Tag Archives: stranger seas

William Hope Hodgson and the Sea-Dogs

Today, the plus side of your village being dragged inexorably into the North Sea (for lurcher walkers, anyway), and the nautical horror of William Hope Hodgson. So, something for everyone, if everyone likes lurchers and Hope Hodgson. Which they should. We thought we’d post some fun stuff while we were editing our Michael Hutter weird art feature for the weekend, so here’s Stranger Seas Ten. They grow up so quickly, don’t they?


Lurchers at Sea

Lurchers like the sea. However, being the dark, dour children of Yorkshire that the greydog family are, instead of pleasant sun-trap beaches and palms, we have a coastline scoured by the icy North Sea and covered in sea frets (dense, cold mist from the sea).

You can choose between towering, lethal cliffs and long stretches of yesterday’s dining room being washed away as you speak. There’s a rather nice upside to the second option, though. Miles of empty sand, interrupted only by the occasional World War Two pill-box and someone’s collapsed outhouse (there’s more about this coast in whale-road, widow-maker).

Thus we oil the hovercraft and grind determinedly eastwards a few times a year to release the hounds. Between Flamborough Head and the mouth of the mighty Humber, basically all you have is this:

horses on the holderness coast
horses on the holderness coast

And then you add dogs – when the horses have gone, of course. Sea-going lurchers come in two varieties: alpha brain-boxes (eg. Chilli) who know what the sea is, and good-natured bumblers (eg. Django) who keep trying to drink it and then spit out salt. Do they swim, you ask? In fact can lurchers swim at all?

it’s my pool. no. it’s my pool.

They usually don’t, but they usually can. They like water, when it’s doing what it’s told, and ours head for it without hesitation. Lurchers typically paddle, run and splash up to tummy level, whereas juggernauts like our old labrador plough straight in.

the dog that ate the yorkshire coast

As a curious aside, Chilli has an incredible ability to find the wet stuff, which we’ve seen repeatedly. We were once on a long moors walk where Django became wobbly from the heat and had trouble going on. Our alpha wonder shot forward ahead of us, and in five minutes had found the only ditch/stream with water in it on the whole moor. A good dunking, and all was well. This is the very moment, in fact:

django rehydrates to his normal self

Every so often you do meet a swimming champion among lurchers, but we’ve never had one. Word on the street is that some saluki crosses have webbed feet (from all that swimming on sand as they pull down antelopes), and that they make good swimmers. But saluki crosses often don’t do what you ask them anyway, so you might never know.


What longdogs do is charge. Those miles of sand (and a 40mph velocity) mean that the loyal companion by your feet is suddenly somewhere near the next county, a tiny dot which might be anything, frankly. You might be going red in the face and whistling for a seal which dropped its sunglasses the day before. We’re fortunate in that our two run in huge circles, which means that they do pass by every so often. “Oh look, there are the… no, they’ve gone again.”

just loonies

Chilli, who gets bored on the flat eventually, also delights in heading for rock-pools we can’t reach, or trying to climb the most dangerous, most crumbling bit of cliff she can find. Meanwhile, Django stands panting and drinks sea-water for the tenth time, having totally forgotten once more that he doesn’t like it.

if you drink that, you’ll be sorry…

A day by the sea with longdogs is, basically, a joy. But take your own fresh water supply, especially if you have a Django.


Now, the next section is less lurchery. Before we interviewed nautical fantasy author Matt Willis a few weeks ago (see sea serpents, saltwater and ship’s biscuits), he mentioned coming across a talk given on William Hope Hodgson and maritime horror a couple of years ago. So we dug around for more details.

The paper in question was delivered by Dr Alexander Hay at the Sea Lines of Communication Conference Proceedings, Southampton, University of Southampton in 2014. The University said it was fine for us to use it, but could we link directly to the original paper held in their e-archives, so we’ve compromised. The paper covers Hope Hodgson’s nautical work and focusses especially on three pieces:

  • The Voice in the Night
  • The Ghost Pirates
  • The Haunted Jarvee

What we offer below is the first part of Dr Hay’s presentation – the introduction and themes, and his commentary on The Voice in the Night. A link to the rest is provided at the end.

The Maritime Horror Fiction of William Hope Hodgson – Archetypes and Nuance

By Alexander Hay PhD

The Sea represents many things, but one recurring subject is horror. Whether it is Ulysses driven insane by the song of the sirens as he is lashed to the main mast of his ship; Umibouzu, the sinister giant black figure that haunted Japanese fishermen and sailors; Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with its depictions of living death and doom; the shipwrecked mariners contemplating cannibalism and ‘otherness’ in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym or Peter Benchley’s Jaws, the sea has long been both source and setting for horror.


In this year alone, we have seen Godzilla return to the big screen from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, leaving devastation, metaphors and tsunamis in his wake, and all the while Great Cthulhu continues to sleep in the mathematically impossible city of R’lyeh at the bottom of the sea, until the day he surfaces once and for all and brings us to our doom – perhaps with a loud BLOOP as he rises…

This then is what I term ‘Maritime Horror’ a sub-genre which both maligns and celebrates the sea as horror or backdrop to horror. As I have mentioned, maritime horror already has a substantial canon and this will no doubt continue to grow for the sea continues to fascinate and frighten us in equal measure. However, this paper’s aim is to make a case for the pre-eminence of one writer in particular, William Hope Hodgson.


There are many reasons why we should revive interest in this author. As a pioneer of cosmic horror, as his novel The House on the Borderlands demonstrates, Hodgson’s influence was admitted by HP Lovecraft himself and so, through him, modern horror owes a great debt. He was and is one of many writers and artists whose death in World War One threatens their total obscurity. Perhaps then, in the centenary of this war, we should renew our interest in both him and other authors whose lives and careers ended far too soon on the Western Front.

