Essay: “The Stone Ship”, William Hope Hodgson, 1914.
This, behind his “The Voice in the Night”, is probably Hodgson’s most famous weird nautical short story.
Essentially, it’s a sea gothic with a haunted ship full of strange and monstrous beings.
It begins a thousand miles off the west coast of Africa, in the tropics, on a clear, quite night in 1879.
As is often the case in Hodgson’s weird tales, the oddity makes itself known first through sound.
It’s the eight to midnight watch and the incongruous sound of running water is heard by the narrator. The men on the watch listen. Then, after a minute, they hear “a stupendous sort of croak, deep and somehow abominable”. A mist comes up. A stink is smelled. The sound of running water continues.
Then the sound of shooting is heard. The Mate sees a ship in the darkness.
The Captain and the Third Mate and the narrator and other men form a boarding party.
Some of the men rowing the boat feel something grabbing the oars of their boat as they row towards the mystery.
The Captain orders them back to the ship. He asks for volunteers to continue what he suspects will be dangerous work. There will be extra rum for volunteers. Axes and lamps and a cutlass are also added to the boarding party.
Again, something messes with the oars and even breaks one. The Captain looks into the water with a lamp. It is swarming with huge eels. And, in the mist, the sound of running water is getting closer. A mast is seen rising from the fog, a strange looking mast. A vast, grunting sound is heard again, and the smell is stronger.
At last, roaring through the misty night, they see all the ship, very high and short with a “queer mass at one end”. There is water streaming down the side of the ship.
The oddest thing, though, is that the ship seems made of stone.
After that nice buildup of mystery and suspense, the crew explore the ship. They will find the bodies of giants whose red hair seems alive and swaying. They will hear the tread of giant footsteps can be heard. And the Captain will die, and the narrator will find treasure.
In his Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950, Brian Stableford includes Hodgson among the writers of scientific romance. His work in that vein often combines mystery and horror. This story definitely fits in that category.
I called it a sea gothic because, traditionally, gothics rationalized all their mysteries, and a structure is at the heart of the story, and that’s the case here. Hodgson gives us a spooky ship and rationalizes its wonders with appeals to geology and chemistry.
The stone ship is a petrified ship, long on the seabed before an underwater earthquake thrust the sea bottom up and created shoals. The running water is from the holes in the stone ship’s hull. The stone giants are petrified men, and their “hair” is sea-caterpillars. The sounds of shots were the exploding bodies of benthic sea creatures depressurized at the surface. Those footsteps were the mineral encrusted ship cannons moving on a shifting deck. It is a giant sea centipede that kills the Captain. All this is revealed in the day after the stone ship is boarded.
The sea is the great repository of mysteries and potential for Hodgson, but he doesn’t have to evoke other dimensions here like he does in The Ghost Pirates. Nature, as it does in his Sargasso Sea stories, provides the mystery here. The sea, says the narrator, is “the home of all mysteries”.
Treasure hunting and personal enrichment are a theme running throughout the stories in Hodgson’s collection The Luck of the Strong where this story was reprinted. The narrator seems to be something of a ne’er-do-well because he pockets some jewels found on the ship and seems to know a lot about jewels. Whether he’s a former rich man or a former thief, we don’t learn. He does respect the Captain. Hodgson usually doesn’t combine his two favorite motifs for sea stories: brutal officers and weird mysteries. Here the narrator, who is close to the Captain on the ship, comments that he can tell the Captain is scared, and he admires his coolness and bravery. In that respect, he’s like Carnacki who is always telling us how scared he is confronting the unknown.