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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."