One of his few stories to have attracted critical attention outside of the horror world, “The ‘Shamraken’ Homeward-Bounder” takes a place alongside the works of S. T. Coleridge and Edgar Allan Poe which feature preternaturally aged sailors navigating an ancient boat across a hostile sea with decades between them and their last contact to humanity. The original story – the one that inspired all three writers – was that of the Flying Dutchman. The legend says that an arrogant and greedy Dutch captain was renowned for the supernatural speed with which he sailed from Europe, around the stormy Cape of Good Hope, to Asia. It was suspected that he had made a deal with the devil. On his final journey he was caught in a squall off the Cape and began cursing his men’s cowardice, urging them to put on more sail.
There are many versions of what happened next – some say he cursed God, some say he killed a mutineer, others that he sold his soul to Lucifer for more speed of sailing – but the ending is always the same: the ship survived the storm, as did the crew, but they were spirited away to another dimension of sorts, forced to sail the oceans at breakneck speeds until Doomsday, and bringing bad luck to any ship that witnesses their glowing sails billowing on a still night. The concept of ancient sailors manning an archaic sailing ship became a fascinating literary trope. Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” is young when he sets out as a sailor, and – truth be told – young when he returns from his disastrous voyage, but he spends the rest of his chillingly long life wandering the world, preaching to passersby about the folly of his selfish youth – incapable of resting or forming friendships, he is as dead as a ghost, yet somehow still a living man.
Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle” was the chief inspiration to this story: it tells of a young man whose ship is capsized by a sudden cyclonic wind, then shuttled to the polar wastes where night reigns unimpeded. There his battered ship finally succumbs to the massive waves, but not before he is unwittingly rescued by a ship that bears similarities to the Flying Dutchman: a glowing battleship manned by freakishly old men from a previous century. The story ends with the ship, the crew, and the narrator being suddenly destroyed by a whirlpool, leaving little in the way of clues as to why they were so old, what their mission was, and what any of it meant. Hodgson’s story is identical in several respects, but where Poe plants an outsider in the middle of a silent crew of ghosts, Hodgson gives us full access to the perspective of a wandering race of world-weary mariners.
The plot is surprisingly simple: an aging ship sails through a silent sea, crewed by literal ancient mariners. The old men manning the ropes have no apparent mission or destination. They all seem to be suffering from losses on land which keep them from desiring to return. Something seems to be coming, though, and there is a sense of homecoming in their wistful conversations. They grow nostalgic and eager for rest. Eventually, the sky changes colors and a great band of fire seems to encapsulate the horizon. Dazzled by the atmospheric beauty, they sail strait for the flaming wall of color, realizing only too late that it is a tsunami -- enflamed by the reflecting setting sun -- serving as the harbinger of an unnaturally powerful cyclone. "Reck'n thet's God speaking," says one somber mariner as the storm howls about their ears. "Guess we're on'y mis'rable sinners." Without further ado, the "Shamracken" is pulverized and its impossibly old sailors are taken up to "the everlasting portals."
The first time I read this story, I re-read it obsessively, sure that I had missed a clue as to why these men continued to sail this ship for so many decades. Are they already ghosts? Did they make a deal with Satan? Did they run away from their troubles? Is it simply an allegory not meant to be read literally? I’m still not sure, though the men seem to be perfectly natural, living men. Their boat appears to be a fishing vessel (one man lovingly refers to it as a hooker – a small Irish fishing boat – though it is probably a topsail schooner), and they appear to have traded fish for goods such as tobacco, but seem otherwise to have been fishing and avoiding contact with mankind for decades. Each man – other than the middle-aged “b’y” – seems to bear a heavy emotional weight. The death of a wife. The death of a granddaughter. The loneliness of bachelorhood. Perhaps it is the power of these losses that keep the crew of the “Shamraken” from truly being a “homeward-bounder” – a ship returning home from its mission. At the very beginning of the story the men seem to have decided that it is time to stop avoiding civilization and to return to it. They are living ghosts – like the Ancient Mariner – with more in common with the dead than the living; they are dead men living in the natural world.
Upon deciding to return to civilization – effectively breaking the balance of the world they have created for themselves – Nature appears to revolt, summoning an otherworldly storm to contain them and preserve their odd balance: if they are no longer satisfied to be living men pretending to be dead, then they shall be dead men conquered by the world of the living – of Nature. The years of avoidance are not so easily turned around: the clock cannot be rotated back. As soon as they decide to rejoin the world of Men, Nature begins to brew up a cyclone to contain them – one that initially seems to be the gates of heaven open wide to receive them into the presence of their lost ones. But it is a trap: it is the maw of hell rather than the gates of heaven, and they – like Poe’s Flying Dutchman – are prevented from returning to the living world by the machinations of a jealous, demonic sea. As he so often does, Hodgson leaves it up to the reader to decide whether this event is supernatural, natural, or mystical – a blend. Is the weird advanced age of the crew – who own their ship together, a rare event – a natural situation, or are they supernaturally sustained (cursed, spirited away, or ghosts)?
Is the appearance of the first heavenly then hellish cyclone an ironic twist of fate, the design of a jealous Nature, or a combination of natural and supernatural elements? Great literature can usually stand to be vague and have its interpretation not matter: it is fun to speculate, but regardless of the writer’s intentions, a moral is accessible. Such is the case here, for – reagardless of the degree of supernaturalism – Hodgson has a core story that can be grasped: a group of men stayed out to sea for many years, hurt by their losses on land, trying to avoid painful memories, and by the time that they had wasted their lives, lost their loved ones, and found themselves ready to die, their homewardbound journey was intercepted by a storm which at first lured them – as the sea lured them away from land to begin with – then crushed them – as the sea had already taken hold of their lives and souls – and took them down to the bottom where they (after all) belonged.