William Hope Hodgson‘s first published novel, The Boats of the Glen Carrig (1907), is a story of survival after a disaster at sea, and of the monstrous plant and animal life-forms that the survivors encountered while trying to reach home. In his second book, the now-classic The House on the Borderland (1908), Hodgson described an old recluse’s battle against swine creatures from the bowels of the Earth, and the old man’s subsequent cosmic journey through both time and space. And in his third novel, 1909’s The Ghost Pirates, Hodgson returned to that milieu for which eight hard years at sea had provided such an extensive background.
The book takes the form of a narrative told by able-bodied seaman Jessop, who had been sailing on the Mortzestus from San Francisco to (what we can only presume to be) England. As its name suggests, the ship has something of the spirit of death about her, and is deemed by most sailors to be unlucky. But surely none of her previous transits had ever gone as badly as the one Jessop describes. Ghostly images seen on the deck at night, and some minor accidents involving sails and rigging, only set the stage for more serious occurrences, and Hodgson soon ratchets up the suspense with some mysterious killings and unexplainable phantasms, all leading up to a murderous attack by the eldritch buccaneers of the title. As in his previous two books, Hodgson masterfully creates an atmosphere of creeping unease. With hardly a wasted word (the whole book runs to less than 140 pages; its very first sentence is “He began without any circumlocution”), Hodgson manages to sustain this jittery feeling over the novel’s duration, while also letting us get to know the ship’s crew and her officers. Interestingly, the Second Mate is described very sympathetically by Hodgson — he is one of the coolest-headed, most decent characters on board — despite the fact that Hodgson, when a cabin boy at the age of 14, supposedly suffered terrible treatment from his Second Mate. The Second here, Mr. Tulipson, almost strikes one as the idealized officer that Hodgson wishes he’d served under 18 years before.
As a snapshot of what life was really like for the sailors of around 100 years ago, the book is also exemplary. Hodgson, at one time a Third Mate himself, really knew the life inside and out, and his shipboard descriptions smack of authenticity. It would certainly help a modern-day landlubber, when reading The Ghost Pirates, to have an unabridged dictionary handy to look up all the nautical terms that Hodgson casually dishes out; words such as “futtock shroud,” “washboard,” “bunt gasket,” “jackstay,” “clewline,” “dogwatch,” “taffrail,” “crosstree,” “ratline,” “craneline,” “bollard,” “paunch mat,” “shakings,” “jibboom,” “spanker boom” and “crossjack.” Looking up all these terms will slow the reader down, perhaps, but will also surely repay his or her efforts with a richer, in-depth experience. As a primer of life at sea and as a creepy fantasy of the unexplainable (and I should perhaps mention here that the bizarre happenings in this novel, like those in The House on the Borderland, are barely explained by the author; some events in this mysterious world, it must be inferred, just cannot be rationalized), The Ghost Pirates succeeds marvelously, and is well worth seeking out.