The Ghost Pirates
Stanley Paul: London, 1909
collected in —
The House on the Borderland
The Ghost Pirates is an excellent fantastic suspense novel: literate, detailed, drawn-out, and scary. There is none of the current dumbed-down goop-and-maggots sleaziness. William Hope Hodgson here gives us a finely crafted story of a haunted ship, with slow and painful discoveries while isolated on the ocean. It is a full-rigged sailing ship, and Hodgson provides a wealth of realistic nautical detail. The author has sailed before the mast himself, and knows his sails and spars, and his working sailors.
The title gives away that the haunting seems to be by ghost pirates. But these mystery intruders are not at all easy to see, and certainly not a phenomenon we may easily visualize from these words.
Hodgson's narrator guesses at an explanation which sounds reasonable, the sort of fantasy logic or skewed science fiction which could fit into John W. Campbell's Unknown Worlds magazine style. Hodgson's pirates aren't exactly ghosts, and the ship isn't exactly haunted, and the narrator's rationale — well, you should read that in context. I'm still thinking about it.
This is a well-made novel in the classical sense, with a tight unity of time and place. The suspense builds in small inexorable steps, and is all the more powerful for that.
As I read The Ghost Pirates for the first time recently, I was struck by several occurrences of the phrase the shadow of the ship. An evocative concept, I've long thought. Hodgson was an ex-seaman himself, and he also may have gotten it from the same place I did, Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". Of course, The Ghost Pirates is a sea-faring story, whereas my The Shadow of the Ship is interstellar; or if you will, subspatial. And we sail in different dimensions with the idea, for Coleridge's painted sea supports many painted ships. You may consider Hodgson's usage more realistic than mine, or maybe not.
And then there are the pirates, or whatever they are. Almost the first thing the narrator hears after signing on is that the ship has too many shadows aboard.
© 2006 Robert Wilfred Franson