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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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"The 'Shamraken' Homeward-Bounder" by William Hope Hodgson

NOTE BY M. GRANT KELLERMEYER: One of the few stories in this book 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 “Shamraken” Homeward-Bounder


The old Shamraken, sailing-ship, had been many days upon the waters. She was old—older than her masters, and that was saying a good deal. She seemed in no hurry, as she lifted her bulging, old, wooden sides through the seas. What need for hurry! She would arrive some time, in some fashion, as had been her habit heretofore.

Two matters were especially noticeable among her crew—who were also her masters[1]—; the first the agedness of each and everyone; the second the family sense which appeared to bind them, so that the ship seemed manned by a crew, all of whom were related one to the other; yet it was not so.

A strange company were they, each man bearded, aged and grizzled[2]; yet there was nothing of the inhumanity of old age about them, save it might be in their freedom from grumbling, and the calm content which comes only to those in whom the more violent passions have died.

Had anything to be done, there was nothing of the growling, inseparable from the average run of sailor men. They went aloft to the "job"—whatever it might be—with the wise submission which is brought only by age and experience. Their work was gone through with a certain slow pertinacity—a sort of tired steadfastness, born of the knowledge that such work had to be done. Moreover, their hands possessed the ripe skill which comes only from exceeding practice, and which went far to make amends for the feebleness of age. Above all, their movements, slow as they might be, were remorseless in their lack of faltering. They had so often performed the same kind of work, that they had arrived, by the selection of utility, at the shortest and most simple methods of doing it.

They had, as I have said, been many days upon the water, though I am not sure that any man in her knew to a nicety the number of those days. Though Skipper Abe Tombes[3]—addressed usually as Skipper Abe—may have had some notion; for he might be seen at times gravely adjusting a prodigious quadrant[4], which suggests that he kept some sort of record of time and place[5].

Of the crew of the Shamraken, some half dozen were seated, working placidly at such matters of seamanship as were necessary. Besides these, there were others about the decks. A couple who paced the lee side[6] of the main deck, smoking, and exchanging an occasional word. One who sat by the side of a worker, and made odd remarks between draws at his pipe. Another, out upon the jibboom[7], who fished, with a line, hook and white rag, for bonito[8]. This last was Nuzzie, the ship's boy. He was grey-bearded, and his years numbered five and fifty. A boy of fifteen he had been, when he joined the Shamraken, and "boy" he was still, though forty years had passed into eternity, since the day of his "signing on"; for the men of the Shamraken lived in the past, and thought of him only as the "boy" of that past.

It was Nuzzie's watch below—his time for sleeping. This might have been said also of the other three men who talked and smoked; but for themselves they had scarce a thought of sleep. Healthy age sleeps little, and they were in health, though so ancient.

Presently, one of those who walked the lee side of the main deck, chancing to cast a glance forrard, observed Nuzzie still to be out upon the jibboom, jerking his line so as to delude some foolish bonito into the belief that the white rag was a flying-fish.

The smoker nudged his companion.

"Time thet b'y 'ad 'is sleep."

"i, i[9], mate," returned the other, withdrawing his pipe, and giving a steadfast look at the figure seated out upon the jibboom.

For the half of a minute they stood there, very effigies of Age's implacable determination to rule rash Youth. Their pipes were held in their hands, and the smoke rose up in

little eddies from the smouldering contents of the bowls.

"Thar's no tamin' of thet b'y!" said the first man, looking very stern and determined. Then he remembered his pipe, and took a draw.

"B'ys is tur'ble queer critters," remarked the second man, and remembered his pipe in turn.

"Fishin' w'en 'e orter be sleepin'," snorted the first man.

"B'ys needs a tur'ble lot er sleep," said the second man. "I 'member w'en I wor a b'y. I reckon it's ther growin'."

And all the time poor Nuzzie fished on.

"Guess I'll jest step up an' tell 'im ter come in outer thet," exclaimed the first man, and commenced to walk towards the steps leading up on to the fo'cas'le head.

"B'y!" he shouted, as soon as his head was above the level of the fo'cas'le deck. "B'y!"

Nuzzie looked round, at the second call.

"Eh?" he sung out.

"Yew come in outer thet," shouted the older man, in the somewhat shrill tone which age had brought to his voice. "Reckon we'll be 'avin' yer sleepin' at the wheel ter night."

