Ghost Ships, Ghost Ships Everywhere…
September 24, 2017 § 3 Comments
Growing up on an island in the Atlantic, I spent summers reading adventure stories. One such tale was Brian Jacques’ Castaways of the Flying Dutchman. In this young adult fantasy novel, a boy stows away on a ship: the Flying Dutchman. The ship’s crew is a depraved lot, and most fearsome of all is Captain Vanderdecken. One day Vanderdecken curses God for inclement weather, and an angel descends on the ship, scourging all but the faultless boy (and his dog). The ship’s crew is doomed to wander the seas for all eternity, never to make port, while boy and dog conversely must wander the earth, spreading goodness wherever they go.
The myth of the ghost ship and its doomed crew is remixed again and again in maritime tales. The polar vessel in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner comes to mind, with its glowing seraphs and reanimated corpses. Here, too, exists a lone survivor, who must wander the globe sharing his cautionary tale. We see ships of similar make in Poe’s story “MS. Found in a Bottle”—whose ghost ship gives off a “dull, sullen glare of red light”—and again in his novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Such ships are spooky to say the least, often emitting a ghastly radiance, and seem to portend disaster for those who sight them.
Perhaps the best-known contemporary nod to this myth appears in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, where the story of the Flying Dutchman is conflated with that of Davey Jones’ Locker, the guardian of which gathers the souls of the dead-at-sea. Krakens and maelstroms are also par for the course in these films, yet this is in keeping with older, more literary nautical adventures.
While there are many iterations of the Flying Dutchman myth (including a German opera by Wagner!) the unifying element seems to be that the sailors are exempt from the ruins of time and barred from return to land. In Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, Captain Nemo’s submarine may be considered one such ship. This mysterious craft emits a phosphorescent glow, which readers learn is due to the engine’s mechanisms, and not an otherworldly curse. Still, mysteries abound regarding not only where, but when Nemo is from. Like many a ghost ship captain, Nemo eschews dry land in favor of the ocean depths. You might have noticed, too, that Captain Nemo enjoys playing creepy organ music, as does Captain Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Nemo’s existence is an isolated, liminal one, and as such, he and his ship may be seen as ghostly; indeed, he promises Dr. Aronnax “he who enters the Nautilus is destined never to leave again.”
What is it about seafaring that encourages storytellers to include these ships in their narratives? Perhaps ghost ships are a caution against hubris in the face of the ungovernable ocean, or of loving the sea too much.
Tagged: adventure, albatross, Arthur Gordon Pym, Brian Jacques, Byam Shaw, Captain Nemo, Castaways of the Flying Dutchman, Davy Jones, Dead Man's Chest, dead ship, Edgar Allan Poe, Flying Dutchman, Ghost ship, Jules Verne, Ms. Found in a Bottle, Nautilus, organ music, Pirates of the Caribbean, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Submarine, submarine science fiction, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Seas