I was eager to read more Jean Ray, Belgium’s famous writer of weird fiction, and I wasn’t disappointed. This story bears a strong resemblance to William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates. Whether that’s accidental or not, I’ll talk about later.
Our story begins with the improbably long and concise statement of a dying man who has been fished out of the sea by the vessel North Cape. Ray at least makes an attempt to rationalize this convention by stating that the man, Ballister, spoke concisely, but also that his account was rendered into a “rather special style” by the ship’s radio man, Reines, who has literary pursuits.
Ballister opens his account at the Mercy Heart Tavern where he and a man are discussing the specifications of a ship, something like a yacht, the man is procuring for a voyage. The ship is the Hen-Parrot, but the man want to rename it the Mainz Psalter for the trip. Its new owner, perhaps a bit tipsy, explains where the name came from. A year ago his grand-uncle died and left him a bunch of books. One was an incunabulum, the very rare Mainz Psalter published in the 15th century by business partners of Gutenburg. He was able to sell the book and pay the six men he’s hiring for the cruise he wants to take.
It will start from Glasgow and go through the waters of the North Minch to Cape Wrath – hellish waters notes Ballister. That’s why he’s being hired, because he knows those waters. South of Cape Wrath, in Big Toe Bay, not on the map, the man will meet up with the ship. From there, they will be going west. Not many ships where he wants to go, says Ballister.
It’s 1070 in England, and the Harrying of the North is still underway by William the Conqueror four years after he took England. He called it suppressing rebellion. Some modern historians call it genocide. “Twilight in the Orm-Garth” starts with Eric, a destitute man, making his way to Wilbury Castle. It’s the home of the Dagoberts, a family that came over with William, and on a strategic and anciently fortified site on the eastern shore of England.
It turns out Eric isn’t a nobody. Or, at least, he wasn’t always. He’s the third son of Count Dagobert. The reunion is not a joyous affair, and his father and older brothers Rolf and Anselm want to know why he is no longer the knight he was when he left the castle to join Hugh the Red, William’s chief lieutenant in the Harrying.
Normans, of course, followed the law of primogeniture. The oldest brother, here Rolf, will inherit everything when the count dies. The other brothers must make their own way in the world. Anselm became a bishop. And Eric, once betrothed to Ella, a woman of noble Saxon birth whom he loved, is in no position to marry.
Wood states, right up front, who influenced this novel beside William Hope Hodgson and his The Night Land: “John C. Wright, Gene Wolfe, Alfred Bester, A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Jack Vance, J.G. Ballard, Larry Niven, Frank Herbert, Cordwainer Smith, Arthur C. Clarke, Roger Zelazny, H.G. Wells, Herman Melville, Tom Wolfe, and the SCP Foundation”.
Part of the fun of this novel is spotting all those influences which I think I did except for Herbert and van Vogt and the SCP Foundation whose work I am entirely unfamiliar with.
There are a few similarities in plot between Hodgson’s novel and this one. Both thrust a man into the distant future. Hodgson’s X is psychically projected into the future. The hero here is Reynard Douglas. Like his model, the real-life Junior Johnson, Douglas is a former moonshine runner turned race car driver who ran afoul of the law.
The book is something of an alternate history starting out in roughly 1984 when no less than the President shows up in person with a job offer for Douglas. They want a man to drive a vehicle into the Zone, an mysterious area that appeared years ago in the American Southwest and is expanding. (Wood credits Jon Mollison’s Barbarian Emperor as inspiration for the Zone.)
There’s a lot of Lovecraftian fiction here, mostly using the Cthulhu Mythos paraphernalia of gods, places, and blasphemous books. Not all of it falls in that category though.
Sweetening the deal for your purchase of this book, even if you’ve encountered Gafford’s fiction before, several stories are original to this collection.
One is “The Adventure of the Prometheus Calculation”. As you would expect from the title, it involves Sherlock Holmes. Well, a Sherlock Holmes with a Babbage Engine for a brain and the world’s only “living, functional robot”. It proceeds roughly along the lines of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes tale “The Final Problem”, but Mycroft Holmes and Professor Moriarty have different roles. There are also elements of Frankenstein in the story. Ultimately, though, it’s nothing special as either a Holmes story or steampunk.
In Ninety Percent of Everything, Rose George talks briefly about the surprising status of sailors in history. And I mean a very basic status. Are they alive or dead?
The Scythian philosopher Anacharsis was once asked whether there were more people alive or dead. He couldn’t answer, said Anacharsis, because he didn’t know where to place seamen. ‘Seamen,’ concluded the seventeenth-century clergyman John Flavel, who quotes this remark, ‘are, as it were, a third sort of persons, to be numbered neither with the living nor the dead; their lives hanging continually in suspense before them.’