Yet what is most significant about Hodgson, beyond his having written a great deal of maritime horror fiction, was that he was himself a former mariner, first becoming a sailor at age 14 before becoming disillusioned with life at sea and starting a career as a physical trainer and then an author after his 25th birthday. Prior to this, he had formal training as an apprentice and then a third mate while also developing an interest in naval photography.

Kessinger (2010)
Kessinger (2010)

Nonetheless, his passion for the sea was dimmed considerably by what he described as “a comfortless, weariful, and thankless life” while he himself was a volatile, even at times unpleasant individual, who encountered mixed fortunes throughout his life. For Hodgson, conflating his experiences with horror and the foreboding unknown took very little effort. Yet I would argue that this also gives Hodgson an insight and authority in regards to his subject matter that other authors lacked – for he really did obey the maxim that you should write about what you know.

Hodgson wrote many examples of Maritime Horror and nautical fiction – over fifty – but given the scope of this paper, we will look at three as way of an introduction. The first example of this approach, combining the realism of first-hand experience with the uncanny, was The Voice in the Night, first published in 1907 and, coincidentally, used as the basis for the lurid, subliminally sexual Japanese castaway horror film Matango in 1963. (Like Godzilla, a production by the Toho studios, who also made Ringu in 1998, yet another horror film with nautical roots.)

Here a mariner recounts how his ship, “becalmed in the Northern Pacific” was approached in the middle of the night by a strange figure in a rowing boat. The stranger refuses to be seen and instead pleads for food while, ominously, wishing to keep his distance from the narrator’s boat. Eventually, the ship sends food over to the rowing boat via a boathook and a float, and the stranger then recounts his tale.

Holding & Hardingham (1921)
Holding & Hardingham (1921)

It transpires that he and his fiancée were shipwrecked on a strange island riddled with fungus which infects and then eventually takes over its hosts. It has an unusual allure that compels its victims to eat or desire it, much like the fate that befalls the lotophagi in The Odyssey, victims of another corrupting force, spiritual as well as physical, and also encountered on an island in a seafaring narrative. The fiancée eats some of the fungus and becomes infected while the stranger is contaminated while fighting off what is left of another host, which tries to attack him.

Realising they are infected, they decide to quarantine themselves, eating only whatever untainted food they can find. It is implied that the infection has nonetheless almost completely consumed the fiancée and that the stranger is trying to keep what remains of her alive until such time that he too completely succumbs. Finally, the narrator catches a glimpse of the stranger rowing away in the early dawn light and is horrified to see his deformed fungoid form. No longer able to empathise with the stranger – a final tragedy and horror in the story – the narrator refers to him instead as “…the thing” as he heads towards his inevitable doom.


Here Hodgson combines three separate strands. On the one hand, he dwells upon body horror and the corruption of the flesh. This is a disruptive, invasive force not just on the body but on social norms of the day – the fiancée, expected by contemporary convention to remain chaste and pure, is the first to give into a depraved appetite for the fungus and is subsequently made to “promise on her knees” never to do it again, she herself admitting that “the desire for it had come suddenly, and that, until the moment of desire, she had experienced nothing towards it but the most extreme repulsion.”

This conservative narrative of fallen woman laid low by lust (whether it be for fungus or other more primal desires) is subverted, however, by the stranger’s own subsequent downfall, where he is “immediately filled with an inhuman desire. I turned and seized a mass of the fungus. Then more and — more. I was insatiable.”

Hodgson also alludes to the maritime connections between the sea and leprosy – like the fungus, a contagious disease which corrupts and rots the flesh. It is worth noting that six years before The Voice in the Night was published, the United States government founded a leprosarium on the island of Culion, where all lepers were to be quarantined and isolated. The sea, in fact, was a common way of separating society from the leprous ‘other’, the 1866 founding of the Moloka’i leper colony near Hawaii – still very much in use by 1907 – being yet another real life example of the Pacific ocean used to create a separation between the uninfected and the leprous, as well as the natives of the islands and the new ruling class of white settlers.


This in turn harked back to even older traditions, such as the ritualised sequestration of lepers during the Middle Ages, and where a common literary device was to have a sinful or impious character afflicted with leprosy as both punishment and means of salvation through the acceptance of divine authority. It is worth noting here that the stranger mentions God on a regular basis, either calling upon him to reward the narrator and his ship for its charity, or throwing himself and his fiancée onto the mercy of the divine – “God would do with us what was His will”, as the stranger says, perhaps with added poignancy given the plight that befalls both him and his fiancée.

The third strand, however, is the nautical element of the story. The stranger and his fiancée were abandoned on their demasted ship (the ominously named ‘Albatross’) by the crew and were forced to make an improvised raft which carries them not to salvation but their doom. It is implied that their lack of knowledge of the sea is partly the cause of their plight, though this is subverted at the end of the story by the narrator noting that the stranger was now almost indistinguishable from his grey rowing boat – “my eyes searched a moment vainly for the conjunction of hand and oar.”

johan dahl
johan dahl

By the end of the story, the stranger had, ironically, begun to learn the skills that he lacked at the start of the story, though this was now far too late for either him or his fiancée. Hodgson also implies that the original sin is not the couple giving into the ‘forbidden fruit’ of the fungus but their crew abandoning them and the duty of mariners to support one another in what is, after all, an environment that requires collaboration. Again, it is only belatedly that this duty is fulfilled by the narrator’s own ship, and it is too late. Here, we see the conventions and structures of seafaring life decayed and corrupted, like the bodies of the couple.

