WHH Short Fiction: “Old Golly”

Review: “Old Golly”, William Hope Hodgson, 1919.

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

Another Hodgson story with a brutal sea captain and the fatal revenge taken on him. Well, maybe. We’ll come back to that at the end of the story.

In this case, the drunken Captain killed Old Golly, a seaman. Specifically, he hit Old Golly’s head with an iron belaying pin just before entering the harbor.

As the crew notes at the beginning of the story, the Captain would have hung for that “if it had been a British port”, but, evidently, “one nigger more or less didn’t matter that much”.

On the next voyage out, Golly seems to haunt the ship. A sailor in the rigging gets hit by something in the dark. That was after he thought he heard someone talking up in the sails

Another sailor says he heard someone talking in the rigging the night before that.

The conversation turns back to Old Golly. The sailors say they always treated him “fair and square in the fo’cas’le”. If Golly’s ghost wants revenge, he should be after the Captain.

However, another sailor also notes they treated Old Golly well “’cause we had to”. Golly could beat any one of them up so that tended to result in civility towards him.

Three nights later, on the midnight watch, a sailor climbs up in the rigging, yells, and immediately comes down.

The Second Mate demands to know what’s wrong and is told Old Golly is “in the top”. The Second Mate tells the sailor he’s dead if he doesn’t climb back up.

“And the lad – truly between the devil and the deep blue sea” does it with all the men on watch looking at him. In the darkness, the sailor shouts “Don’t touch me, Golly! I never did nothin’ to you!” and then he falls to the sea. Boats are dispatched to look for him, but he’s not found.

By this time, everyone’s awake, and the Captain orders the ship and rigging searched. Nothing is found.

In the next couple of weeks, the Mates arrange it so nobody has to go in the rigging at night.

However, one night the Captain comes up to take the wheel and demands to know why a sail is fastened. He wants it loose now. The Second Mate says, after what happened, it didn’t seem prudent to send men aloft at night.

Of course, the Captain is having none of that. After several kicks, the Second Mate induces two men into the rigging. But one, after letting out a shout, falls from the rigging, his fall partially broken by some ratlines.

The man says he saw a “great black shape” in the rigging.

The Captain angrily declares there are no ghosts on the ship.

Some more time passes. The Mates make sure they go up in the rigging at night with the men. But reports of strange sounds in the rigging continue.

One night, the Captain is on deck and some sails need to be fastened in a stiffening wind. And the Captain is not going to let Mates accompany the men. Able seamen are the ones paid to go in the rigging.

The Captain terrorizes four sailors into the rigging, but they hesitate,

there might be something even worse than the Skipper to face, up above in the darkness.

Enraged, the Captain goes after them. A couple try to descend to deck and struggle with the Captain. The rest hear something say “Golly! Golly!”.

The Captain spins around – and loses his grip and falls to the deck. He’s dead.

A couple of nights later, the First Mate comes up with “a partial explanation”. The heel of the main top-mast is rotten. It inadequately covers the hollow steel mast, and the sound of “Golly! Golly!” is heard.

It’s explained that the ship’s scoop-pump never worked right. (A scoop-pump seems to be a device powered by an engine to move water from one level to the other. In ships, that seems to be from the bilge to outside the ship.) An improper seal produced a noise sounding like “Golly!” on dark nights.

But the story ends on a note of ambiguity. Not all is explained rationally. The sailors think that Old Golly finally got revenge.




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