While I was up surveying my grandma’s attic last month, I pulled a copy of William Hope Hodgson’s The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” from my late grandpa’s stash of old fantasy novels to take home with me.
I picked that book in particular because I knew Hodgson was one of my grandfather’s favorite writers, which I discovered in my early teens when he asked to borrow my copy of the first Night Cry digest because it contained a new-to-him tale by the author.
My grandfather was a man of few words, and those he did tend to utter took the shape of blustering outbursts crafted to cover for his extreme social anxiety. Everyone of my childhood interactions with him involved either avoiding his grumpy wrath or marveling at his unpredictable gestures of generosity. (He was the person who, entirely out of the blue, delivered an Atari 2600 console and stack of games to our apartment one weekday evening.) From my kid-level perspective, he was a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in someone to steer clear of on most occasions.
The sharing of the Hodgson story brought out another side of my grandfather, one I’d never seen before. Looking back, I realize that my grandfather was a geek before that subculture had either a name or a defined scene. He was an engineer who loved videogames and fantasy novels and knights and toy soldiers other pursuits that didn’t jibe with his generation’s notion of masculine norms. He was a socially awkward fish out of water who his insecurities behind a mask of snarling surliness.
While his daughters (my mom and my aunt) may have picked up some of his love of fantasy, the old man really didn’t have anyone to talk about his interests with. He didn’t have much in the way of friends and spent much of his time puttering around in self-imposed solitude.
And then there I was, his eldest grandchild, exhibiting some familiarity with something near and dear to his heart. I barely understood a third of what he babbled in my direction, a pent-up stream-of-consciousness rant about George MacDonald and Tolkien and Arthur Machen and William Morris and Lord Dunsany and other stuff he clearly cared about but I couldn’t parse. It was unprecedented and more than a little terrifying, but it beat hearing him curse out Eleanor Roosevelt or his next door neighbor so I nodded and humored him.
It was the last time we spoke at length before he had his stroke, after which he didn’t speak at all.
Seeing The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” in his chest of fantasy paperbacks reminded me of that odd afternoon, and compelled me to give it a shot.
Originally published in 1907, the novel was one of the “weird fiction” tales which — along with the stories of Machen and Chambers — directly inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s “Mythos” works. It’s a first-person account by one of the survivors of Glen Carrig, a ship which suffered some unstated misfortune in 1757. Lost and adrift in treacherous waters, the remaining crew set out in two launches in search of a safe harbor and, hopefully, rescue.
Their wanderings take them into strange and uncharted territory. Their first stop is a muddy islet covered in what turns out to be carnivorous (and formerly human) flora. Pressing onward through a massive storm, they then stray into a weed-choked graveyard of ancient wrecks surrounding a craggy island. The tangled morass turns out to be host to humanoid (and human-eating) cephalopod creatures and gigantic crab beasts, as well as a becalmed vessel housing other human survivors.
It has been a pretty interesting read, though I’m not certain if I’d actually call it enjoyable. Its strange and menacing ecologies of the unknown are fascinating, as are its gradual and matter-of-fact approach towards building an unsettling atmosphere of dread. Though crude and rudimentary compared to Lovecraft’s later work along similar lines, it also benefits from lacking the mythic infrastructure that, over time, stripped away the mystery and in favor of rote codification.
On the other hand, Hodgson’s style has made reading The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” a bit of a chore. It’s not the interminably long sentences or affectedly archaic language (which astonishingly enough, Lovecraft criticized) that’s the biggest hurdle to get past, but Hodgson’s decision to focus on procedural nautical and related details to an odd and infuriating extent.
It’s a novel about ships and shipwrecked survivors, so I understand that a certain degree of detail will be required to establish the right note of authenticity. It’s a “skin” so to speak, laid over the tale to heighten the suspension of disbelief. That’s how it ought to be done, but I suspect that Hodgson just really, really, really enjoyed writing about 18th Century nautical stuff to the point where he repeatedly lost the narrative thread.
(In that regard, I suppose he anticipated the school of genre writers who find a way to incorporate their chosen hobby into their work with painstaking-for-the-layman detail.)
For all it’s sluggishness and faults, I’m glad I decided to read The Boats of the “Glen Carrig.” It didn’t provide me any celestial insights about my grandfather or serve up much in the way of chills and thrills, but it was worth it for the historical insight and the weird flashbacks to reading dusty archaic fantasy nonsense at the university library.
Also, I’m pretty sure I’m now qualified to captain a mid-1700s schooner, which is a valuable career skill to have.
Recommended listening: Hoodoo Gurus – Death Ship (from Stoneage Romeos, 1984)
Taking a little return cruise.