Instead, the stranger is transformed by his exposure to the sea, like a sailor, but is also undone by it, and doomed to become part of its dark mythology, something that emerges from its outer reaches and serves as a reminder of humanity’s inability to master it and, ultimately, nature. In many ways, then, The Voice in the Night is a nautical ghost story, with the added horror of the stranger being not quite dead yet – nor quite anything else.

And for Hope Hodgson enthusiasts, you can find the rest of this piece at:




Right, we’re done for now. One of our Weird Art posts in a day or so, with that incredibly talented German artist Michael Hutter, so come back soon…

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The Flying Dutchman Sails Again

It’s Part 2 of our Flying Dutchman special feature. A Lovecraftian film of Chilean folk-horror and a James Mason classic, art, what connects Washington Irving, Roger Zelazny and Uncle Scrooge McDuck, and how to confuse Cub Scouts. Plus lots of great clips. We’re sailing through Stranger Seas 8.1, lost as usual.


A little general muttering first. Spring is sprung, and the little donkeys are now lying all over the patio getting their rays. We didn’t have a camera with us today, but part of the usual sprawl is shown below. If they stay still long enough, we might even get the next bit of Training Your Human finished for next week.


New guests are joining us for articles in April – we should have authors Alan M Clark and Joanne Hall onboard, covering horror and fantasy respectively, and we have a promise of a feature with stunning artist Santiago Caruso, who we’ve mentioned here many times.

As this is supposedly the blog of John Linwood Grant, the My Writing page on the top bar has been seriously updated to point out how you can find his fiction in print/ebook. Or how you can avoid it. Hound enthusiasts will be catered for eventually, as we think about gathering together Lurchers for Beginners in some more coherent form. Beer mats, maybe.

Time to get wet…

I’ll be a Flying Dutchman Pt 2

We’re on the trail of the Flying Dutchman once more, picking up where we left off. Washington Irving should be well-known to many as the author of Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Curiously for us, Irving’s father was from Shapinsay in the Orkney Islands off the Scottish coast. Trivia fiends will remember that the water around these islands are home to the dark and malevolent finfolk (whale-road, widow-maker).

tim burton, 1999
sleepy hollow, tim burton (1999)

In 1855 Irving collected together his short stories and essays written for The Knickerbocker and other outlets in the form of Wolfert’s Roost, produced under the name Geoffrey Crayon. This is his mention of the tale:

Another local superstition is of a less gloomy kind, and one which I confess I am somewhat disposed to cherish. The Tappan Sea, in front of the Roost, is about three miles wide, bordered by a lofty line of waving and rocky hills. Often, in the still twilight of a summer evening, when the sea is like glass, with the opposite hills throwing their purple shadows half across it, a low sound is heard, as of the steady, vigorous pull of oars, far out in the middle of the stream, though not a boat is to be descried. This I should have been apt to ascribe to some boat rowed along under the shadows of the western shore, for sounds are conveyed to a great distance by water, at such quiet hours, and I can distinctly hear the baying of the watch-dogs at night, from the farms on the sides of the opposite mountains.

The ancient traditionists of the neighborhood, however, religiously ascribed these sounds to a judgment upon one Rumbout Van Dam, of Spiting Devil, who danced and drank late one Saturday night, at a Dutch quilting frolic, at Kakiat, and set off alone for home in his boat, on the verge of Sunday morning; swearing he would not land till he reached Spiting Devil, if it took him a month of Sundays. He was never seen afterward, but is often heard plying his oars across the Tappan Sea, a Flying Dutchman on a small scale, suited to the size of his cruising-ground; being doomed to ply between Kakiat and Spiting Devil till the day of judgment, but never to reach the land.

Back in Britland, the legend of the Dutchman was given a further boost in 1881, when George, Prince of Wales (later to become George V) recorded an encounter. He was serving aboard HMS Bacchante at the time.

hms bacchante, william frederick mitchell
hms bacchante, william frederick mitchell

This demonstrates the egalitarian nature of the phantom ship, which was willing to appear before both commoners and royalty. Sailing off Australia, he wrote the following (for purists, there is a possibility that the entry was by George’s elder brother Prince Albert Victor, as he was also on the voyage):

July 11th. At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her.

The Tourmaline and Cleopatra, who were sailing on our starboard bow, flashed to ask whether we had seen the strange red light. At 6.15 A.M. observed land (Mount Diana) to the north-east. At 10.45 A.M. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms. At 4.15 P.M, after quarters we hove to with the headyards aback, and he was buried in the sea. He was a smart royal yardman, and one of the most promising young hands in the ship, and every one feels quite sad at his loss. (At the next port we came to, the Admiral also was smitten down).

Let’s have some art, before we get smitten too.

Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847 – 1917) was an American painter who had a rather odd approach to painting, applying layer after layer over years, often at the wrong time. Whilst very collectable, his paintings kept falling apart, so his Flying Dutchman is somewhat cracked, literally.


Howard Pyle (1853 – 1911), a somewhat more sorted artist, was one of America’s most popular illustrators and storytellers of the period.  His illustrations appeared in magazines like Harper’s Monthly and Collier’s Weekly. Pyle’s pictures of knights, pirates, and historical figures were influential on many other artists (painting 1900).


Far more important to many of us was Carl Barks (1901 – 2000), the famous Donald Duck artist, creator of Duckburg and our favourite character, Scrooge McDuck. In fact, if you like Raiders of the Lost Ark, you should know that the great boulder which rolls after Indiana Jones at the start was based on the Carl Barks 1954 Uncle Scrooge adventure The Seven Cities of Cibola.


In 1959 Barks wrote and drew the magnificent Flying Dutchman adventure of Uncle Scrooge, Donald and his nephews – a masterpiece in supernatural literature (if you like ducks).


We’re in the 1950s, which means it’s time to move on to actor James Mason, of such fame that we hardly need to say more. The Dutchman story was dramatised in his 1951 film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, with Mason as the Dutch Captain Hendrick van der Zee and Ava Gardner as Pandora. We get the love interest version this time.

Rather than challenging God or the storm, Van der Zee killed his wife, thinking (mistakenly) that she had been unfaithful to him. As a result he was condemned to sail the oceans for centuries, seeking true love. Once every seven years the Dutchman is allowed ashore for six months to search for a woman who will love him enough to die for him, releasing him from his curse. We’re sure that there’s something wrong with this whole scenario, but we could listen to James Mason’s voice all day, so what the heck.

After this, you pick and choose. There are plenty of Dutchman references and links in the media post-sixties, so we’re only going to cover a few favourites.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, that spiffing TV show, had its own tribute to the legend in the 1967 episode Cave of the Dead. In summary, when four capital ships vanish, Admiral Nelson and Commander Van Wyck are sent to investigate. They find an island where Nelson removes a dagger from a skeleton which happens to be the captain of the Amsterdammer, the Flying Dutchman, and is then cursed. Van Wyck is in reality the first mate who killed the Captain. His plan is to kill Nelson with the dagger so that he can be free and Nelson will take his place. You can watch this episode here:

Then there’s Roger Zelazny, the writer who we can’t help mentioning. In his collection Unicorn Variations (1983), his wry story And Only I Am Escaped To Tell Thee recounts the tale of a sailor who escapes from the Flying Dutchman and is rescued by sailors who welcome him to a much safer vessel.

The seaman clapped him on the shoulder. “Rest easy now, my friend. You are safe at last,” he said, “Free of the demon ship. You are aboard a vessel with a fine safety record and excellent officers and crew – and just a few days away from her port. Recover your strength and rid your mind of past afflictions. We welcome you aboard the Marie Celeste.”

It would seem unreasonable, given that this is Stranger Seas, not to  mention the weird Spongebob Squarepants. In this animated series, The Flying Dutchman is both the name of a Dutch ghost (an actual flying Dutchman) and his haunted pirate ship (the Flying Dutchman). You can even get a Lego set, which was released in 2012.

lego-the-flying-dutchman-set-3817-15It was while writing (that’s what we call it, anyway) this article that we came across a final connection which really interested us – the Caleuche. This is too cool to miss out, given that it does involve a phantom ship and a very weird setting. According to Chilean legend, the Caleuche is a large ghost ship sailing the seas around Chiloé (a small island off the coast of Chile) at night. We’re nearer Cape Horn than the Cape of Good Hope with this one.

The Caleuche is said to be a being who is conscious and sentient. The ship appears as a beautiful and bright white sailing ship, with 3 masts of 5 sails each, always full of lights and with the sounds of a party on board, but quickly disappears again, leaving no evidence of its presence. The ghost ship is also known to be able to navigate under water, just like another well known ghost ship, the Flying Dutchman. (Magdalena Petit)

el millalobo, dorian c

The crew of the Caleuche are drowned men, whose bodies are taken from the sea and are brought to the ship. Some versions say that they are horribly transformed in the process. Their guides are three mythological figures who are siblings and merfolk – the sirena chilote, the pincoya and their brother the pincoy. These are the children of the Millalobo, the Sea-King. (Chilote legends deserve an article in their own right, but that’s for another time).

In 2012 Jorge Olguin directed the film Caleuche: El Llamado del Mar (The Call of the Sea). Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an English language/subtitle version available, but as far as we can tell, the story concerns a marine researcher with Chilean roots who develops a disfiguring and unknown disease. She leaves the US to try and find a cure or explanation on the island of Chiloe, where her ancestors came from. There she discovers the legend of the Caleuche, and its effect on the lives of everyone there…

The film seems to be a blend of folk mythology and Lovecraftian dread, and looks rather interesting. Here’s the trailer:

As we can’t doggy-paddle much longer, we’ll bring things to a close. Normally we like to add a bit of music or audio, but space is limited. Jethro Tull and Tori Amos have both done Flying Dutchman songs, which aren’t bad, but the greatest one is Hugo Winterhalter & His OrchestraThe Flying Dutchman Ahoy Ahoy. If you can find that, you’re laughing (or sobbing, depending on your musical tastes). If you’re keen on some nautical horror to listen to, then we recommend William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates, which is better than any Dutchman story we’ve encountered so far:

We leave you with a game that makes no sense to us, the Cub Scout game Flying Dutchman. No wonder our children are confused.

Instructions: Stand in circle facing inward holding hands. Two scouts hold hands outside the circle and are the Flying Dutchman. They circle the world, looking for a harbor in which to rest.

As they walk around the circle, the Flying Dutchman slaps the handhold of two scouts. Those two scouts must leave the circle as a pair and run around the circle in the opposite direction as the Flying Dutchman.

Whichever pair reaches the opening again first, reaches safe harbor. The other pair is now the Flying Dutchman.


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Well, I’ll be a Flying Dutchman!

We’ve all been there. You decide to sail round a few continents in the worst storms imaginable, make a pact with the Devil and then, dash it, you’re doomed to wander the Seven Seas for eternity. So here’s everything you didn’t want to know about the most haunted ship ever. The origins of the story, Gothic fiction and the death of Napoleon in Part One today. In Part Two later this weekend, Chilean mythology through to Roger Zelazny, calling in at James Mason, Uncle Scrooge McDuck and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea along the way.

Put out the galley fire and swallow that grog, it’s Stranger Seas Eight

matchack, deviantart
matchack, deviantart

(This first part’s the semi-literary and historical bit, by the way. We’ve even quoted sections of the relevant works, in order to prove we don’t make everything up.)

Der Fliegende Hollander, De Vliegende Hollander. Over three centuries, the legend of the Flying Dutchman has mutated many times. Usually the Dutchman is the ship itself; sometimes the Dutchman is its captain, cursed to be the equivalent of the Wandering Jew.

It all began in the 17th century – we think. The legend was certainly established by the middle of the 18th century, but we’ll never know the exact details. There are two named candidates for the origin of the story, a Dutch explorer called Van der Decken and a man called Barend or Bernard Fokke. Both were sea-captains who were supposed to have worked for the Dutch East India Company, and made extensive voyages around 1650 – 1680.

Not a lot is known of Captain Van Der Decken, aka Cornelius Vanderdecken. The tale is that his ship got caught up in a storm around the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), and he swore that he would finish the voyage even if it took him until Judgement Day. It was said that because of the vow that he was forced to sail the seas forever by the Devil.

Captain Barend Fokke was certainly genuine. A Frisian born sailor, he was renowned for fast voyages between Java and Holland (then the Dutch Republic). In 1678 he is supposed to have covered the distance in just over 3 months. This was pretty impressive, and gave rise to talk that he was in league with dark powers, possibly the Devil himself.

By the late 18th century, the legend was pretty well established. A doomed captain/ship and crew would appear to other ships, either dark and ruined or haloed with a ghostly light, and often during a storm. Sometimes the sight presaged evil to come, sometimes it was just one of those things put there to remind you that you needed to go to confession again fairly soon.

from a german print
from a german print

We’ll get slightly literary. A pickpocket called George Barrington was sentenced to transportation to Australia in 1790, travelling there between March and September 1791. Barrington supposedly wrote about that journey in A Voyage to Botany Bay (1795). We say supposedly because it seems likely that whatever he produced was altered or re-written for publication. In the published book, the passage goes:

I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions and doom, but had never given much credit to the report; it seems that some years since a Dutch man-of-war was lost off the Cape of Good Hope, and every soul on board perished; her consort weathered the gale, and arrived soon after at the Cape. Having refitted, and returning to Europe, they were assailed by a violent tempest nearly in the same latitude. In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale, and that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared.

Nothing could do away the idea of this phenomenon on the minds of the sailors; and, on their relating the circumstances when they arrived in port, the story spread like wild-fire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few Indiamen, but what has some one on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.


Not long after, at the start of the next century, Thomas ‘Anacreon’ Moore wrote a poem about the ghost ship legend which is worth quoting in its entirety – a) it’s creepy, and b) we don’t do much versifying here.


See you, beneath yon cloud so dark,
Fast gliding along a gloomy bark?
Her sails are full,–though the wind is still,
And there blows not a breath her sails to fill!

Say, what doth that vessel of darkness bear?
The silent calm of the grave is there,
Save now and again a death-knell rung,
And the flap of the sails with night-fog hung.

There lieth a wreck on the dismal shore
Of cold and pitiless Labrador;
Where, under the moon, upon mounts of frost,
Full many a mariner’s bones are tost.

Yon shadowy bark hath been to that wreck,
And the dim blue fire, that lights her deck,
Doth play on as pale and livid a crew,
As ever yet drank the churchyard dew.

To Deadman’s Isle, in the eye of the blast,
To Deadman’s Isle, she speeds her fast;
By skeleton shapes her sails are furled,
And the hand that steers is not of this world!

Oh! hurry thee on-oh! hurry thee on,
Thou terrible bark, ere the night be gone,
Nor let morning look on so foul a sight
As would blanch for ever her rosy light!

Our chum Anacreon notes: “This is one of the Magdalen Islands, and, singularly enough, is the property of Sir Isaac Coffin. The above lines were suggested by a superstition very common among sailors, who called this ghost-ship, I think, The Flying Dutchman.”

by stefancelic
by stefancelic

Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine published a Flying Dutchman tale in 1821 called Vanderdecken’s Message Home, which included the belief that crew of the Dutchmen would seek to send letters to loved ones, even though the recipients would be long dead.

Soon a vivid flash of lightning shewed the waves tumbling around us, and in the distance, the Flying Dutchman scudding furiously before the wind, under a press of canvas…. One of the men cried aloud, “There she goes, top-gallants and all.”

The point being that they were in the middle of a storm, and no normal ship would be able to bear top-gallant sails under such conditions without disaster.

Big ocean wave breaking the shore

In 1833 (we’re being semi-chronological, don’t mock) Edgar Allen Poe wrote MS. Found in a Bottle. Although this is possibly a satire of sea tales, it includes an excellent encounter with what may well be the Dutchman:

Casting my eyes upwards, I beheld a spectacle which froze the current of my blood. At a terrific height directly above us, and upon the very verge of the precipitous descent, hovered a gigantic ship of nearly four thousand tons. Although upreared upon the summit of a wave of more than a hundred times her own altitude, her apparent size still exceeded that of any ship of the line or East Indiaman in existence.

Her huge hull was of a deep dingy black, unrelieved by any of the customary carvings of a ship. A single row of brass cannon protruded from her open ports, and dashed off from their polished surfaces the fires of innumerable battle-lanterns, which swung to and fro about her rigging. But what mainly inspired us with horror and astonishment, was that she bore up under a press of sail in the very teeth of that supernatural sea, and of that ungovernable hurricane.

