“The Dark Mythos of the Sea”

Coincidentally, David Haden over at Tentaclii had a post yesterday about a whole book by Adler on weird fiction including Hodgson. Unfortunately, the publisher is charging a ridiculous price for it.

Review: “The Dark Mythos of the Sea: William Hope Hodgson’s Transformation of Maritime Legends”, Emily Adler, 2014.

Voices from the Borderland
Cover by Daniele Serra

This is a very good critical article on how Hodgson used and often inverted a perspective of the early 20th century that was as infused with the ideas of spiritualism and the belief that the “supernatural” could be explained in terms of yet unknown laws of physics. There were also traditional myths and legends of the sea extant then.

The essay’s only flaw is that, while Adler mentions several books and studies of sea legends, it doesn’t prove Hodgson knew those legends and was consciously or subconsciously using them. I think Adler is on pretty safe ground in assuming Hodgson read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and knew the Flying Dutchman legend, and, of course, it’s entirely possible the sailors he sailed with told him those legends.

Adler says the advantage of the sea as a setting is that a ship is a microcosm of society, fantastic beasts can show up, and there is an uneasy division between chaos and order. (Adler takes all this from Patricia Ann Carlson’s Literature and Folklore of the Sea.)

For Adler, Hodgson’s “sea horror fiction” shows the sea as untamed, without form, with unknown terrors, a liminal place where humans operate beyond the “limits of human experience”.

Hodgson’s “Old Golly” uses the idea of a haunted ship ambiguously. Maybe the captain dies due to natural events or the intervention of a ghost, maybe he doesn’t. The haunting in “The Ghosts of the Glen Doon” is rationally explained. Prejudice and superstition lead to the protagonist’s death in “The Wild Man of the Sea” though nothing supernatural happens.

Hodgson inverts legends in several stories.

The idea of a ghost ship and the idea of ghosts at sea is inverted in some Hodgson stories. The Scottish legend about a dead, murdered bride seen at sea is inverted in “The Riven Night”. The ship in that story sails into a mysterious zone of light where bridges of light are seen in the night. The dead are seen. While the Captain sees his beloved dead wife, a sailor sees the ghost of a woman it is implied he murdered. The Captain jumping overboard to be with his wife plays into legends of the dead inhabiting a land beneath the waves. But the sailor is subject to retribution, not consolation. He jumps overboard and his spirit does not rise. The sailor’s vision is horrifying. To Adler. this is another example of a Hodgson story featuring “otherworldly hostility”. In the story are the spirits really ghosts of humans? Projections of guilt and longing? Or “malicious tools of a demonic intrusion into our world”?

The idea of demonic entities from other worlds shows up as a possibility in “The Habitants of Middle Islet” where what may be the ghost of a dead lover lures a man to his doom. Likewise, in the non-sea story “Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani”, the entity from another dimension is a “Christ-apeing monster of the void”.

In “Out of the Storm”, Hodgson inverts the image of the world beneath the waves as being a place of death. It seems to the narrator, at points, that he is already beneath the sea and looking at “mildewed-looking hulls”, but they are really clouds. Here the storm is almost a demonic force in non-human shape. It’s called an infernal mystery, a “hungry thing”, spreads an “infection of sin” when the passengers fight their own lovers and children for safety. The storm sounds “like Satanic thunder”.

Most of Adler’s essay is dedicated to discussing Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates.

She sees it as using the Flying Dutchman legend and the Nordic legend of the Klabautermann, a spirit – sometimes mischievous – which haunts ships. Sometimes the Klabautermann is thought to be generated when a ship is built of wood. In the novel, that is similar to Jessop theorizing that ships just attract spirits. But Hodgson, again, doesn’t conceive his supernatural entities in traditional ways. Jessop doesn’t agree that the mysterious figures are ghosts. He speculates they are inhuman entities not composed of our sort of flesh and blood. The ghost ship is like those phantom ships of legend that herald disaster. Yet Hodgson’s ghost ship is not a phantom of something that once was. It is from another dimension matching the world beneath the waves.

The very name of the ship the narrator is on, the Mortzestus, suggests an existence between life and death. It exists in a border between our world and the next, a border, at the end of the novel, the Mortzestus frequently crosses. But the ghost pirates don’t seem ghosts of any earthly sort but beings originating from another dimension; however, they are also lethally material.


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