sensitive.

The First Mate thinks, given its lines, that the derelict is probably 300 years old.

While the crew works on repairs, the three officers and the doctor go off to explore the vessel, approaching it through a thick scum on the water. They realize the ship is covered in fungus.

Hodgson does a superb job of evoking the eeriness and horror of a ship that has been consumed by a new life form that has evolved, something created by accident from circumstances and whatever cargo the ship had. Hodgson gives excellent descriptions of its veined color, its texture, the spongy feeling of its skin.

Not every man is going to leave that vessel again, and the water has secrets like the ship.

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