Odds and Dead Ends : Precursor to Weird Fiction: William Hope Hodgson’s ‘The Derelict’

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

Twitter: @kjudgemental

David’s Haunted Library: Synchronized Sleepwalking

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27417603There are people out there that don’t consider writing an art form. Though in reality a well written short story or novel is a work of art. A writer creates a world, characters and situations meant to entertain us as readers.  Some writers have an easy time making us laugh, scaring us and making us scratch our heads in disbelief. Synchronized Sleepwalking by Martin Mundt is a book that does all of these things.

With a name like Synchronized Sleepwalking you know right away that this isn’t your average read. This book includes stories that could fit in different genres, such as Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy and bizarre fiction. To give an example of how bizarre this book is the first story is a work of flash fiction called A Bird In Hand. It’s about a man who goes to see a dominatrix that owns a parrot. When the dominatrix leaves for a bit, the man has “relations” with the parrot. If you think that’s weird it gets much weirder later and with this being the first story I was left with the feeling of “What the heck kind of book is this?”

The second story is one called The Girl With A Motorcycle For A Heart. The setting is a futuristic world where everyone is born a criminal and when you turn 18 you have to pay for the sins of your past lives. A girl named Penny has just turned 18 and she is different then the other criminals because she is innocent. There was a heartbreaking point in this story about what jealousy can do to someone and how your past defines your future.

Another good one in this collection that’s bizarre with a great point to it was Chair.  On the surface this is an odd one with a man who is trying to become a billionaire by selling his body parts and who eventually gets a job as a chair. This story maybe hilarious with the description of what he feels as he lives his life as a chair and sells his body parts but it also has a good message about what people are willing to give up to be rich. The ending of this one is excellent when we find out that even people who give up everything will still pass judgement on others.

If horror is your game this anthology has it in the The Black House. I like the idea here of a haunted house where a man learns of the existence of sin eaters: creatures that are invisible and are waiting to take your soul when you die a sinner. The description of the old mansion and the sorcerer that owned it are excellent in this creepy story.

The best thing about this book is probably how it goes from fantasy in The Once Upon A Time King where someone takes over a kingdom in an original way to comedy along with a vengeful chicken in The Saga Of El Polo. Synchronized Sleepwalking is the kind of book you buy if you like a little comedy and weirdness with your horror. Though this is more than just a book full of weird stories, several of these stories have a great message to them and you have to appreciate a book that makes you laugh and think at the same time.

http://www.darkartsbooks.com/

Press Release: The Massacre of the Mermaids

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Now available:

THE MASSACRE OF THE MERMAIDS
Horror short stories collection
Author: Alessandro Manzetti
Publisher: Kipple Officina Libraria (April, 2015)
Book cover by Ben Baldwin
Editing by Jodi Renee Lester
eBook edition – Pages: 51 – Language: English
Stories: The Massacre of the Mermaids, The Rosary, The Slicer, Der Bruter, The God’s Meridians, Mictlan, Blood in Jerusalem
Available on Amazon and major online booksellers
Amazon Link: http://goo.gl/KywV4o

From the Bram Stoker Awards® nominee Alessandro Manzetti comes a new horror, weird, gory, and dystopian short story collection. “The Massacre of the Mermaids” includes seven visionary and disturbing stories set in the future and the past: the apocalyptic and bloody Rome dominated by the first She-Pope who organizes shocking exhibitions in the new Coliseum; the bloody and cannibalistic Jerusalem during the First Crusade with gangs of rapists, criminals, and anthropophagy addicts; the future ultra-violent district Paris Sud 5 with a human landfill; the Nakara, a slaughterhouse-prison dug into the bowels of the moon, the first organized human breeding in history, managed by the diabolic Slicer; and the subterranean rooms of Mictlan, the Aztec hell that destroys Spanish victims, sacrificing them through unthinkable and brutal rites. “The Massacre of the Mermaids” will leave you breathless. The limit has never been so violated.

http://www.amazon.com/Massacre-Mermaids-k_noir-Book-ebook/dp/B00WANT2OK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1430007699&sr=8-1&keywords=massacre+of+the+mermaids

