The Ghost Pirates by William Hope Hodgson – review

I think the best place to start this is by mentioning a book called On Writing Horror, a book put out by the Horror Writers Association. Horror novels were the first thing that really got me interested in reading, at least after it was drummed out of me by a lot of tedious reading groups foisted upon me by my elementary school. And seeing this on the shelf at the library peaked my interest, so I grabbed it and browsed through it. By and large, it’s not a bad book, but the best part about it isn’t necessarily the advice on writing, but the advice on other books to read or websites to visit. One of the books was The Ghost Pirates by William Hope Hodgson, originally published in 1909.

The first thing that struck me was the cover:

This isn’t an image of my copy, but an image I pulled off of Biblio, and if you click the picture it’ll take you to Biblio, if you’re curious. Notice, though, what it says around the little picture of the naked spaceman (there’s got to be a sexual fetish thing going on there at some level): “Classics of Science Fiction.” Now, this story is about pretty much what the title says. But Hyperion still lumped in under sci-fi. It’s probably nothing, but I sort of like that a title such as this got published as a sci-fi novel at some point, especially with the current popularity of shows like Ghost Hunters that attempt to bring a scientific angle to the paranormal. Normally, if there are ghost involved it is horror, and I got this title from a book compiled by the Horror Writers Association, but I like how it is also proof of the comingling the genres, of how they have overlapped over the years and bleed into each other.

Now, for the book itself, it’s an entertaining read of the sort you don’t see much of any more, at least from my experience. It isn’t gory. It doesn’t go into great detail about how someone dies, what it looks like, the ruptures of flesh and sinew or whatever else. The details are, by and large, left up to the reader, and it builds an atmosphere because of it that, again, I don’t find as often any more. And it does this so effectively that it’s really easy to overlook some of the basic mehness of the plot. I mean, it’s about ghost pirates. If you’ve seen the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, you will have a pretty good idea of what goes on here. But it still works because Hodgson doesn’t get bogged down.  People die, but we hear their screams and then we have their bodies. We don’t hear about every gory detail and we don’t need it. What we fill in is effectively worse than whatever Hodgson could likely give us anyway, and it keeps the story moving.

The one drawback of the novel is that Hodgson seems to be going for a salty sea dialect, but it comes off as somewhat hokey at times. By and large, you just go over it and you quit noticing it or caring after the first twenty pages or so. but there are times where the spellings become so off-kilter in an attempt to provide local color, that you aren’t sure what’s being said until you re-read a passage a few times. To Hodgson’s credit, he remains very consistent with each character’s speech, but it still shouldn’t take me as long as it did to realize that when a character said piy-diy, it meant “pay-day.”

On the sci-fi angle, it’s clear how it can be moved into that genre with relative ease. What plagues the ship and crew is only occasionally called “ghosts” or “spirits.” They’re also called “shadows” and the theories the main character comes up with do bridge more to sci-fi than horror with seems to be a fair idea of different dimensions and alternative worlds rather than an afterlife. It goes so far as the main character even talking of the shadows of possibly being “flesh and blood,” just not flesh and blood as we know it.  So it’s not entirely just a ghost story, but Hodgson weaves in a good deal of ambiguity about what is happening to leave open a good deal of possibilities.

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