Friday, May 23, 2014

Jack Grey, Second Mate by William Hope Hodgson

High seas adventure done right
Jack Grey is the second mate on the steel sailing ship Carlyle, bound from San Francisco to Baltimore. With a sick captain and a cowardly first mate, Grey is the strongest and most capable man on board. Two passengers are along for the voyage: Miss Eversley, a beautiful, stuck-up young woman who looks down her nose at Grey as typical sailor riffraff, and Mr. Pathan, a creepy and suspicious character who relentlessly hits on the young woman. When the latter passenger incites the motley crew to mutiny, Grey takes it upon himself to save the lady from his barbarous shipmates.

Jack Grey, Second Mate, a novella by British author William Hope Hodgson, was originally published in the July 1917 issue of the pulp magazine Adventure. At first it seems like a blatant rip-off of Jack London’s 1914 novel The Mutiny of the Elsinore. It features the same type of ship, manned by a similar crew of lowlife scum, with the same points of departure and arrival. Grey bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Pike, the ruthlessly violent first mate of London’s novel. Even the passengers’ names are similar—Pathan vs. Pathurst. But whereas London’s novel is long, boring, and racist, Hodgson’s story is lively, exciting, and fun.

The fight scenes are very well-depicted, with a level of brutality that is quite surprising for its day. Grey has more in common with the laconic antiheroes of today’s movies than he does with the chivalrous gentlemen so common in the pulp fiction of the early 20th century. Like all damsel-in-distress stories, this one can be formulaic at times, but some memorable scenes of gritty realism elevate this one above run-of-the-mill nautical adventures. Though Hodgson never uses the word “rape,” he makes it quite clear that’s the fate that awaits Miss Eversley should Grey ever succumb to the attacks of the mutineers. 21st-century readers will appreciate that Hodgson faces such matters bluntly and doesn’t sugarcoat the savagery of the situation for the sake of some antiquated code of propriety. Hodgson’s prose is as clear and energetic as a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle caper, but his outlook is as bleak and harsh as a Robert E. Howard gorefest.

Hodgson was a prolific fiction writer who was known for his seafaring tales but penned stories in a wide variety of genres including horror and science fiction. I had never heard of him before this, but after reading Jack Grey, Second Mate, I’m certainly going to seek out more of his work.

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