"i," joined in the second man, who had followed his companion up on to the fo'cas'le head. "Come in, b'y, an' get ter yer bunk."

"Right," called Nuzzie, and commenced to coil up his line. It was evident that he had no thought of disobeying. He came in off the spar, and went past them without a word,

on the way to turn in.

They, on their part, went down slowly off the fo'cas'le head, and resumed their walk fore and aft along the lee side of the main deck.

"I reckon, Zeph," said the man who sat upon the hatch and smoked, "I reckon as Skipper Abe's 'bout right. We've made a trifle o' dollars outer the old 'ooker[10], an' we

don't get no younger."

"Ay, thet's so, right 'nuff," returned the man who sat beside him, working at the stropping of a block.

"An' it's 'bout time's we got inter the use o' bein' ashore," went on the first man, who was named Job.

Zeph gripped the block between his knees, and fumbled in his hip pocket for a plug[11]. He bit off a chew and replaced the plug.

"Seems cur'ous this is ther last trip, w'en yer comes ter think uv it," he remarked, chewing steadily, his chin resting on his hand.

Job took two or three deep draws at his pipe before he spoke.

"Reckon it had ter come sumtime," he said, at length. "I've a purty leetle place in me mind w'er' I'm goin' ter tie up[12]. 'Ave yer thought erbout it, Zeph?"

The man who held the block between his knees, shook his head, and stared away moodily over the sea.

"Dunno, Job, as I know what I'll do w'en ther old 'ooker's sold," he muttered. "Sence M'ria went, I don't seem nohow ter care 'bout bein' 'shore."

"I never 'ad no wife," said Job, pressing down the burning tobacco in the bowl of his pipe. "I reckon seafarin' men don't ought ter have no truck with wives."

"Thet's right 'nuff, Job, fer yew. Each man ter 'is taste. I wer' tur'ble fond uv M'ria——" he broke off short, and continued to stare out over the sea.

"I've allus thought I'd like ter settle down on er farm o' me own. I guess the dollars I've arned 'll do the trick," said Job.

Zeph made no reply, and, for a time, they sat there, neither speaking.

Presently, from the door of the fo'cas'le, on the starboard side, two figures emerged. They were also of the "watch below." If anything, they seemed older than the rest of those

about the decks; their beards, white, save for the stain of tobacco juice, came nearly to their waists. For the rest, they had been big vigorous men; but were now sorely bent by

the burden of their years. They came aft, walking slowly. As they came opposite to the main hatch, Job looked up and spoke—

"Say, Nehemiah, thar's Zeph here's been thinkin' 'bout M'ria, an' I ain't bin able ter peek 'im up nohow."

The smaller of the two newcomers shook his head slowly.

"We hev oor trubbles," he said. "We hev oor trubbles. I hed mine w'en I lost my datter's gell[13]. I wor powerful took wi' thet gell, she wor that winsome; but it wor like ter

be—it wor like ter be, an' Zeph's hed his trubble sence then."

"M'ria wer' a good wife ter me, she wer'," said Zeph, speaking slowly. "An' now th' old 'ooker's goin', I'm feared as I'll find it mighty lonesome ashore yon," and he waved his

hand, as though suggesting vaguely that the shore lay anywhere beyond the starboard rail.

"Ay," remarked the second of the newcomers. "It's er weary thing tu me as th' old packet's goin'. Six and sixty year hev I sailed in her. Six and sixty year!" He nodded his head,

mournfully, and struck a match with shaky hands.

"It's like ter be," said the smaller man. "It's like ter be."

And, with that, he and his companion moved over to the spar that lay along under the starboard bulwarks[14], and there seated themselves, to smoke and meditate.

Skipper Abe, and Josh Matthews, the First Mate, were standing together beside the rail which ran across the break of the poop. Like the rest of the men of the Shamraken,

their age had come upon them, and the frost of eternity had touched their beards and hair.

Skipper Abe was speaking:—

"It's harder 'n I'd thought," he said, and looked away from the Mate, staring hard along the worn, white-scoured decks.

"Dunno w'at I'll du, Abe, w'en she's gone," returned the old Mate. "She's been a 'ome fer us these sixty years an' more." He knocked out the old tobacco from his pipe, as he

spoke, and began to cut a bowl-full of fresh.

"It's them durned freights!" exclaimed the Skipper. "We're jest losin' dollars every trip. It's them steam packets as hes knocked us out[15]."