Press Release: Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume 1

imagesWelcome to the weird! Acclaimed author and editor Laird Barron, one of weird fiction’s brightest exponents, brings his expert eye and editorial sense to the inaugural volume of the Year’s Best Weird Fiction. No longer the purview of esoteric readers, weird fiction is enjoying wide popularity. Chiefly derived from early 20th-century pulp fiction, its remit includes ghost stories, the strange and macabre, the supernatural, fantasy, myth, philosophical ontology, ambiguity, and a healthy helping of the outre. At its best, weird fiction is an intersecting of themes and ideas that explore and subvert the Laws of Nature. It is not confined to one genre, but is the most diverse and welcoming of all genres. Hence, in this initial showcase of weird fiction you will discover tales of horror, fantasy, science fiction, the supernatural, and the macabre. Contributing authors include Jeffrey Ford, Sofia Samatar, Joseph S. Pulver Sr, John Langan, Richard Gavin and many more.

To find out more about the anthology check out: http://chizinepub.com/books/years-best-weird-1

The stories in this anthology are listed below:

“Success” by Michael Blumlein, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,Nov./Dec.

“Like Feather, Like Bone” by Kristi DeMeester, Shimmer #17

“A Terror” by Jeffrey Ford, Tor.com, July.

“The Key to Your Heart Is Made of Brass” by John R. Fultz, Fungi #21

“A Cavern of Redbrick” by Richard Gavin, Shadows & Tall Trees #5

“The Krakatoan” by Maria Dahvana Headley, Nightmare Magazine/The Lowest Heaven, July.

“Bor Urus” by John Langan, Shadow’s Edge

“Furnace” by Livia Llewellyn, The Grimscribe’s Puppets

“Eyes Exchange Bank” by Scott Nicolay, The Grimscribe’s Puppets

“A Quest of Dream” by W.H. Pugmire, Bohemians of Sesqua Valley

“(he) Dreams of Lovecraftian Horror” by Joseph S. Pulver Sr., Lovecraft eZine #28

“Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron” by A.C. Wise, Ideomancer Vol. 12 Issue 2

“The Year of the Rat” by Chen Quifan, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August.

“Fox into Lady” by Anne-Sylvie Salzman, Darkscapes

“Olimpia’s Ghost” by Sofia Samatar, Phantom Drift #3

“The Nineteenth Step” by Simon Strantzas, Shadows Edge

“The Girl in the Blue Coat” by Anna Taborska, Exotic Gothic 5 Vol. 1

“In Limbo” by Jeffrey Thomas, Worship the Night

“Moonstruck” by Karin Tidbeck, Shadows & Tall Trees #5

“Swim Wants to Know If It’s as Bad as Swim Thinks” by Paul Tremblay, Bourbon Penn #8

“No Breather in the World But Thee” by Jeff VanderMeer, Nightmare Magazine, March.

“Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us?” by Damien Angelica Walters, Shock Totem #7.

Too Much Dark Matter, Too Little Gray: a review by Donald Pitsiladis

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a review by Donald Pitsiladis

Award-winning speculative fiction author Mike Robinson offers up 19 of his creepily provocative short stories in his new book, Too Much Dark Matter, Too Little Gray: A Collection of Weird Fiction.

A beer run becomes an interdimensional excursion. Two men settle their differences after discovering an extraordinary secret in the wilderness. A woman faces the bureaucratic logistics of a digital afterlife. A grieving man seeks to know where his wife was reincarnated. Strange lights in the sky begin to transform the lives of a small town. God and the Devil play billiards for people’s souls. A teenage deity’s science fair project sprouts a startling discovery.

These and more dream-like detours into the surreal, interstitial and inexplicable await within the pages of Too Much Dark Matter, Too Little Gray: A Collection of Weird Fiction.

Hello Horror Addicts!

I just finished reading a rather interesting collection of short stories called, “Too Much Dark Matter, Too Little Gray” by Mike Robinson. It is billed as a collection of weird fiction, and I can attest that all of the stories in this book fit the bill. Whether it is a computer program that determines whether your consciousness survives virtually by weighing the entirety of the life you lead, fabulous gelatin that falls from the sky, or a hiking trail that steals your youth like a Venus flytrap. While they don’t fit any traditional definitions of horror, but they will make you grin and cringe at times.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book, and if I had to pick my favorite, there would be a tie between “The Cyclops Convention” and “Symbols of Atlantis”. The first because of the fun macabreness of it, the second because it is actually a very relatable story. It is definitely worth reading as light fare, a pick me up, or a palate cleanser between dark stories.

My rating is a 3.75 out of 5.