WHH Short Fiction: “The Mystery of the Derelict”

Essay: “The Mystery of the Derelict”, William Hope Hodgson, 1907.

In between publishing “From the Tideless Sea” and its sequel “The Fifth Message”, Hodgson had, published another tale set in the Sargasso Sea, “that grim cemetery of the ocean”.

Unlike some Hodgson sea stories, we don’t start out at night or in a mysterious fog. The crew of the Tarawak spot, while they’re becalmed in the Gulf Stream, a “great, shapeless bulk” against the rising sun. It looks “exceedingly old” with an odd, “roof-like superstructure” on its deck. It lies within the weed which covers its side.

The Captain, however, does not take the Mate’s suggestion to take a boat and go the seven miles to investigate the hulk. He expects the wind to come up soon and wants to get under way.

That night the wind does come, and another vessel is sighted astern. The watch, slightly after midnight, notes something odd happening on board the second vessel, a small barque. Lights appear to be moving around on deck, and she seems to be dropping farther back. The First and Second Mates, watching the ship through spyglasses, realize the barque has caught itself in the weed near that old hulk. The flashes of light are shooting. They can even hear the shots.

The Captain is awakened. He discusses with the officers whether they should go investigate. But the Tarawak doesn’t have the men to spare for an armed party to put down a mutiny. The Tarawak is “under-manned as is the modern fashion”. That’s a bit of Hodgson’s dissatisfaction with his life as a sailor showing up as it does in many of his sea stories.

At dawn the next day, a noise is heard from the barque:

very faint, long-drawn-out, screaming, piping noise . . . the cry of a little wind wandering out of the dawn across the sea — a ghostly, piping skirl, so attenuated and elusive was it; but there was in it a weird, almost threatening note

Signal flags are hoisted, but the barque does not respond, so an armed party is sent over to investigate.

It finds the barque snagged in the weed. Its jibboom has pierced the hulk’s superstructure.

There is no one aboard, but they find broken lamps and abandoned guns and capstan-bars.

The crew then goes to the old ship and looks at that odd structure on deck. It’s beautifully built though now rotting and, in its center, is a sort of platform that the First Mate speculates was meant as sort of a lookout.

The men are about to go below decks of the old hulk when they hear a whining noise.

Then a swarm of giant rats appears, “thousands and tens of thousands of them”.

The men retreat back to their boat. But that isn’t safe. The rats, “in black multitudes”, scurry across weed towards the boat.

A desperate battle ensues, but the rats are beaten off, and the men return to the Tarawak. A storm comes up and they are blown far from the Sargasso Sea.

Hodgson doesn’t present this story as an account by a narrator but an oft told story.

The story ends with a speculation on the origin of those rats:

Whether they were true ship’s rats, or a species that is to be found in the weed-haunted plains and islets of the Sargasso Sea, I cannot say. It may be that they are the descendants of rats that lived in ships long centuries lost in the Weed Sea, and which have learned to live among the weed, forming new characteristics, and developing fresh powers and instincts. Yet, I cannot say; for I speak entirely without authority, and do but tell this story as it is told in the fo’cas’le of many an old-time sailing ship — that dark, brine-tainted place where the young men learn somewhat of the mysteries of the all mysterious sea.

Hodgson has wrought an interesting variation on his Sargasso Sea stories and The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”. They, apart from the strange weed men of that novel, feature merely giant versions of marine creatures. Here the Sargasso Sea has wrought a change on a non-marine creature albeit the rat ubiquitous on board ships.

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