He sighed wearily, and bit tenderly at his plug.

"She's been a mighty comfertable ship," muttered Josh, in soliloquy. "An' sence thet b'y o' mine went, I sumhow thinks less o' goin' ashore 'n I used ter. I ain't no folk left on

all thar 'arth[16]."

He came to an end, and began with his old trembling fingers to fill his pipe.

Skipper Abe said nothing. He appeared to be occupied with his own thoughts. He was leaning over the rail across the break of the poop[17], and chewing steadily. Presently,

he straightened himself up and walked over to leeward. He expectorated[18], after which he stood there for a few moments, taking a short look round—the result of half a

century of habit. Abruptly, he sung out to the Mate. . . .

"Wat d'yer make outer it?" he queried, after they had stood awhile, peering.

"Dunno, Abe, less'n it's some sort o' mist, riz up by ther 'eat."

Skipper Abe shook his head; but having nothing better to suggest, held his peace for awhile.

Presently, Josh spoke again:—

"Mighty cur'us, Abe. These are strange parts."

Skipper Abe nodded his assent, and continued to stare at that which had come into sight upon the lee bow. To them, as they looked, it seemed that a vast wall of rose-

coloured mist was rising towards the zenith. It showed nearly ahead, and at first had seemed no more than a bright cloud upon the horizon; but already had reached a great

way into the air, and the upper edge had taken on wondrous flame-tints.

"It's powerful nice-lookin'," said Josh. "I've allus 'eard as things was diff'rent out 'n these parts."

Presently, as the Shamraken drew near to the mist, it appeared to those aboard that it filled all the sky ahead of them, being spread out now far on either bow. And so in a

while they entered into it, and, at once, the aspect of all things was changed. . . . The mist, in great rosy wreaths, floated all about them, seeming to soften and beautify every

rope and spar, so that the old ship had become, as it were, a fairy craft in an unknown world.

"Never seen nothin' like it, Abe—nothin'!" said Josh. "Ey! but it's fine! It's fine! Like 's ef we'd run inter ther sunset."

"I'm mazed, just mazed!" exclaimed Skipper Abe, "but I'm 'gree'ble[19] as it's purty, mighty purty."

For a further while, the two old fellows stood without speech, just gazing and gazing. With their entering into the mist, they had come into a greater quietness than had been

theirs out upon the open sea. It was as though the mist muffled and toned down the creak, creak, of the spars and gear; and the big, foamless seas that rolled past them,

seemed to have lost something of their harsh whispering roar of greeting.

"Sort o' unarthly, Abe," said Josh, later, and speaking but little above a whisper. "Like as ef yew was in church."

"Ay," replied Skipper Abe. "It don't seem nat'rel."

"Shouldn't think as 'eaven was all thet diff'rent," whispered Josh. And Skipper Abe said nothing in contradiction[20].

Sometime later, the wind began to fail, and it was decided that, when eight-bells was struck, all hands should set the main t'gallant[21]. Presently, Nuzzie having been called

(for he was the only one aboard who had turned in) eight bells went, and all hands put aside their pipes, and prepared to tail on to the ha'lyards[22]; yet no one of them made to go up to loose the sail. That was the b'y's job, and Nuzzie was a little late in coming out on deck. When, in a minute, he appeared, Skipper Abe spoke sternly to him.

"Up now, b'y, an' loose thet sail. D'y think to let er grown man dew suchlike work! Shame on yew!"[23]

And Nuzzie, the grey-bearded "b'y" of five and fifty years, went aloft humbly, as he was bidden.

Five minutes later, he sung out that all was ready for hoisting, and the string of ancient Ones took a strain on the ha'lyards. Then Nehemiah, being the chaunty man[24], struck up in his shrill quaver:—

"Thar wor an ole farmer in Yorkshire did dwell."

And the shrill piping of the ancient throats took up the refrain:—

"Wi' me ay, ay, blow thar lan' down."

Nehemiah caught up the story:—

"'e 'ad 'n ole wife, 'n 'e wished 'er in 'ell."

"Give us some time ter blow thar lan' down," came the quavering chorus of old voices.

"O, thar divvel come to 'im one day at thar plough," continued old Nehemiah; and the crowd of ancients followed up with the refrain:—"Wi' me ay, ay, blow thar lan'


"I've comed fer th' ole woman, I mun 'ave 'er now," sang Nehemiah. And again the refrain:—"Give us some time ter blow thar lan' down," shrilled out.

