Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Boats of the "Glen Carrig" and Other Nautical Adventures: The Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson

Don't ask how long it's been since I read this. I'm terrible. I know.

The collection opens with Hodgson's title novel, The Boats of the "Glen Carrig", which I can only descibe as an odd, quirky, fabulous and strangley pointless affair. The Glen Carrig met some bad luck, and now what remains of the crew and passengers are gathered on two life boats, having finally sighted land of some description. They row and row and row upriver, and find nothing but mud, more mud, some more mud, and strange cabbage trees. At night, strange wailing/sobbing/growling surrounds them.

They find a derelict ship, and use it as a base while they look for water. During this time, they're attacked by some meaty demon slug thing, and angry cabbage trees. It doesn't take long for them to decide they were better off being lost at sea, and make moves to remedy the situation.

The cabbage trees and meat slug are never mentioned again, and absolutely no explanation is given of them.

Once back at sea, the real meat of the story begins, with a storm sweeping one of the boats into the sinister Sargasso Sea, a region of ocean that Hodgson makes good use of, and demonises most brilliantly. The rest of the novel involves the seamen finding a small island amid the giant banks of weed, and how they deal with the terrible creatures that assail them, and their efforts to gain a larger boat, and find civilisation again, if ever.

At first, this was quite hard to read, as Hodgson uses a very old fashioned vernacular, possibly even so when it was first published. Not so much the words that have fallen from popularity, but basic sentence structure. He did things with his narrator's voice that resulted in me reading more than a few lines several times before figuring out what was being said. It took approximately three, four chapters before I became accustomed to this. Interestingly enough, the rest of his stories were far more accessible.

He also, for chapters at a time, gets distracted by technicalities. For example, at some point, the seamen go about building a giant bow and arrow (look, just go with me on this), and he does spend a whole chapter carefully details exactly how this was accomplished. If ever I'm stuck on a dead island with only bits of ships for company, at least I'll know how to build a giant bow and arrow. Just in case.

There's also exactly zero characterisation. Well, that's not entirely true. There are a couple of lines that hint at it. All the seamen remain nameless, being 'the big sailor', or 'the boson', for the whole book. Unless they have no identifiying features whatsoever, at which point they're given single sylabell names so that when they die, the reader is aware of exactly who did the dying. At one point, the boson gives the narrator a pat on the shoulder, because he was brooding on a cliff top about being stuck in the middle of a weed-strangled ocean on a dead island, and that right there is the height of characterisation. Silverberg wasn't entirely wrong, however, because anything more than that would have got in the way of the nasty squid monsters/exploding mushrooms/angry crabs/derelict ships/etc.

Their final escape from the Sargossa is sadly anticlimactic, but the narrator gets to keep the boson, whom he was quite clearly in love with, calling him the greatest of men every other paragraph.

Don't get me wrong, I had fun with this.

Following the novel was a collection of further short stories Hodgson wrote based around the Sargossa Sea. Given they all involve ships becoming trapped in the weed and being unable to escape, with the passengers unable to leave the ship lest they be eaten, these stories tend to be very lonely, hopeless affairs, full of menace and threat. Although all people stranded in such situations appear to show a great degree of resourcefulness, their every action is nevertheless overshadowed with futility. These are not stories that uplift the spirit.

I would like to take a moment to recommend everyone read one specific short story, being From the Tideless Sea Part 2: More News from the Homebird, a very creepy and unsettling story. Read it, and then ask yourself, 'are crabs scary?' Aye! They are! Ye who doubted my giant crabs, repent! Repent!

I wasn't sure how much further I wanted to continue, having been throughly mired by the Sargossa Sea, so thankfully the next section was entirely different. The exploits of Captain Gault were, and possibly will always remain, my favourite of Hodgson's work. A series of short stories detailing the adventures of Captain Gault, one of the greatest smugglers of all time. He makes Han Solo look like a rank amateur. All his schemes involve a great deal at stake, and the authorities, who have never actually caught him, desperate to finally nail him. And yet, despite their greatest efforts, Gault always prevails. And he always, always, always lets the authorities, specifically the one main officer he has managed to hoodwink, know exactly how easily they were fooled, because he's an arrogant smug smarmy bastard like that, and I absolutely totally developed a crush on him. If you read these stories, you'll start crushing on him too.

(That said, the last story involved him fighting Nazis, which was....odd. They were the nicest Nazis I've met in fiction.)

These were followed by the not quite as exciting adventures of Captain Jat, who I didn't really like, and his sidekick Pibby Tawles, the ship boy. Desert islands populated by mutant animal savages and buried treasure, oh my! Not quite as much love for Jat as, when it comes down to it, he was an idiot. Stealth does not involve yelling in outrage. Pibby, cunning little rat, I had plenty of time for.

Lastly, two stories of Dot-and-Carry Cargunka, who was much like Gault, a terribly amusing character. Born lame, he runs his own ship, and takes the position of cook so he doesn't have to pay anyone else to do it. He has quite the love for Lord Byron, and fancies that the two of them are kindred spirits, in more ways than one. That said, as amusing as Cargunka was, the stories themselves didn't grab me. Unfortunatly, it's been so long since I read them, that I'm not sure I can remember why.

I'm out of practice writing up books. Sorry this sucks so much.

I can't help thinking of Hodgson as being like Lovecraft Lite, with Seawater, an impression that I know is soley based upon the Sargossa stories. In actual fact, Hodgson is a much better writer than Lovecraft (don't hit me), and has a greater repertoire in his stories. The lack of characterisation in his Sargossa stories he more than makes up for with his various captains, and he uses his personal knowledge of the sea and sailing well.

I love me some weird shit. I love me some Age of Sailing. And I love me some captains. I'd recommend you get this collection even if you only read the Gault stories.

Verdict: Salty sea dogs! Nyaaaaaaaaar! This be bootay, aye! Not everyone's cup of tea, but if so inclined, well worth it.

1 comment:

  1. I cant believe you dissed Han like that...!

    He's my boy!