One of Hodgson’s most gruesome and revolting stories, “The Derelict” is a fascinating blend of science fiction, sea adventure, and grisly mystery – a tale that would make H. P. Lovecraft, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H. G. Wells all proud. All three men regularly wrote science fiction informed by the sparse but growing body of natural science available at the turn of the 20th century, frequently choosing to work wonders from science rather than the supernatural: for instance, Lovecraft’s trans-dimensional carnivores in “From Beyond,” Doyle’s high-altitude predators in “The Horror of the Heights,” and Wells’ school of man-eating squid in “The Sea Raiders” all derive a sense of thrilling terror from hypothetical natural wonders which mankind has not yet been prepared for.
The following story is slightly more fantastical than its predecessors – founded as it is in faux science – but has its roots in a genuine scientific principle called abiogenesis: the means by which living organisms can rise from nonliving organisms (e.g., how the first amoebas rose to life in the primordial soup). This process of the spontaneous generation of life has long been the subject of wonder and awe, but Hodgson sees something far more threatening in its possibilities. As with “The Voice in the Night” he pits mankind against a carnivorous fungal growth, and as in “The Mystery of the Derelict” he uses a deserted ship to serve as a Trojan horse for the savage forces of Nature to jump a group of unsuspecting men. What makes this story different from its earlier incarnations is the combination of “The Mystery of the Derelict’s” savage brutality with “The Voice in the Night’s” otherworldly weirdness.
The tale begins as a framing narrative: while sailing across the gloomy North Atlantic, a group of crewmen are enraptured by the eccentric ship’s doctor, who waxes on metaphysics, knitting his philosophies into stories from his years at sea. In particular, he is currently arguing that life can be invested into any natural material, assuming that the conditions are right that it has mysterious “third factor” (alongside materials and conditions) which he refuses to describe at the moment. He illustrates this by arguing that a block of wood could come to life if the environmental chemistry were just right and the “third factor” was involved. When his crewmates struggle to accept his premise he goes on – as they had hoped he would – to tell them a yarn from his seafaring past to support his theories.
As a young doctor, his first shipping assignment was to a British clipper ship making runs to China. After making a stop in Madagascar, it was overtaken by a typhoon in the middle of the Indian Ocean, which left it crippled but seaworthy after it passed.
In the misty calm, as they made repairs, the second mate, Mr. Selvern, noticed a “pretty rum-looking packet” idling two miles west of them. He and the doctor examine it with a spy glass and note that she is an impossibly old-looking derelict – decades old – missing her masts and covered in what appears to be a thick scale of white, salt encrustations. Thrilled by the prospect of salvaging whatever cargo she might be carrying (and profiting from its sale in port), Selvern – whom the doctor notes was well-born and bred, but suffers from emotional excitement – gains the captain’s permission to mount an expedition to harvest the derelict's valuables.
At dusk, once most of the repairs have been accomplished, the captain has his gig lowered and rowed out to the ruin, with Selvern, the doctor, and six seamen accompanying him. As they near her, it is evident that something is wrong with her other than age: an bizarre, summy, brown sludge surrounds her, as if seeping from her hold, unnatural sheets of steam are rising from her decks, and she is heavily padded in otherworldly fungal growths:
“…great clumpings of strange-looking sea-fungi under the bows and the short counter astern. From the stump of her jibboom and her cutwater great beards of rime and marine growths hung downward into the scum that held her in. Her blank starboard side was presented to us–all a dead, dirtyish white, streaked and mottled vaguely with dull masses of heavier colour.”
Upon entering the brown slime, they find it thick like molasses, and the odor is strange but familiar. They hail the crew but, as expected, no one replies, so they attempt to board her, but are stunned to find that the hull and gunwales either break away under their boathooks or smoosh pliably, like clay.
The entire structure, they realize, is infested with thick, soggy mounds of slimy mold, which – once they manage to board her – they describe as feeling spongy and pudding-like under their feet (sometimes unwillingly releasing their feet “with a suck”). As they continue to explore, they begin to wonder why the mold yields to their tread instead of being crushed by it; indeed, it feels and looks rather less like a mold and more like – almost – a kind of flesh:
“Here and there the mould was so heavy as to entirely disguise what lay beneath, converting the deck-fittings into indistinguishable mounds of mould all dirty-white and blotched and veined with irregular, dull, purplish markings.”