Poe later adds:

The ship and all in it are imbued with the spirit of Eld. The crew glide to and fro like the ghosts of buried centuries, their eyes have an eager and uneasy meaning, and when their figures fall athwart my path in the wild glare of the battle-lanterns, I feel as I have never felt before…

by isildur123
by isildur123

Our next reference is to The Phantom Ship (1839), written by Frederick Marryat, the author of Mr Midshipman Easy and other books. Marryat served with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars as midshipman and eventually captain in the Royal Navy. The Phantom Ship is not without flaws – in fact it’s a tad boring in parts – but some people will know the chapter The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains, which has been anthologised a lot.


The book is basically about the Flying Dutchman legend. Philip Vanderdecken (remember that surname?) seeks to save his father, who has been doomed to sail for eternity as the Captain of the Bewitched Phantom Ship, after he made a rash oath to heaven and slew one of the crew whilst attempting to sail round the Cape of Good Hope. Vanderdecken discovers that there is a way by which his father may be laid to rest, and vows to live at sea until he has achieved this. This is dear papa’s revelation to his wife early on:

“‘Alas! no—be not alarmed, but listen? for my time is short. I have not lost my vessel, Catherine, but I have lost!—Make no reply, but listen; I am not dead, nor yet am I alive. I hover between this world and the world of spirits. Mark me.’

‘For nine weeks did I try to force my passage against the elements round the stormy Cape, but without success; and I swore terribly. For nine weeks more did I carry sail against the adverse winds and currents, and yet could gain no ground and then I blasphemed,—ay, terribly blasphemed. Yet still I persevered. The crew, worn out with long fatigue, would have had me return to the Table Bay; but I refused; nay, more, I became a murderer—unintentionally, it is true, but still a murderer. The pilot opposed me, and persuaded the men to bind me, and in the excess of my fury, when he took me by the collar, I struck at him; he reeled; and, with the sudden lurch of the vessel, he fell overboard, and sank. Even this fearful death did not restrain me; and I swore by the fragment of the Holy Cross, preserved in that relic now hanging round your neck, that I would gain my point in defiance of storm and seas, of lightning, of heaven, or of hell, even if I should beat about until the Day of Judgment.’

‘My oath was registered in thunder, and in streams of sulphurous fire. The hurricane burst upon the ship, the canvass flew away in ribbons; mountains of seas swept over us, and in the centre of a deep o’erhanging cloud, which shrouded all in utter darkness, were written in letters of livid flame, these words—Until the Day of Judgement.’

Marryat also had the odd distinction of sketching the corpse of Napoleon Bonaparte on St Helena, when he was charged with bringing back to England the despatches announcing Napoleon’s death. He wasn’t a great artist, but here it is, a sliver of history:


Finally for this part, we’ll mention but dash fairly rapidly past Richard Wagner’s opera Der Fliegende Hollander from 1843, because we find it somewhat dull at times. There are clear echoes of the Wandering Jew again, as the plot line was adapted from a story by Heinrich Heine in which the Dutchman is referred to as ‘the Wandering Jew of the ocean’.

Lots of people do like Wagner, of course, and so you can listen to the overture here:

Do join us for Part Two in a day or so, when we follow the tangled threads of the Dutchman into the twentieth century…


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Stranger Seas: The Sea Serpent Paradox

Are you plagued by writhing monstrosities which encircle your corvette and try to drag you down into the depths? Is your frigate scarred and battered from too many encounters with aquatic horrors of unfeasible size? Then you need the greydogtales guide to sea serpents.

In less nautical news, we are currently peddling our story A Persistence of Geraniums for publication, and will have a jolly good anthology announcement next week. Listeners are pressing for another Mr Dry tale, concerning the Edwardian assassin, and next month may have to see another chapter of Sandra’s First Pony, our popular Enid Blyton/H P Lovecraft crossover series. We also have some great interviews in the pipeline, covering weird art, talented authors and yes, lurchers. Speaking of which, Django is upside down as usual, and we have work to do…


Sea serpents. As promised, author Matt Willis is here to explain all. Last episode, we interviewed Matt on the subject of his novel Daedalus and the Deep, and on his writing in general (sea serpents, saltwater and ship’s biscuits). Today he revisits some of the topics raised back then in more depth. This is an educational channel, you know, not just fun. And we love mythological beasts, especially when they might almost be real…

The Sea Serpent Paradox

by Matt Willis

It’s called the Fermi Paradox, and it goes something like ‘if they existed, we’d have proof by now’. Properly the Fermi Paradox refers to intelligent alien life elsewhere in the universe, but it could equally well apply to sea serpents.

Sea serpents. A particular form of sea monster – perhaps even the archetypal sea monster alongside the tentacled kraken. Huge, snake or eel-like, possibly humped, or else loops of its body protrude above the surface, and dangerous to mariners in unknown waters. The sea serpent is the sea’s equivalent of the alien visitor – there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to their existence, and almost no evidence of any other kind.


That wasn’t always felt to be the case. “That there is such a creature, however, there can be little doubt, as his appearance has been so often alluded to,” wrote Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion of July 1852. It seemed that proof of the existence of the giant sea serpent must have been round the corner. Strange, then, that some 160 years later, the very notion that giant sea serpents exist or have ever existed seems unlikely, if not ludicrous.