Did Hodgson come across this notion? Are his Ghost Pirates a metaphor for this status of a man at sea? They inhabit another dimension and seem to partake of some element of humanity. They move. They seem to think. They don’t seem to speak. Like the sailor at sea, they are cut off from humanity.
But they aren’t ghosts in the usual sense. They have a lethal physicality.
The inaugural volume for what would become a six-part series is strong but not flawless.
Have I ever read a Nicholas Royle story I liked? No, and I didn’t much care for his “Rotterdam”, either. He’s obviously paying homage to H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Hound” in plot and story setting, but it’s really just a crime story with the Lovecraft connection being Joe, the screenwriter protagonist, in Amsterdam to scout out locations for a possible adaption of Lovecraft’s story. He’s hoping to ingratiate himself with the producer so his own script will be used on the project. What he really wants to do, though, is to get the job to write the screenplay of his own published crime novel, Amsterdam. The world of film production is interesting as are Joe’s less than successful interactions with its more successful members. We get some echoes between Joe and Lovecraft with Amsterdam being sort of autobiographical in the way Lovecraft’s essays are. And, after a bout of drinking, Joe wakes up to a body in his room. No supernatural horror here.
Nor was I impressed by Michael Cisco’s “Violence, Child of Trust”. There’s no cosmic horror here in a story that has a rural cult that captures and sacrifices (after the occasional rape) women to some god. I will grant the ending did surprise me.
During his life, writer and Hodgson scholar Sam Gafford, only produced one story that I know of that directly incorporates Hodgson’s writing.
First published in Weird Fiction Review No. 5, it’s a homage to Hodgson as well as a weird story in its own right and not just to The Night Land, as you expect from the title, but some of his other works as well.
Right from the first paragraph, we get a blend of observations from Gafford’s scholarship, Hodgson’s fiction, a mix of fiction and biography.
The story is set in the last three days of Hodgson’s life and opens on April 16, 1918 on the Western Front. It a tale Hodgson tells us himself.
I told you I wasn’t done with William Hope Hodgson, so this one got pushed to the front of the review queue.
Review: “William Hope Hodgson”, Sam Moskowitz, 1973.
So did I learn anything new about Hodgson from reading Moskowitz’s 108 page critical biography of Hodgson? (The book is small, the print is large, so it didn’t take that long.)
Do I accept Moskowitz version of events? Mostly. We know, from Jane Frank, that Moskowitz had an archive of Hodgson material, and it appears that he talked to some of Hodgson’s family, two of his brothers.
But there is Moskowitz’s sloppiness. There are at least two occasions when a date has an obviously wrong year — obvious even if you never heard of Hodgson before reading the essay. (Of course, these could have been the fault of Donald M. Grant, Publisher.)
And I’d like to know all the places where Moskowitz got his material. There’s not a footnote in the whole essay; however, it’s unfair for me to expect one in an introduction to a collection f Hodgson fiction.
I told you I wasn’t done with William Hope Hodgson.
With this post, I think I can claim to have blogged more about William Hope Hodgson than anybody else in the English-speaking world. Whether any of it was useful you will have to judge. But, as Joe the Georgian said, “Quantity has a quality all its own”.
Since I spent about $50 for this book, something I rarely do unless it’s a reference work, I guess I can now be considered a hardcore Hodgson fan. Considering that was the list price for this book when it was published by Tartarus Press and I got it new, I got a good deal – and there must not be that many hardcore Hodgson fans.
So, what did I get for my money?
131 of the book’s 365 pages is Hodgson fiction, specifically for a collection entitled Coasts of Adventure which was never published in his lifetime. In 2005, that might have been significant (frankly, I didn’t do my blogger diligence and check how many were anthologized before showing up here). But, now, you can get every one of these stories in Night Shade Books’s five volume The Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson.
This is another winning collection of Carnacki stories from Meikle.
Carnacki doesn’t always save those who seek his assistance, and “The Photographer’s Friend” is one such case. The case begins with strange apparitions showing up in the photographer’s pictures.
“Fins in the Fog” is another team up between Carnacki and Captain Gault. Carnacki finds the Captain an amiable pirate. This one has Gault showing up at Carnacki’s house with spectral sharks pursuing him.
In “The Cheyne Walk Infestation”, Carnacki doesn’t have to go anywhere to investigate odd happenings. His own apartment is threatened by giant, vicious millipedes. Told via Carnacki’s journal this story is related to the earlier “The Shoreditch Worm”.
Investigating the murder of an old friend, Carnacki meets a Scotland Yard inspector who is resourceful and nonplussed at dealing with the sort of entities Carnacki encounters. It all starts with “An Unexpected Delivery”. Continue reading →