Suddenly, the doctor recognizes the strange, familiar smell which has been bothering him since they entered the oil slick: it is a smell that he compares to a mouse’s nest or a place infested with rodents – the sweet, musty odor of animal life. He anxiously wonders if there is an infestation of man-eating rats on board (see: Hodgson’s “The Mystery of the Derelict” or Georges-Gustave Toudouze’s “Three Skeleton Key” for that kind of story).
Meanwhile, the doctor and captain notice the shape of guns and speculate that she was likely a privateer or pirate, pegging her age at some 200 years old (late 1600s – the Golden Age of Piracy). While the doctor grows skittish, this realization only motivates the captain further to uncover her potentially dazzling cargo.
Just then, they notice that the haze is thickening around them, in strange, regular patterns: “Once an odd puff of [moist air] beat up suddenly from somewhere, and caught me in the face, carrying a queer, sickly, heavy odour with it that somehow frightened me strangely with a suggestion of a waiting and half-comprehended danger.” Furthermore, they’ve begun to notice monstrously large sea lice (small parasites that feed on the mucous of living sea creatures). The rest of the crew are repulsed and confused, and beg the captain to let them leave.
Trying to make his way into the hold, the captain kicks an “ugly hump” of “mold” only to have his boot puncture it, letting forth a noxious purple fluid, whereupon the “mold” around the rupture begins to bead with what looks like perspiration.
Unbothered, he does it again causing “the whole thing [to wobble] sloppily, like a mound of unhealthy-looking jelly.” Suddenly Selvern demands that everyone stop and listen: they can hear something strange and – like so much else around them – familiar coming from below. The supple, pudding-like surface all around them is now rippling with tremors.
Before he can explain what he thinks he is hearing, the captain exclaims that there IS no hold: “It’s gone squashy all through ... There’s no bally woodwork inside that lot! Phoo! What a rum smell!” This is too much for the seamen, and as one of them – holding one of their two lanterns – runs away back to the gig, Selvern begs the captain to let them return.
But he is interrupted by a shriek: they turn to find the sailor who had run off with the lantern struggling to free his feet, which have sunk into the increasingly jelly-like substance around them, which appears to be rippling and lapping around him. In terrible pain, he finally tears one foot free, and in the waving lamplight they see that the trouser leg has been dissolved away and that the foot has been “partially destroyed.”
Horrified, he falls over, and the living gelatin swarms over him, sucking him down into its bossom. “Where he had fallen was now a writhing, elongated mound, in constant and horrible increase, as the mould appeared to move towards it in strange ripples from all sides.” The abandoned lantern is left to rise and fall with each pulsation, and the doctor notes how: “It is of some interest to me now, psychologically, to remember how that rising and falling lantern brought home to me more than anything the incomprehensible dreadful strangeness of it all.”
Now, all of them realize that they are under attack: the captain is almost sucked under by the squirming jelly, but frees himself – twice – just in time to wrench Selvern (who had sunk down to the tops of his boots) free. Selvern has fainted, though, and the captain throws him over his shoulder in a mad dash for the gig. The doctor, who was behind them, sees that the soles of Selvern’s boots have been dissolved as if by acid.
As they make it to the rail, the doctor notes that the deep pounding which Selvern had pointed out to them, is growing louder and faster – angrier – and that everything around him was now trembling with mounting movement and heat:
“the moundings of the mould swaying and nodding hideously … the mound … was swelling steadily. There were ugly, purple veinings on it, and as it swelled, it seemed to me that the veinings and mottlings on it were becoming plainer, rising as though embossed upon it, like you will see the veins stand out on the body of a powerful, full-blooded horse.”
They make a mad dash and – after jumping over gushing welts of “peculiar slobber” and feeling their feet sizzle with each step – finally make it to the side. For the first time they notice a ship’s boat – modern and unweathered – tied to the derelict’s stern with the words “Cyclone – Glasgow” on it. Clustered in its bow are three skeletons: “the bones of at least three people, all mixed together in an extraordinary fashion, and quite clean and dry.” So apparently, they deduce, even a ship’s boat isn’t safe from this Thing, and they wouldn’t be its first victims, either.
