WHH Short Fiction: “The Mystery of the Missing Ships”

Review: “The Mystery of Missing Ships”, William Hope Hodgson, 1915.

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

The mystery is about the “Bad Business” of modern piracy.

For once Hodgson doesn’t set a nautical tale on a sailing ship but a steam vessel with the Chief Engineer not being Scottish.

The story opens with a drunken man hitting a steam pipe with a shovel and cracking it. While repairs are trying to be made to the Richard Harvey (the story is narrated by the captain), a whaler comes sniffing about.

Whalers, we learn, are the worse sort of pirates. They have a pretext for just hanging around in areas of the sea and have lots of men aboard.

Hodgson is quite good at describing the battles with the pirates, the desperate attempts to fix the pipe with some elements from the cargo and building a homemade cannon. Hodgson is typically inventive with such mechanical details.

This captain is a laudable figure, brave, concerned with his men, and willing to pitch in to help them. Some men of the Richard Harvey are killed in the battle, but the pirates are sent to the bottom.

The story concludes with the captain’s statement that every seagoing ship should be required to have a cannon or two.

In keeping with a sometime Hodgson theme of unpleasantness at sea being hushed up, we hear about how the authorities write off the piracy as “an isolated incident”.

The captain concludes

An’ I guess you’ll learn then as the sea ain’t quite the highly peaceful, well-patrolled, an’ crowded artificial bloomin’ lake as you seem to think it.

This is sort of the mundane version of Hodgson’s weird sea stories. Here, though, the mystery and horror is the result of human action.

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