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Blogging With HPL: The Mysterious Ship (1902)

Companions! I sight a ship! With everything about it such as would excite Suspicion!

"The Mysterious Ship" is another story that I can't help but like in spite of myself. Perhaps the biggest reason I enjoy it is its being the first reference to Lovecraft's lifelong fascination with Antarctica, which I dearly love, but it's also very earnest in a way that I feel we only last saw with "The Little Glass Bottle" - "John Lees' Adventure" just was sad and King John of last time was a fun but ultimately derivative story. This story is in its own way derivative of the pulps, too, but its comparative originality combined with its heartfelt ending (Dahabea was made King of Madagascar!) really wins me over, even though those such as ST Joshi remain (understandably) unimpressed.

The story goes like this: In spring 1847 in Ruralville (yeah), John Greggs, village magnate, disappears from his home after an unnamed ship appears in the harbor. We are informed that the ship is from Tripoli and captained by one Manuel Ruello, and the ship disappears the next day. This exercise is repeated with abductions of two additional people, an American sailor named Henry Johns and Dahabea, a native of Madagascar (my favorite). I am skipping slightly by saying this so soon, but the reveal is that all these men are discovered in 'No-Man's-Land' in Antarctica (which is not real), chained up for some unknown and unclear purpose, having been taken there by a submarine. The missing are feted in their respective home countries (Dahabea is made King of Madagascar) and Ruello the kidnapper is executed.

This seems to be another half-baked pulp story, but I must be honest in that it doesn't have action and plot the way our dear King John did, even though King John was more of a transparent rip. What jumps out to me is really the following:

  1. 1. This is the second person of color HPL ever wrote about, and although it's not exactly... a thought-out character, at all, the portrayal is still just as positive or at least neutral as any other person in the story.
  2. Make no mistake, even at this age, Lovecraft harbored ideas we would now conisder racist, like being sympathetic to the Confederate cause over that of the Northerners in the Civil War (discussed in I Am Providence, but I cannot for the life of me find it right now). That said, at this stage Lovecraft's nascent attitudes of bigotry come off mostly as a function of the environment as opposed to any personal decision - in 1902, Lovecraft would be 11 or 12. His biases are definitely there, but I would make the argument that he just didn't have enough life experience for his biases to be called personal. (Before anyone presents the obvious, his father named the cat, not him.) Children nearing adolescence in this way usually inherit the beliefs of their parents rather than arriving at beliefs themselves due to inexperience. With the notable exception of HPL's atheism, his reactionary, classist, racist sentiments are like a fun-house mirror version of what one might expect from his aunt/mother/family, i.e., Yankee gentility disgruntled that new blood, middle class upstarts, and tenement dwellers are making their city look different in ways they don't understand or like. This is not to excuse Lovecraft's indiscretions and biases, even those he harbored at a young age, but he does not seem to have reached the point he did later in life, where experience and debate have solidified his views. His writing of people of color (or, really, anyone different from him) is characteristic of any small child making guesses about other people and ways of life they don't know about.

  3. 2. This is also unusual in that it is not reflective of scientific reality; something Lovecraft was normally scrupulous about later in life.
  4. "No-Man's-Land" is not real, although HPL writing about Antarctica is of course interesting foreshadowing of a lifelong curiosity about Antarctica which eventually leads us to the feet of the Mountains of Madness. This more than anything is what makes me put this story in the pulp ripoff category; Lovecraft was notoriously obsessive about truth and scientific detail (a trait most humorously illustrated in an anecdote of his setting a fire in the grass behind his house as a child and responding to questioning about it by saying he wanted to create a 1' by 1' fire for an experiment). It's very out of character for Locecraft to cite something incorrect like that, which makes me think he either got it from a pulp story/magazine having trusted its veracity or accepted the incorrect information because of a desire to emulate the pulps, warts and all. Either way is interesting speculative material.

Up next is "The Beast in the Cave", the last piece of Lovecraftian juvenilia on our docket before the fun truly begins. Let me know what you think of our sampler of Lovecraft's childhood writing at

Keep it weird,