THE GHOST PIRATES
William Hope Hodgson
I have always regarded William Hope Hodgson as one of the great masters of occult fiction. It was for this reason that I chose his Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (Volume Five in this series) as the first book of short stories to be included in this Library.
For those readers who missed it, I will again give a few particulars about the author from my previous introduction.
During his lifetime his work was better known in the United States than in this country, but in neither was he widely read. Yet gradually he was discovered by connoisseurs and his books became prized rarities. I was lucky to be put on to him by a bookseller in the twenties; so am the happy possessor of a complete set of his first editions. Alas, they run only to ten items – five novels, three books of short stories and two slim volumes of poetry – for he was killed on the Western Front while serving as in artillery officer in 1918. The poems were about the sea, for which Hope Hodgson clearly had a great love.
The Ghost Pirates as is indicated by the title, also has the sea as its background. Jessop, who tells the story, is an able seaman on one of those big cutters that used to sail round Cape Horn; but he is a man of some education and has passed his Mate’s certificate. That he is a superior type to his shipmates is evidenced by his talks with the other occupants of the fo’cas’le whose manner of speech is a brilliant example of using dialogue to convey character.
When the ship has been for a while at sea, strange things begin to happen. During a night watch Jessop thinks he sees the shadowy form of a man who must have come up out of the sea climbing in over the side of the vessel. Young Tammy, an apprentice, also sees things, and they compare notes. A few days later in a near calm a sail high up on the mainmast suddenly billows out without apparent reason, strikes a seaman in the face and knocks him off the yard.
Rigging begins to go slack unaccountably; and the technical terms used so frequently by Hope Hodgson for the complicated tackle of a sailing ship make it clear that he must have spent a considerable time serving in one himself. That they are correct I happen to know as I spent four years of my youth as a cadet in the old three-decker ship-of-the-line H.M.S. Worcester.
These details, and the speech of the rough seamen, add much to the apparent plausibility of the belief that the ship is in danger of a fate which has overtaken numerous others lost at sea in periods of calm weather, disappearing without trace with all hands.
The Second Mate, a decent fellow, becomes aware that something uncanny is occurring. He, Jessop and Tammy consult together and agree that their fears must be kept from the men in the fo’cas’le. But the hands soon have evidence that supernatural powers are attacking the ship. One sailor is only rescued with great difficulty from ghostly figures high up on a yard-arm; another is killed by a third crashing on to him from aloft. Mutiny is brewing and the crew demand that the Captain shall put them ashore at the nearest port. But the haunted ship is by then almost surrounded by an impenetrable mist. Would she make it or, sailing blind, be dashed to pieces on a rocky coast?
This is a unique story magnificently told.