THE GHOST PIRATES (1909) – HAPPY HALLOWEEN! Balladeer’s Blog wraps up another Halloween Month with a look at this novella written by William Hope Hodgson. Just a few years ago my review of Hodgson’s 1908 The House on the Borderland closed out October here. That excellent novel was a forerunner of Lovecraftian cosmic horror combined with traditional haunted house elements.
The Ghost Pirates, published a year later, combined haunted ship tales with ghost stories and themes of the living dead emerging from the sea to swell their own ranks with more doomed men. In addition there is some nice theorizing about the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead.
The story begins in turn of the century San Francisco, as a seasoned sailor named Jessop signs onto an outgoing ship called the Mortzestus. When it had arrived in San Francisco all but one member of the officers and crew fled the vessel, refusing to return and even forsaking the pay they would have received for sailing the ship back to its home port in Great Britain.
That sole member of the original crew, Williams, tells Jessop and other new crew members about the ship being haunted and worse, but Jessop, like the other replacement hires, dismisses such claims. Williams seems a bit unnerved and maybe even unhinged by whatever happened on the original journey to San Francisco. He is bitterly obsessed with completing the round trip and collecting his pay despite horrific incidents that he is obviously hiding.
At any rate, the first two weeks of the voyage go by without incident, but just as Jessop and the others have forgotten Williams’ grim accounts supernatural events begin to occur. We get a well-handled slow buildup, although modern readers may wish for a quicker pace.
Ghostly, slithering, sinister humanoid figures with glowing eyes are spotted climbing aboard the Mortzestus. Sails and other workings of the ship begin acting on their own. Soon men are being knocked from the riggings to their death on the deck below. Some are killed by the vaguely glimpsed things from the sea. Others simply disappear.
Jessop, the officers and crew go from skeptical to wary to frightened and ultimately to despairing as they seem trapped by forces beyond their comprehension. Williams was the first to die, taking with him whatever secrets he carried.
Odd phenomena like those recounted over the centuries by ships in the Bermuda Triangle occur. Weird mists appear out of nowhere, other ships will be spotted and signaled to but they refuse to signal back, then just disappear. The ship goes strangely off course one time, too.
At length it isn’t just shadowy, ghostly humanoids being glimpsed in the night, a ghostly ship is sighted sailing alongside the Mortzestus BENEATH THE WATERS. This further unnerves the crew as their numbers continue to be whittled down by unexplained “accidents” and by the spectral figures terrorizing the ship.
Before long other ships are spotted beneath the waves, adding to the crew’s despair and their feelings that they are being toyed with like a mouse by a cat. In the end the mist completely engulfs the Mortzestus and one of the ghost ships emerges from the sea, in a manner like Davy Jones’ ship in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
The Mortzestus is overrun by the ghost pirates in their solid, sea-slimed forms and the remaining crew members are slaughtered. All but Jessop, that is, who manages to avoid the undead pirates and escape the ship before it is dragged beneath the waves by the pirate ship.
Jessop is rescued by the crew of a nearby vessel called the Sangier, a ship whose crew tells him they were nearby the whole time but apparently could not be seen or heard by anyone on the Mortzestus. Because the men of the Sangier could hear the screams of the dying men on board Jessop’s original ship, his account is believed by the men who saved him.
Not that they’ll allow any of it into the ship’s official log. They inform Jessop that a rationalized account of the Mortzestus merely sinking from being unseaworthy will be entered into the records. Jessop understands, but chillingly wonders how many other ships are keeping such events out of their onboard logs. And how many other supposed “sinkings” are really the work of supernatural forces.
The Ghost Pirates is good, but unfortunately, nowhere near the level of The House on the Borderland. It is also much less daring and seems like it should have come first, before Hodgins grew comfortable enough with penning the unearthly horrors of some of his other works.
Overall, the novella seems like a partial inspiration for the kind of terror that John Carpenter was going for in The Fog. The book’s clinging mist and the nature of the threat being undead pirates makes me lean that way.
Sadly, The Ghost Pirates with its methodical pace would likely seem outdated and dull for many readers.
HERE ARE LINKS TO SOME OF THE OTHER PAST OCTOBER 31st BLOG POSTS FROM BALLADEER’S BLOG: