Manly Men and Stormy Seas
Of all the men to represent Edwardian masculinity, William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) is one of the most interesting examples. Although he’s not that well-known today, a great deal is known about his life. As a young boy he ran away from home to become a sailor, which didn’t turn out an immediate success. Intimidated by his elders on the ship, Hodgson began a regime of physical training.
He soon became a well-known body-builder with his own training school, and a personal acquaintance of Harry Houdini’s. (The two were apparently not the best of friends.) His literary life was mainly inspired by his life at sea, pervaded with sailors and sea monsters. Our hero went from sailor to body-builder/writer, to end up as a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery during the Great War. He died at Ypres in 1918 after being hit by an artillery shell.
Needless to say, Hodgson was an exquisite piece of Edwardian manhood, who wrote mainly adventure fiction permeated with masculine bodies and bravery. We’re talking full-on male communities of brawny sailors using their every muscular limb to fight a common enemy. And in “The Derelict,” this enemy is rather ambiguous, to say the least. The story is introduced in the frame of a discussion in the smoke-room of a men’s club. Imagine bearded men lounging with the occasional cigar and brandy. Naturally, the conversation turns to the nature of life: the material body or the eternal soul? Our storyteller – a doctor – is convinced that any inanimate material can be possessed by a spirit or life-force. He relates his adventure as a ship’s doctor, when he and his fellow-sailors entered a banked ship to see if anything was salvageable. Much to their surprise, the ship was covered with a strange flesh-eating mould that contaminates and entraps them. Yes, the ship had come to life, and loaded with metaphors. Some allusions compare the devouring mould to a mouth, “lapping at [their] legs”; some use its strange consistency and the female body of the ship as an unfortunate image for the female genitalia. This is not my gender focus talking here; actual man-eating mini-vaginas appear.
But have no fear, our hunky heroes show us what real bravery and teamwork can do and make it out alive! Well … most of them do.
Now, why do I like this story so much? I must admit, partly because of the man-eating goo. But most of all, this story is a great combo of the moral sentimentality you can find in a lot of the popular adventure fiction around that time, and this typical horror scene that sprouted in the degenerative fiction of the preceding century. Here however, the putrification process that this story begins with doesn’t win over the fantastically able bodies of the sailors. It’s like Hodgson is trying to find an escape from the image of degeneration in the post-Darwinian world by re-assessing the human body as – indeed – material, but definitely not weakened by the blow.