WHH Non-Fiction: “Through the Vortex of a Cyclone”

Essay: “Through the Vortex of a Cyclone”, William Hope Hodgson, 1909.

Back before William Hope Hodgson took up writing, he tried to make his money at other things after leaving the mercantile navy: running a gym and being a sort of personal trainer and giving photographic lectures.

Hodgson was one of the first people to take a camera to sea (as well as a typewriter) and he got some spectacular shots. Two, of stalk lightning (which ascends to the sky unlike the usual lightning) and the Aurora Borealis, were even purchased by the Meteorological Office of the Air Ministry from Hodgson’s widow.

This is the text of one of those lectures. Jane Frank’s compilation of rare Hodgson material, The Wandering Soul: Glimpses of a Life, Compendium of Rare and Unpublished Works actually has the photos Hodgson used.

Hodgson really did sail on a ship through a cyclone, and this is his account told like a thrilling story. It was published in Hodgson’s 1914 collection Men of the Deep Waters, but the lecture was given first in 1909. If the reproduction of the collection in The Complete Works of William Hope Hodgson is accurate, Hodgson doesn’t seem to have indicated it was a lecture about a real event. It reads like another of his stories.

It’s a powerful and evocative account of being in a hurricane. Interest is added by the Mate’s warning the captain, a warning ignored, that a hurricane is about to descend on the ship. (The Captain trusts to his barometer which shows no movement.)

The Mate says things to the narrator like in eight hours they’ll be at the bottom of the sea. Hodgson tries to photograph their experience.

Hodgson, as in his stories, impresses us with the sonic qualify of the experience, the deafening roar of the wind.

He even talks about trying to photograph stalk lightning:

This photograph, as I discovered when I came to develop the negative, has not, I regret to say, taken regard of a strange, indefinable dull-red glare that lit up the horizon at the same time; but, as it is, it remains to me a treasured record of a form of electrical phenomenon but seldom seen, even by those whose good, or ill, fortune has allowed them to come face to face with a Cyclonic Storm. Before leaving this incident, I would once more impress upon the reader that this strange lightning was not descending from the atmosphere; but rising from the sea.

The story’s final paragraph:

About seven bells that second night, a big steamer crossed our stern, and slowed down to ask us if we were in need of help; for, even by moonlight, it was easy to see our dismantled condition. This offer, however, the Captain refused; and with many good wishes, the big vessel swung off into the moon-wake, and so, presently, we were left alone in the quiet night; safe at last, and rich in a completed experience.

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