And so on to the last couple of stanzas. And all about them, as they chaunteyed, was that extraordinary, rose-tinted mist; which, above, blent into a marvellous radiance of

flame-colour, as though, just a little higher than their mastheads, the sky was one red ocean of silent fire.

"Thar wor three leetle divvels chained up ter thar wall," sang Nehemiah, shrilly.

" Wi' me ay, ay, blow thar lan' down," came the piping chorus.

"She tuk off 'er clog, 'n she walloped 'em all," chaunted old Nehemiah, and again followed the wheezy, age-old refrain.

"These three leetle divvels fer marcy did bawl," quavered Nehemiah, cocking one eye upward to see whether the yard was nearly mast-headed.

"Wi' me ay, ay, blow thar lan' down," came the chorus.

"Chuck out this ole hag, or she'll mur——"

"Belay[25]," sung out Josh, cutting across the old sea song, with the sharp command. The chaunty had ceased with the first note of the Mate's voice, and a couple of minutes later, the ropes were coiled up, and the old fellows back to their occupations.

It is true that eight bells had gone, and that the watch was supposed to be changed; and changed it was, so far as the wheel and look-out were concerned; but otherwise little enough difference did it make to those sleep-proof ancients. The only change visible in the men about the deck, was that those who had previously only smoked, now smoked and worked; while those who had hitherto worked and smoked, now only smoked. Thus matters went on in all amity; while the old Shamraken passed onward like a rose-tinted shadow through the shining mist, and only the great, silent, lazy seas that came at her, out from the enshrouding redness, seemed aware that she was anything more than the shadow she appeared.

Presently, Zeph sung out to Nuzzie to get their tea from the galley, and so, in a little, the watch below were making their evening meal. They ate it as they sat upon the hatch or spar, as the chance might be; and, as they ate, they talked with their mates, of the watch on deck, upon the matter of the shining mist into which they had plunged. It was obvious, from their talk, that the extraordinary phenomenon had impressed them vastly, and all the superstition in them seemed to have been waked to fuller life. Zeph, indeed, made no bones of declaring his belief that they were nigh to something more than earthly. He said that he had a feeling that "M'ria' was somewhere near to him.

"Meanin' ter say as we've come purty near ter 'eaven?" said Nehemiah, who was busy thrumming a paunch mat, for chafing gear.

"Dunno," replied Zeph; "but"—making a gesture towards the hidden sky—"yew'll 'low as it's mighty wonderful, 'n I guess ef 'tis 'eaven, thar's some uv us as is growin'

powerful wearied uv 'arth. I guess I'm feelin' peeky fer a sight uv M'ria."

Nehemiah nodded his head slowly, and the nod seemed to run round the group of white-haired ancients.

"Reckon my datter's gell 'll be thar," he said, after a space of pondering. "Be s'prisin' ef she 'n M'ria 'd made et up ter know one anuther."

"M'ria wer' great on makin' friends," remarked Zeph, meditatively, "an gells wus awful friendly wi' 'er. Seemed as she hed er power thet way."

"I never 'ad no wife," said Job, at this point, somewhat irrelevantly. It was a fact of which he was proud, and he made a frequent boast of it.

"Thet's naught ter cocker thysel on[26], lad," exclaimed one of the white-beards, who, until this time, had been silent. "Thou'lt find less folk in heaven t' greet thee."

"Thet's trewth, sure 'nuff, Jock," assented Nehemiah, and fixed a stern look on Job; whereat Job retired into silence.

Presently, at three bells, Josh came along and told them to put away their work for the day.

The second dog watch came, and Nehemiah and the rest of his side, made their tea out upon the main hatch, along with their mates. When this was finished, as though by

common agreement, they went every one and sat themselves upon the pin-rail[27] running along under the t'gallant bulwarks[28]; there, with their elbows upon the rail, they faced outward to gaze their full at the mystery of colour which had wrapped them about. From time to time, a pipe would be removed, and some slowly evolved thought given an utterance.

Eight bells came and went; but, save for the changing of the wheel and look-out, none moved from his place.

Nine o'clock, and the night came down upon the sea; but to those within the mist, the only result was a deepening of the rose colour into an intense red, which seemed to

shine with a light of its own creating. Above them, the unseen sky seemed to be one vast blaze of silent, blood-tinted flame[29].