Despite its grisly occupants, the strange boat is easier to reach, so they commandeer it and shove off into the sticky slick. Suddenly, something reaches out from the spongy hull and latched onto their bow – a pale kind of lip – and the captain voices the obvious truth which they have all been struggling to suppress: “She’s alive!” Indeed, the realize that the veiny, mottled "mold" is a kind of flesh, that the misty haze and warm air are caused by exhalation, that the purple slime is blood, that the sizzling slobber is a digestive juice, and that the low pounding sound is the beating of a massive heart.
Before they can pull away, they're stunned to see a notably phallic (see also: our analysis of Hodgson’s traumatically Freudian “Tropical Horror”), fleshy "lappet" surge greedily towards them:
“a mass of living matter ... streaked and veined with purple, the veins standing out, enormously distended. The whole thing quivered continuously to each ponderous thud, thud, thud, thud, of that gargantuan organ that pulsed within the huge grey-white bulk.”
In the confused darkness they beat it away and manage to reunite with the other men who were left in the gig. The doctor sits in the bows, paddling away the globs of the “viscid, clinging muck” to keep them from getting gummed up in what is now evidently some biological excretion from the Thing used – like a Venus flytrap or a spider web – to ensnare and digest its prey.
Safely returned to the clipper – minus one casualty – they have little time to celebrate before another typhoon crashes into them, mercifully putting distance between them and the derelict. When the doctor tends to Selvern’s blistered feet he notes that they have been partially digested.
In retrospect, as the framing narrative returns, the old doctor muses that – had they been able to learn what cargo the ship had carried, what the humidity, heat, and chemical conditions on board had been, and the time that they had been allowed to percolate together before they spontaneously combusted into life – the secret formula of life may have been discovered.
Of course, he notes, there must have been some unquantifiable, spiritual “third” factor in transforming an abandoned ship into a monstrous, floating predator. And yet – he muses sadly – if only he had been able to get his hands on her logs or bill of freight, perhaps it could have contributed to one of humanity’s greatest scientific and metaphysical mysteries.
Hodgson was fascinated by the idea of what Nature could fabricate out of hijacked human technology. In this instance he posits that a ship left unattended at sea could serve as a stand in for the primordial soup that incubated the first life on earth. A rotting hulk laden with a cargo of swine, drenched in saltwater, and heated by the tropical sun could become a new universe unto itself – through the powers of Nature. But it is by no means a beauty: rather than a Garden of Eden, untouched or tampered with by human hands, it is a gruesome freak – a hellish monstrosity – that attracts both physical revulsion and sublime awe.
There is a reason that Hodgson returns to this theme time and time again (cf. “The Stone Ship,” “The Demons of the Sea,” “The Voice in the Night,” “The Mystery of the Derelict,” etc.) and it is simply because to him there was no more powerful metaphor for the hostility that he recognized in Nature (especially during his troubled tenure as a sailor) than the idea of a ship – a technology specifically designed to conquer the natural perils of the sea and give man dominion of yet another Natural realm – reclaimed by the ever mutating, ever growing deformities of Mad Mother Nature.
Indeed, to Hodgson she truly is nothing but a drowsy Madwoman always threatening to wake up from her apathetic stupor, pick up a kitchen knife, and carve up the family sleeping quietly in her house – in the form of insane mutations, natural disasters, animal uprisings, and the weaponization of every mundane natural lifeform from fungus to slime molds to seaweed. Hodgson’s world is rarely described in terms of beauty in his fiction – it may be sublime, powerful, exhilarating, but never beautiful. Nature is diseased, infected, and contagious in Hodgson’s fiction, and – as in “The Voice in the Night” – he choses to illustrate the threat of Nature by handing over a ship to be done with as she pleases.
What comes back is a grotesque mutation that defies human standards of beauty or elegance: a slimy, pulpy, shapeless, faceless mass that poses a direct threat to every human life it encounters. This is the threat that humanity faces from Nature, he warns us – not the stately lion or the kingly stallion or the majestic whale or the sublime mountains or awesome sea billows – but the slurping, slithering mold, serpents, octopi, fungi, mutants, devolutions, and freaks that Nature has blighted the world with. And while they are now something we encounter only under the perfect conditions – “The Stone Ship,” “The Terror of the Water Tank,” “The Thing in the Weeds,” etc. – Hodgson has a critical subtext in this story in particular: they may be freaks, and they may be rare, but they are growing, and they are taking over, and you are in their way.