Any fan of horror fiction has at some point or other, like him or not, read some of the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Known for popularising the term ‘weird fiction’, strongly through his association with the magazine Weird Tales, many of his stories revolved around a distinctly un-caring threat, one that dispensed with petty grudges and malevolence. Yet Lovecraft had many who went before him, with famous names such as Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and my fellow Welshman, Arthur Machen, some of the most prominent names in these discussions. One of my favourite stories to come before Lovecraft has to be The Derelict, written in 1912 by William Hope Hodgson, and it is this tale which I wish to introduce.
Framed as a story-within-a-story, it follows a doctor recalling an encounter with a derelict ship, whilst on passage from England to China, presumably sometime in the late 19th century. The derelict is surrounded by a thick, treacle-like scum, and when they finally clamber aboard, they find the whole ship covered in a thick mould, which seems to ripple, pound, and be strangely sentient. It’s an intriguing, simple premise, but one which touches upon the distinctly gothic idea of the origins, and form, of life, combined with a careless, deeply impersonal threat which would characterise much of Lovecraft’s weird and cosmic horror in later years.
Gothic short stories commonly have a little discussion on some point about life, or the human experience, or something similar, before delving into the main narrative. Anyone who’s read some Edgar Allan Poe in their life will know this almost too well; it’s seen in ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Premature Burial’, and takes up roughly a third of ‘The Island of the Fay’. Being short blasts of terror, these stories use the device to ground their narratives in a tangible context of theme or premise, that we might treat it as something more serious than just someone rising from the grave, or a shaking silhouette of a tree reminding us of a long-dead wife and scaring us to death. In fact, this scene is so similar (in setup if not theme) to the beginning of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, just swapping out ‘I saw things on the Congo’ to ‘I saw things on the high seas’, that it’s hard to imagine Hodgson not being inspires in some way by Conrad’s novel. In ‘The Derelict’, Hodgson uses his introductory discussion between the doctor and the unnamed overall narrator to introduce the doctor as story-within-a-story narrator, but more importantly, to set up the main discussion of the story; the malleability, and distinctly un-divine origins, of life.
The setting out of the stall, of the origins of life, and how it can inhabit anything, ‘“…if given the right conditions, make itself manifest even through so hopeless seeming a medium as a simple block of sawn wood”’, works to present us with the idea of change; of something from inanimate to animate. It’s this idea, of the anthropomorphising (to give human traits to something non-human; literally anthropo – human – and morph – form -; to morph into humanness) of the ship and its fungal mass, which pervades the story, but also the thing which helps build tension and suspense before the inevitable reveal of the mould’s animation. When approaching the ship, it is described that, after propping up an oar against the derelict, ‘The oar had made quite an indentation into the bulging, somewhat slimy side of the old vessel.’ The wooden hull of a ship now has flexibility to it; it is malleable and can be shaped by the pressure of an oar leaning up against its side, with the aid of the mould which covers it, just as life can change something which was rigid and dead to being alive. Remember, it is ‘a simple block of sawn wood’ which is used as an example, and what is an old ship’s hull made from?
And when we finally arrive onboard the derelict, we find the mould has taken on a life of its own, as a sucking, flesh-eating mass. But what is remarkable is that Hodgson doesn’t pose this threat as particularly malevolent, though uncertainly threatening towards our protagonists, as others might do to create a scare. Earlier on in the story we have been told that three pigs in a sty has washed overboard from the ship heading to China, which has gotten washed up in the sucking scum, pigs which are specifically announced as now being dead. And later on, when finding the Cyclone, there are “‘the bones of at least three people, all mixed together in an extraordinary fashion, and quite clean and dry’”.
We have here what seems to be just a natural trade of energy, the mould simply eating what washes into its vicinity in order to survive. There’s nothing which suggests that it actively hunts across the seas, and in the final moments of the doctor’s tale, though it lurches out after their vessel as it tries to row away, once free of the scum it retreats back to the derelict and stays there. There’s no shadow of Cthulhu racing under the waves after them. They’re gone, the fly having escaped the spider’s web, and so it’s happy with whatever it’s managed to catch in the meantime. This is simply nature taking its course.
This lack of specific evil is something Lovecraft tapped into in his mythos. One could never say that Azathoth deliberately went after one soul in any kind of revenge or grudge-match. Nyarlarthotep just treated us as toys. The color out of space is just something which happens. The penguins under the titular mountains of madness just come after what’s stumbled across them. This kind of existential realisation, that we are not as important to those beings greater than us beyond the gulfs of understanding as we think we are, is exactly what lurks behind the spongy threat on the derelict. It’s not specifically out to get us, nor does it harbour some kind of emotive response to the explorers’ presence. They’re just food that must be eaten because it’s there to eat.
And none of this even gets close to touching upon our fear of germs and dirt and grime, which goes without saying. Interestingly, the story is written about sixty years after Darwin, and sixteen years before the discovery of penicillin (and three decades before it was widely used). So we have the conditions here for breeding (in the story, though pardon the pun) a fear of germs taking on a life of their own, under purely scientific circumstances, with no way to kill them. Note also that the main protagonist is a doctor, used to treating infections, and even he can’t kill the mould, and must resort to running away instead. You may read into these ideas what you will, and form your own interpretations of how they would have enhanced the horror to readers at the time, and how it may be similar or different to our own reading today.
If you want to, you might see ‘The Derelict’ as a link between those sea-faring tales such as Moby Dick, or even Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, and the cosmic horror of later Lovecraft-inspired fiction. It’s a wonderfully fun, and perhaps even pulpy, tale of oceanic terror, with a threat that one could see as natural, or unnatural, as they see fit, and be sure to find something horrifying about it as a result. A criminally under-appreciated piece of writing, and definitely one to check out on a stormy night in an armchair. You might want to do some spring cleaning before reading it, however, just in case.
Article by Kieran Judge