Monday, August 26, 2013

Beware of Red Hair

“Now I want you to realize that what I am telling you is a plain and simple tale of fact.”  And this is exactly how the story of The Stone Ship (1916) is told.  It can be found in a collection of Hodgson’s tales recently published by Night Shade Books, called The Ghost Pirates and Others:  the Best of William Hope Hodgson, (2012).

One of the charms of reading William Hope Hodgson’s sea stories is his down to earth—well, down to sea—realism.  Crewmembers aboard merchant marine sailing ships gripe about their superior officers, the apprentice sailors forget to fill the lanterns with enough fuel, equipment gets dropped accidentally overboard, and so forth.  As in Hodgson’s The Mystery of the Derelict (1907), the reader can picture old sailors later sitting around reminiscing about the events in this tale.  “Remember that time when there was an earthquake and the sea bottom was raised up, and we found that awful smelling wreck and…”  Though the incidents of the story almost certainly include some exaggerations and embellishments, there is enough realistic detail to give the story some plausibility.

The men of the Alfred Jessop initially become aware of the presence of ‘the Stone Ship’ by sound and smell.  The night is very dark and misty, yet strangely quiet and windless.  As they approach, there is the mysterious noise of running water despite calm seas, and an atrocious “charnel-like stench.”  A search party rows out to the source to investigate.  This of course has to be done in the middle of the night, with barely a lantern or two to illuminate their way.

Hodgson is very stingy with the details, parceling them out in jots and tittles to build curiosity and suspense.  He inventories the senses and provides stimuli that are barely glimpsed, barely heard, barely felt.  He also progressively and effectively raises the Primal Yuck Factor or P.Y.F. from a

2.5—foul charnel house smell, sound of running water, to
3.5—swarms of giant eels nipping at oars, on up to a
5.7—wading hip deep in scummy water through the bowels of a derelict ship at night. 

(These figures are estimates only.) 

As the details pile up, so do the reader’s questions:

Where are all those mysterious lights and noises coming from?
What is that shape slumped over the table in the cabin?
Did Duprey, the narrator of the story, steal something valuable from the broken chest?
Why is the crew mucking about in a waterlogged shipwreck in the dead of night?

Did I mention the monster with red hair?

This is basically a haunted house story, or perhaps, haunted houseboat story.  The effect is very similar to an episode of the reality show Ghost Hunters, where investigators with their various instrumental paraphernalia capture barely detectible but suggestive evidence of…”Jesus, what was that?” 

The suspense is precisely balanced with our curiosity about what is out there in the dark.  This static charge builds up until suddenly it sparks upward as a startled gasp or scream.  This dynamic is what makes stories like The Stone Ship entertaining.  The tale is marred somewhat by an explanatory epilogue, but at the end of it, readers will want answers to all their questions.

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