WHH Short Fiction: “The Regeneration of Captain Bully Keller”

Review: “The Regeneration of Captain Bully Keller”, William Hope Hodgson, 1914.

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

One of Hodgson’s stories about a brutal ship’s officer, here Captain Bully Keller, a “hard-case skipper”.

The story opens with him abusing Nibby Tompkins, a ship’s boy of 14 or 15. On reaching San Francisco, Keller bribes a doctor to list Tompkins’s injuries as rheumatism though Tompkins has vowed there will be trouble when his father finds out about his mistreatment.

Keller loves to fight and provokes men into fighting him onboard ship. He’s more than happy when crew members flee him in terror when close to shore. He doesn’t have to pay them then.

The story becomes more interesting and humorous in the second part when Nibby meets his father and mother. They have been searching for the Alceste since Nibby is serving on it.

Nibby ran from home, and his mother admonishes his father not to be too hard on him. As for Joseph, the father, he just says Nibby has made his bed and will have to lie in it. Nibby has written them about his abuse at the hands (and feet) of Keller, but Joseph won’t stand for his son breaking a contract.

When Nibby meets his parents, he shows them his wounds from Keller. We then learn that Joseph is a former prize-fighter of over 60 fights.

Nibby takes them on a tour of the Alceste, and a plan is hatched by Joseph. He and his wife will sail to Boston on the ship. Nibby is rather hopeful this will lead to his dad beating up Keller, but Joseph swears Nibby to secrecy. The couple has prayed about this and thinks Keller may be “a brand as we can pluck from burning’”. The Tompkins are rather missionary-like in their zeal to bring people to the Lord.

Keller agrees to take the Tompkins as passengers not knowing their relation to Nibby. He’s so desperate for their fare (he likes money as much as fighting), he pretends to be respectful of Christians and turn religious.

Keller finds himself praying with the Tompkins, religious talks on the “ways and wiles of Satan”. But it’s a hard act to keep up — “The Captain’s boiler-pressure was rising daily.”

Keller beats a sailor at the wheel for straying off course, beats him bad enough he needs to recover for a week. When Joseph tells Keller’s he’s “backsliding”, Keller loses his temper. He tells Tompkins to stay in his part of the ship or get beaten. Joseph meekly goes but his wife, though she has been pleased with his peaceful ways and giving up fighting, tells him to fight Keller. She’s “fair woun’ up!” (Hodgson realistically has women on occasion urging men to combat to protect them or punish arrogance.)

Things come to a head when Nibby, being beaten by the first mate, calls for his dad. Joseph quickly knocks the mate out and fights with Keller. Hodgson, who had an interest in pugilism, describes the fight well in a long scene.

Keller gets knocked out when Joseph “shed all his remaining Christianity”.

The story concludes with “Today there is no such person as Captain Bully Keller.” His crews lose their fear of him; he’s no longer arrogant. He even pays his crews in cash.

It’s hard not to see Nibby, the abused apprentice, as a stand-in for Hodgson, and that Joseph, with his pious pugilism, as the father that Hodgson wishes he would have had.

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