Around this time last year I read a wonderful collection of stories published by Night Shade Books, The Ghost Pirates and Others: The Best of William Hope Hodgson (2012). Hodgson was a prolific writer, known for his “Sargasso Sea” stories, as well as the fictional psychic detective Cornacki, forerunner of Kolchak, Mulder, Scully, and Ghost Hunters. He wrote over 80 short stories, 24 poems, 4 novels and 8 essays, (“Is the Mercantile Navy Worth Joining”). Many of his stories, though not all, take place aboard ocean vessels, reflecting his early career as a merchant sailor.
I was recently pleased to find an unfamiliar story by Hodgson—unfamiliar to me at least—in a collection of gothic fiction produced in the late 1970s. The Habitants of Middle Islet was originally published by Arkham House in an anthology edited by August Derleth called Dark Mind, Dark Heart, (1962). Arkham House subsequently produced a collection of Hodgson’s stories called Deep Waters. This was long after Hodgson’s death in 1918.
The Habitants of Middle Islet is a story involving a derelict ship, a specialty of Hodgson’s. Other examples include The Mystery of the Derelict (1907) and The Stone Ship (1916). The discovery of a derelict, whether it is a vessel that travels the sea or outer space or even the open road, is often used to begin a tale of horror or science fiction. In some respects, the abandoned vehicle is a metaphor for a person, and what remains of him or her. Who was this? What happened to them? But even on a literal level, finding an empty sea vessel or space ship, drifting and quiet, far from port, is very disturbing. Where are all the people that should be there? Was a distress signal sent? Did anyone receive it?
Yet The Habitants of Middle Islet is qualitatively different from the other two stories. Events in the other two tales are realistically detailed, and the eventual explanation of the crew’s fate involves some kind of cryptozoology—a heretofore unknown but plausible creature is responsible. But the entity responsible for the disappearance of everyone on board the Happy Return is not so easily explained. The story is effective in creating a sense of mystery and growing anxiety through attention to odd details. (No ship should ever be named the Happy Return, unless the owner wants to court a disastrous and ironic fate.)
The narrator and two other men return to an island somewhere in the south Atlantic, where a missing pleasure boat has been discovered by an old sea man named Williams. He leads the narrator and his friend Trenhorn back to the location, “in a queer cove on the south side of Middle Islet.” The boat sits in quiet waters encircled by high cliffs—Hodgson describes the vessel as lying “at the bottom of the great pit…” There is no one on board. The ship is strangely very tidy and clean, its rooms and deck immaculate.
Attention shifts to the narrator’s friend Trenhorn, whose sweetheart had been on board the ship. He may be losing his mind over the intense grief and unrealistic expectations he has about finding his love. She has been missing now for six months. Disturbing little details on board the Happy Return—a calendar that is kept current even though no one is on board—traumatize Trenhorn and intensify his obsession to find the young woman.
There is an especially effective scene where Trenhorn and the narrator peer down from the cliffs above the boat. There is something in the water near the boat, but it is too far away to be certain what it is. A similar device is used in The Mystery of the Derelict, when the crew in the narrator’s boat can see and hear something happening on the other boat—awful, it turns out—but are too far away to determine what it is. Distance from the phenomena is used skillfully by the author to amplify its power to disturb.
The Habitants of Middle Islet superficially resembles a ghost story. There is considerable attention to disquieting details in the setting, and ambivalence over whether the weirdness actually exists outside Trenhorn’s mind. But his fate is not at the hands of some cryptozoological specimen nor, strictly speaking, a ghost. It is something in-between, perhaps even mythological: an awful embodiment of terrible grief and longing.
Readers of Hodgson’s The Habitants of Middle Islet may be reminded of Clark Ashton Smith’s A Night in Malnéant . The latter has nothing to do with the sea or derelict ships, but shares with Hodgson’s story the theme of unresolved grief and obsession with the death of a loved one. In both stories, grief and regret appear to take on a life of their own.
Though the story was published posthumously, it would be helpful to know when Hodgson actually wrote The Habitants of Middle Islet, so that it can be placed in context with other similar work that he did. Is it one of his later stories? Do the ethereal and unexplained phenomena on board the Happy Return suggest a shift away from the realism of his other stories towards the supernatural?
An excellent blog about this author may be found at http://williamhopehodgson.wordpress.com/.