The Ghost Pirates
William Hope Hodgson | Sphere Books | 1975 | 159 pages
Told in the form of a deposition, The Ghost Pirates recounts a crew member’s increasingly terrifying encounters with the supernatural aboard a doomed sailing ship. Originally published in 1909, this work and several others by William Hope Hodgson, who was killed in World War I, were influential to H.P. Lovecraft and other early writers of what we now refer to as weird fiction.
Setting out from San Francisco around Cape Horn on a homeward journey to England, the Mortezestus sails with the reputation of being a haunted ship. Jessop, a newly boarded sailor, discovers that the entire crew, save a young seaman named Williams, disembarked and was replaced prior to departure. Williams, although determined to stay on board and collect his full pay, tells Jessop his concerns over the vessel, which he characterizes as possessing “too many shadows.”
After a few uneventful days at sea, the Mortzestus begins to earn its haunted reputation. A series of inexplicable problems with the infrastructure leads to several accidents among the crew members. In an early, chill-inducing scene, Jessop witnesses a shadowy form with blazing eyes climb over the railing, only to later disappear back into the sea. Tammy, a young apprentice, also sees a dark, shifting figure while on watch, eventually leading Jessop to take him into his confidence.
A series of hard-to-explain encounters escalates into more overtly paranormal experiences, fueling the inherent tension of the claustrophobic setting aboard the isolated ship at sea. The specifics of the riggings and deck locations are detailed with a technical precision, as crew members climb and search the mastheads for the cause of their increasingly puzzling problems. Masts collapse in calm seas, strange lights wink on the horizon, and the ship becomes enshrouded by a strange mist. Jessop and Tammy withhold their observations, waiting for the Second Mate to accept the realization that supernatural forces are working against their beleaguered ship.
Suggesting something beyond a mere haunting, Jessop pontificates an intriguing cosmology to explain the Mortezestus’ encounters with the unknown. His theory of intersecting planes of existence would fit more closely with the early canon of science fiction and burgeoning cosmic horror than with simple ghost stories. However, the The Ghost Pirates ultimately benefits from the detached detailing of events rather than explicit explanations regarding the causes of the spectral encounters.
The spare prose, detailed ship locations, and use of cockney dialects for the crew’s dialogue all help to firmly bring the self-contained world of the Mortezestus to life. Each evening births a sickening sense of anticipation, as the stricken seamen fear another onslaught of terror, along with the dreadful prospect of never reaching safe port again.
The appearance of several shadowy ships beneath the surface of the water surrounding the Mortezestus signals the arrival of the shocking final moments on board, as all the eerie tension built up over time culminates in a horrific conclusion. Although arguably hopeless, the inevitable nature of the resolution provides a logical and satisfying finish to the doomed voyage.