Sunday, July 7, 2013

Hodgson Sets Sail Again

Not long ago, Night Shade Books published an anthology called The Ghost Pirates and Others: The Best of William Hope Hodgson.  The collection features Hodgson’s short novel The Ghost Pirates, and eleven short stories.  The author is probably best known for his book, The House on the Borderland, a weird blend of horror, fantasy and science fiction. 

In his famous essay on supernatural horror in fiction, Lovecraft criticizes Hodgson for “uneven stylistic quality” and worse, “a tendency toward conventionally sentimental conceptions of the universe, and of man’s relation to it and to his fellows…”  However, he praises the British author for his masterful use of “casual hints and insignificant details” to create a sense of the proximity of malevolent, unnatural beings and phenomena.

The Ghost Pirates is effective in creating a mood of eeriness and impending doom aboard the ship Mortzestus.  Readers unfamiliar with nautical jargon or ship directions may want to have at hand a dictionary of merchant sailing ship terminology.  What are we landlubbers to make of lines like this one:  “…the Second Mate gave the order: ‘Mizzen t’gallant clewlines and buntlines,’ and led the way up to the poop.  He went and stood by the haulyards, ready to lower away.” 

But this verbiage is not too cumbersome; there are enough comprehensible details to generate real suspense and uneasiness.  The pace is leisurely at first, but there is rough sailing ahead as crew members succumb to bizarre accidents, spectral visitors and time/space disorientation on a ship with “too many shadows.”

There has to be a horror template or archetype somewhere for stories about traveling on claustrophobic vessels across oceans or even outer space.  These settings seem to exponentially magnify the possibilities for terror.  This is probably because of their relative isolation from those who might rescue the crew, and the awful inability of heroes and heroines to simply run away.

Though I have not read many of Hodgson’s short stories, the few I have do not seem to contain the same quality or power as the novels.  In particular, those that feature his character Carnacki, the occult detective, are often a difficult, tiresome read.  This is due largely to all the didactic supernatural mumbo-jumbo the author has his character expound on towards the end of a story.  Hodgson is on less shakier ground when he is at sea.

His knowledge of nautical details and the life of a sailor is a result of years of service aboard merchant sailing ships.  This experience is reflected in novels and numerous stories that take place on boats of various kinds.  According to the introductory note to the anthology, Hodgson’s observation of the brutal and unjust treatment of sailors in the merchant marine industry led him to become an advocate for better and safer working conditions.  He was also a part of the “physical culture” movement of the late nineteenth century, became an early body builder, and opened his own gym.  His writing career included poetry, essays, short fiction, novels, and war correspondence.  He was killed in an artillery attack in 1918.

Though often considered a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, Hodgson was a decade older, and had died in the Great War just as Lovecraft was beginning to publish his earliest stories.  The two men occupy distinctively different times in history.  But there are interesting similarities between them which might be explored in a future post.

Night Shade Books has been a renowned publisher of science fiction, fantasy and horror for many years. Recently teh company has experienced financial difficulty and nearly faced bankruptcy.  As of last month, a sales deal was reached with two partners, and so the company will continue to produce genre fiction from contemporary and past authors.  Some classic writers of weird fiction are in their book list:  Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, and Manly Wade Wellman, among others.  (      

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