"Piller uv cloud by day, 'n er piller uv fire by night[30]," muttered Zeph to Nehemiah, who crouched near.

"I reckon's them's Bible words," said Nehemiah.

"Dunno," replied Zeph; "but them's thar very words as I heerd passon[31] Myles a sayin' w'en thar timber wor afire down our way. 'Twer' mostly smoke 'n daylight; but et tamed ter 'n etarnal fire w'en thar night comed."

At four bells, the wheel and look-out were relieved, and a little later, Josh and Skipper Abe came down on to the main deck.

"Tur'ble queer," said Skipper Abe, with an affectation of indifference.

"Aye, 'tes, sure," said Nehemiah.

And after that, the two old men sat among the others, and watched.

At five bells, half-past ten, there was a murmur from those who sat nearest to the bows, and a cry from the man on the look-out. At that, the attention of all was turned to a point nearly right ahead. At this particular spot, the mist seemed to be glowing with a curious, unearthly red brilliance; and, a minute later, there burst upon their vision a vast arch, formed of blazing red clouds.

At the sight, each and every one cried out their amazement, and immediately began to run towards the fo'cas'le head[32]. Here they congregated in a clump, the Skipper and the Mate among them. The arch appeared now to extend its arc far beyond either bow, so that the ship was heading to pass right beneath it.

"Tis 'eaven fer sure," murmured Josh to himself; but Zeph heard him.

"Reckon's them's ther Gates uv Glory thet M'ria wus allus talkin' 'bout," he replied.

"Guess I'll see thet b'y er mine in er little," muttered Josh, and he craned forward, his eyes very bright and eager.

All about the ship was a great quietness. The wind was no more now than a light steady breath upon the port quarter; but from right ahead, as though issuing from the mouth of the radiant arch, the long-backed, foamless seas rolled up, black and oily.

Suddenly, amid the silence, there came a low musical note, rising and falling like the moan of a distant æolian harp[33]. The sound appeared to come from the direction of

the arch, and the surrounding mist seemed to catch it up and send it sobbing and sobbing in low echoes away into the redness far beyond sight.

"They'm singin'," cried Zeph. "M'ria wer' allus tur'ble fond uv singin'. Hark ter—"

"'Sh!" interrupted Josh. "Thet's my b'y!" His shrill old voice had risen almost to a scream.

"It's wunnerful—wunnerful; just mazin'!" exclaimed Skipper Abe.

Zeph had gone a little forrard of the crowd. He was shading his eyes with his hands, and staring intently, his expression denoting the most intense excitement.

"B'lieve I see 'er. B'lieve I see 'er," he was muttering to himself, over and over again.

Behind him, two of the old men were steadying Nehemiah, who felt, as he put it, "a bit mazy at thar thought o' seein' thet gell."

Away aft, Nuzzie, the "b'y," was at the wheel. He had heard the moaning; but, being no more than a boy, it must be supposed that he knew nothing of the nearness of the

next world, which was so evident to the men, his masters.

A matter of some minutes passed, and Job, who had in mind that farm upon which he had set his heart, ventured to suggest that heaven was less near than his mates

supposed; but no one seemed to hear him, and he subsided into silence.

It was the better part of an hour later, and near to midnight, when a murmur among the watchers announced that a fresh matter had come to sight. They were yet a great

way off from the arch; but still the thing showed clearly—a prodigious umbel[34], of a deep, burning red; but the crest of it was black, save for the very apex which shone

with an angry red glitter[35].

'Thar Throne uv God!" cried out Zeph, in a loud voice, and went down upon his knees. The rest of the old men followed his example, and even old Nehemiah made a great

effort to get to that position.

'Simly we'm a'most 'n 'eaven," he muttered huskily.

Skipper Abe got to his feet, with an abrupt movement. He had never heard of that extraordinary electrical phenomenon, seen once perhaps in a hundred years—the "Fiery

Tempest[36]" which precedes certain great Cyclonic Storms; but his experienced eye had suddenly discovered that the red-shining umbel was truly a low, whirling water-hill,

reflecting the red light. He had no theoretical knowledge to tell him that the thing was produced by an enormous air-vortice; but he had often seen a waterspout form. Yet, he was still undecided. It was all so beyond him; though, certainly, that monstrous gyrating hill of water, sending out a reflected glitter of burning red, appealed to him as having no place in his ideas of Heaven. And then, even as he hesitated, came the first, wild-beast bellow of the coming Cyclone. As the sound smote upon their ears, the old men looked at one another with bewildered, frightened eyes.