The incident that triggered Gleason’s to state with confidence that the sea serpent must be real was what is now one of the better-known cases, the incident that inspired my novel ‘Daedalus and the Deep’. On 6 August 1848, Midshipman Sartoris of the Royal Navy corvette HMS Daedalus alerted the officers on the ship’s quarterdeck to an unusual sight. The captain, first lieutenant and sailing master were all present to see the approach from the ship’s beam of a large creature of a kind none had observed before. Captain Peter M’Quhae, in command of the vessel, described the encounter in his official report to the Admiralty:

“It was discovered to be an enormous serpent, with head and shoulders kept about four feet constantly above the surface of the sea; and as nearly as we could approximate by comparing it with the length of what our maintopsail-yard would show in the water, there was at the very least sixty feet of the animal a fleur d’eau no portion of which was, to our perception, used in propelling it through the water, either by vertical or horizontal undulation. It passed rapidly, but so close under our lee quarter that had it been a man of my acquaintance I should have easily recognised the features with the naked eye.”

london illustrated news

Reports of sea serpents all over the world were not exactly uncommon prior to that. There are plenty of recorded sightings going back to the 11th century and evidence that the creature was a familiar concept long before that. In Norse mythology, Jörmungandr was a giant sea serpent that grew so large it encircled the Earth. While notable events, recorded sightings of giant sea serpents seem to have been in evidence every few years, and on occasion much more frequently.

jormungandr, by walt simonson
jormungandr, by walt simonson

Unlike stories of visitors from other planets (often involving abduction), which didn’t really get going until the 1960s, sea serpent sightings began to tail off dramatically at the end of the 19th century, so much so that the phenomenon was noticeably rarer by the 1920s. Writing in 1925, in his book ‘Animals of Land and Sea’, Austin Clark of the Smithsonian Institution wrote: ‘“In the last 20 years we have heard less and less about the sea serpent.” Clark attributed this to the size of ships increasing and steam ships replacing sailing vessels. The “vantage point” for making observations therefore moved “from the low and insecure wave-washed deck of a small sailing boat to the high, comfortable, secure, and relatively dry deck of a much larger steamer.” This shift in perspective “removed the element of fear and hence dulled the imagination so that sailors are now able to study calmly and report correctly what they see.”

Problem solved then.

Unfortunately, for a scientist, Clark appears to have conveniently failed to consider any number of other factors that might influence the relative visibility of sea serpents. The noise of the steam engines and vibration from the ships’ screws causing the creatures to stay away, for example, or an increase in the mechanisation of whaling reducing a potential food source. Correlation does not imply causation, and to make such a broad assumption was strikingly bad practice for a scientist. But then ‘science’ has expended a great deal of time and energy on a ‘nothing to see here, move along’ approach when it comes to sea serpents.

by maarta laiho
by maarta laiho

The entry on sea serpents from the 1902 Encyclopaedia Britannica lists a string of ‘likely’ phenomena mistaken for sea serpents. These include: A school of porpoises; a flight of sea-fowl; a large mass of seaweed; a pair of basking sharks; ribbonfish/oarfish; giant squid; a whale, and a sea-lion. The encyclopaedia concludes that “with very few exceptions, all the so-called ‘sea serpents’ can be explained by reference to some well-known animal or other natural object.”

Many of the ‘rational’ explanations subsequently offered rely on substantial mistakes in interpretation, over-excitement or difficulties with observation such as distance or poor light. It is hard to see how, assuming the phenomenon sighted behaved as the Daedalus’s officers described, it could possibly have been a piece of seaweed, or indeed a whale or elephant seal, let alone an upturned canoe

The Daedalus Disputes

The Daedalus Sea Serpent report was met with a mixture of public fascination and scientific dismissal. Perhaps M’Quhae and the Daedalus’s officers didn’t appreciate the storm their story would create, but the media seized upon the sighting. The first public report of the sea serpent was in the Times of 10 October, six days after the corvette’s return. The London Illustrated News hailed “a new attestation to the existence of the Great Sea Serpent”.

The same newspaper later published comments by the biologist Sir Richard Owen, who claimed that the most likely explanation for the sighting was that it was an elephant seal swimming in open water. Owen suggested that what the officers had thought to be the creature’s tail was the long eddy which typically trailed behind an elephant seal.

london illustrated news
london illustrated news

Captain M’Quhae immediately and angrily rejected Owen’s claims, but the story was already causing embarrassment to the Admiralty. Questions arose in Parliament about how a Royal Navy captain could have allowed the report to be printed. Undeterred, M’Quhae collaborated with an illustrator to produce a series of engravings of the encounter, and these appeared alongside a copy of M’Quhae’s report to the Admiralty in the Illustrated London News of 28 October. In addition to three images portraying the Daedalus sea-serpent, the paper reproduced an anatomical drawing of the “American Sea Serpent, Scolioph Atlanticus” and a copy of a woodcut representing a 1740 sighting off Norway.

It’s hard to imagine that men such as the officers of the Daedalus would have opened themselves up to the risk of career damage and social ridicule lightly. Indeed, they had every right to expect that their account would be evaluated methodically. Observation and recording of natural phenomena by ‘reliable witnesses’ was an important part of science in the early 19th century.