"Reck'n thet's God speakin'," whispered Zeph. "Guess we're on'y mis'rable sinners[37]."

The next instant, the breath of the Cyclone was in their throats, and the Shamraken, homeward-bounder, passed in through the everlasting portals[38].

NOTES BY M. GRANT KELLERMEYER: 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.


[1] The owners or investors of the ship. Sometimes captains and mates would own shares in a vessel, but for the crew to be the exclusive masters was unheard of

[2] This device – impossibly old sailors manning a ship on a decades’ long voyage – is borrowed from Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle,” wherein a shipwreck survivor is rescued by a ship that sounds suspiciously like the Flying Dutchman: an old Dutch battleship glowing all over, manned by ancient mariners, and invested with supernatural size and power

[3] Both names connote old age: Abraham recalls the Hebrew patriarch who sired Isaac in his nineties, and Tombes has an obvious, macabre homonym

[4] A navigational tool used to measure the movements of the sun and thus calculate one’s latitude

[5] The irony, as will become clear, is that the “Shamraken” has no time to time or place: it is timeless and placeless

[6] The side opposite the wind

[7] The long spar projecting out of the ship’s bow

[8] A family of fish that includes mackerel and tuna

[9] Hodgson will regularly use this odd spelling to denote the maritime affirmative response, “aye, aye”

[10] A traditional Irish fishing boat.

[11] A braided hunk of tobacco for pipe smoking

[12] A sailor’s euphemism for retirement

[13] Daughter’s girl – his granddaughter died

[14] The railing on the right side of the ship

[15] The Skipper suggests that faster steam ships are putting sailing vessels like the “Shamraken” out of business

[16] He hasn’t got any family left alive

[17] The space where the poop deck – the raised deck at the rear of the ship – stops just above the main deck

[18] Spat

[19] “I agree”

[20] The unnaturally aged crew come face to face with a similarly unnatural phenomenon of weather – one which suggests a return of balance to their world. They have for so long been outsiders from civilization, ghosts on the sea, that when the truly ghostly world nears them, it is not a frightful destruction, but a sanctifying homecoming

[21] One of the most powerful sails on a ship

[22] Ropes used to raise and lower sails

[23] The work was very dangerous and while we might think the responsibility should be flipped, the truth was that a small but energetic boy would have a better chance at succeeding in this task than a well built man

[24] Sea shanties – or chaunties – were rhythmic songs song by a ship’s company to keep a steady, uniform pace when doing collective work like rowing, raising sails, etc. The shanty man would sing the verses while the rest of the company sang the choruses, pulling in time. “What Shall we do with a Drunken Sailor,” “Blow the Man Down," and “Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest” are probably the most famous of these songs today

[25] “Stop it!”

[26] “Pride yourself on”

[27] A rail on the side of the ship with holes drilled in it to hold pins to which rigging was secured

[28] Area of the bulwarks (the raised side of the ship) where the rigging to the topgallant sail was secured

[29] The rosy, hopeful, heavenly light begins to take on a cruel, sinister hue

[30] In Exodus, God lead the Israelites out of Egypt in the form of a massive column of vapor during the day, and a column of flame by night

[31] Parson

[32] The very front of the deck

[33] A stringed instrument played by the wind – not unlike a wind chime – known for its angelic hum

[34] Flower clusters that radiate from a common stalk

[35] Now the imagery is unquestionably insidious and hellish

[36] I found one reference to this phrase in an 1848 “Horn-Book for Sailors,” which uses it to describe the gleaming refraction of light on the surface of an approaching storm which causes the otherwise dark clouds to appear like a wall of fire

[37] Having anticipated acceptance into the gates of heaven, they now fear rejection into the maw of hell

[38] Hodgson does not say “was swallowed by the storm” even though this once supernatural-seeming phenomenon is finally explained to be natural – he sticks with a spiritual metaphor. But it is an ambiguous metaphor: the “everlasting portals” could lead to heaven or hell, either one, since neither have an ending. Hodgson is craftily equating the sea with hell: “hell is real; hell is here on earth; it has no ending and brings eternal torment to mankind the sea is hell,” he is trying to say

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