And conditions for observation were good. It’s often assumed that sightings of sea serpents result from poor visibility, distance, bad light etc – and yet a surprising proportion of ‘marine cryptid’ sightings are made in good conditions. The 1,000-ton, 150ft ocean-going Daedalus could not be described as a ‘wave-washed… small sailing boat’, and its officers and crew would no doubt have protested strongly at Clark’s suggestion that they were so permanently terrified as to be unable to interpret what they saw around them accurately.

london illustrated news
london illustrated news

The immediate attempts in some quarters to dismiss the sighting out of hand may nevertheless seem surprising. Owen, for example, seems to have reached for ‘rational’ explanations without considering for a moment that the sighting was indeed of a giant sea serpent. Owen, who coined the term ‘dinosaur’, was no stranger to fantastic creatures. His suggestion that professional sailors who had spent a career at sea (M’Quhae gained his commission as lieutenant during the Napoleonic wars, more than three decades previously) would not recognise an elephant seal borders on the insulting. His immediate leap to find alternative explanations is indicative of an attitude that was already becoming entrenched – that sea serpents were not to be taken seriously by scientists.


Yet there had been no shortage of reported sightings of sea serpents over the previous two centuries. In the port of Gloucester, Massachusetts a sea serpent was frequently reported in the bay from the mid-17th century, culminating in 18 sightings in 1817. The 12 months following the Daedalus sighting produced two potential confirmations – later in 1848 an American brig reported a similar creature in almost exactly the same place (between St Helena and the Cape of Good Hope), and the following year a Royal Navy sloop made another strikingly similar sighting in the North Atlantic.

On the other hand, errors and hoaxes were rife. sea serpents in the recent past. The ‘sea serpent fever’ in New England generated by the numerous Gloucester sightings had led to one example. In fact, the very anatomical drawing of ‘Scolioph Atlanticus’ attached to the Daedalus story had originated in a bizarre mistake by a member of the New England Linnaean Society in 1817. The over-enthusiastic discoverer had found a deformed terrestrial snake on a beach, and took it to be the juvenile form of the sea serpent often seen in the bay. The error was quickly discovered, but was apparently still pervasive thirty years later.

Dr Koch’s Concoctions

Worse, three years before the Daedalus sighting, showman ‘Dr’ Albert Koch had paraded an egregiously fraudulent ‘sea serpent’ before a credulous public. Koch had earlier jumped on a bandwagon created by fossil skeletons discovered and displayed by respectable naturalists with the ‘Missourium’, a fake cobbled together from mastodon remains. This ‘creature’ sold (to the British Museum, no less), Koch turned to the fashionable sea serpent for his next showpiece. The prehistoric whale Basilosaurus had been discovered (and identified as a whale by Sir Richard Owen) in 1835, and was thought at the time to be of distinctly serpentine appearance. In 1845, Koch assembled parts of at least six skeletons as well as pieces of other whale skeletons and even Ammonite shells. The result was the 114-foot “Hydrarchos – or Leviathan of the Antediluvian World!” according to Koch’s promotional material.

koch's assembled beast
koch’s assembled beast

Contemporary naturalists, including Owen, were infuriated by Koch’s adulation by public and press. However vehemently they pointed out that Koch’s skeletons were fakes, the crowds kept on going to see them – in fact, the controversy probably boosted visits to Koch’s exhibits.

In the light of foolish errors like ‘Scolioph Atlanticus,’ and outright scams like Hydrarchos, that sea serpent sightings weren’t taken seriously by naturalists. By 1848, the sea serpent had already fallen into the domain of the pseudo-scientific. In another century, the giant sea serpent would become the poster-child for the new pseudo-science of cryptozoology, but this process had begun much earlier.

The decline of sea serpent sightings could be down to all kinds of things. Perhaps we are that much more sensible and less credulous now, than the crowds that flocked to see Hydrarchos, or the sailors who saw mermaids’ mirrors in the fins of manatees. Perhaps the sea serpents have all gone, deafened by ships’ engines, driven crazy by sonar and starved of food by overfishing and whaling-to-extinction. Perhaps we don’t see them anymore because they’re all gone. Or nearly all gone.

Serpents and Fiction

In fiction, however, particularly in the fantasy genre, the sea serpent retained its appeal throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. In CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, the ship Dawn Treader is encounters a sea serpent that makes the characteristic attack of looping its body around the ship’s hull and attempting to crush it.

dawn treader, fxguide
dawn treader, fxguide

Robin Hobb’s ‘Liveship Traders’ books present sea serpents as the larval form of dragons. In Naomi Novik’s ‘Temeraire’ series, sea serpents exist in the 19th century along with dragons and Bunyips. Perhaps the best, eeriest and most affecting bit of sea serpent literature I have come across, though, is Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Fog Horn’:

“And then, from the surface of the cold sea came a head, a large head, dark-coloured, with immense eyes, and then a neck And then-not a body-but more neck and more! The head rose a full forty feet above the water on a slender and beautiful neck. Only then did the body, like a little island of black coral and shells and crayfish, drip up from the subterranean. There was a flicker of tail. In all, from head to tip of tail, I estimated the monster at ninety or a hundred feet”.

“The Fog Horn blew.

“And the monster answered.

“A cry came across a million years of water and mist. A cry so anguished and alone it shuddered in my head and my body. The monster cried out at the tower. The Fog Horn blew. The monster roared again. The Fog Horn blew. The monster opened its great toothed mouth and the sound that came from it was the sound of the Fog Horn itself. Lonely and vast and far away. The sound of isolation, a viewless sea, a cold night, apartness. That was the sound.”

Bradbury understands that if such a creature exists, it must be lonely as hell.

james bingham, for bradbury’s story


Our thanks again to Matt, whose novel can be found on the right-hand sidebar. More Stranger Seas later this month.

See? Now you have loads to talk about at parties. We look forward to seeing you in a few days, and don’t forget, if you subscribe to greydogtales (bottom left-ish), you’ll, er, you’ll have subscribed. Maybe there should be a prize, or something? We don’t know. We’ll get back to you on that one…

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