Today on Project Gutenberg #34

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

The Chief Mate’s Yarns: Twelve Tales of the Sea by Thornton Jenkins Hains

Another collections of short stories this week, albeit much less whimsical than Hawthorne and his Wonder Book. Mr. Hains, or TJ as I’m going to call him (because I feel like it), was an American writer from the late 19th/early 20th century who specialized in what we call sea stories. Long ocean voyages, brushes with death, horrible wrecks, avian portents of doom, that kind of thing. TJ used the pseudonym of “Captain Mayn Clew Garnett” when he published this story collection in 1912. He did this because it wasn’t really profitable for him to publish under his own name anymore, having been involved in a murder committed by his brother four years earlier. As you do.

You might have actually heard of one of the stories in this book. That would be “The White Ghost of Disaster,” the first story in the collection. It was first published in The Popular Magazine in early 1912, and it gained a bit of notoriety for being, well…stop me if you’ve heard this premise before. An ocean liner, the Admiral, is sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. The Admiral‘s captain is warned not to run the ship too quickly, for fear of colliding with an iceberg. The captain disregards these warnings, however, and runs the ship at full speed. Sure enough, the boat slams headfirst into an iceberg and quickly sinks, leaving the crew and passengers stranded in the icy expanse of the ocean.

Now you’re probably wondering when in 1912 this was first published, and the answer to that is “right before the RMS Titanic sailed out of Southampton.” The weeks that followed saw a small media frenzy as people noticed the connection between TJ’s story and the Titanic disaster. Some folks attributed the gift of foresight to “Captain Garnett,” saying he had predicted the sinking. When you actually analyze the story, of course, there isn’t much that actually lines up with the Titanic situation. The sinking via iceberg isn’t even the main point of the story. It’s really more about the complex and ultimately deadly power play that unfolds between the captain and his first mate. Both of them are concerned not with how to handle the situation in the moment, but of their own reputations and how they can pin the blame for the tragedy on the other person. It’s a story about guilt and personal responsibility and how the world will remember you after your death. And it may not be a masterpiece, but it’s got some pretty decent moments:

The ship was listing heavily, and the cries of the passengers were dying out. All who had been able to get away had gone, somehow, and only a few desperate men and women, who could not swim and who were cool enough to realize that swimming would but prolong an agony that was better over quickly, huddled aft at the taffrail. They would take the last second left them, the last instant of life, and suffer a thousand deaths every second to get it. It was absurd. Brownson pitied them.

Many of these women were praying and talking to their men, who held them in a last embrace. One young woman was clinging closely to a young man, and they were apparently not suffering terror. A look of peacefulness was upon the faces of both. They were lovers, and were satisfied to die together; and the thought of it made them satisfied. Brownson wondered at this. They were young enough and strong enough to make a fight for life.

A whistling roar, arose above all other sounds. The siren had ceased, and Brownson knew the air was rushing from below. The ship would drop in a moment. He grasped the pistol again. He dreaded that last plunge, that drop into the void below. The thought held him a little. The ocean was always so blue out there, so clear and apparently bottomless, a great void of water. He wondered at the depth, what kind of a dark bed would receive that giant fabric, the work of so many human hands. And then he wondered at his own end there. His own end? What nonsense! It was unreal. Death was always for others. It had never been for him. He had seen men die. It was not for him yet. He would not believe it. He would awaken soon, and the steward would bring him his coffee.

Then he caught the eye of Smith again in that boat waiting for the end out there. His heart gave an immense jolt, began beating wildly. The ship heeled more and more. The ice crashed and plunged from her forward. Brownson was awakening to the real at last. He felt it in those extra heartbeats; knew he must hurry it. Then he wondered what the papers would say; whether they would call him a coward, afraid to face the inevitable. He hoped they would not. But, then, what difference would it all make, anyhow—to him? He was dead. His interest was over. What difference would it make whether he was a coward or not? Men knew him for what he was, but he existed no longer. He was dead.

Pages 22-23

The rest of the stories are a mixed bag. Some are written in first-person as the “Captain Garnett” character, telling the reader about incidents he’s experienced while at sea. Others are written in third-person and deal with completely different characters. But they all start to blend together after a while, with only character names and minor plot alterations to differentiate them. Some of the stories try to be more ambitious, like “Captain Junard” with its themes of paranoia and political intrigue. But for the most part, they tend to — if you’ll excuse the pun — end up sinking.

If you’re mildly curious about what’s in this book, you could glance at the first story in the collection and leave it at that. Otherwise, go ahead and skip. Or just go read about the murder of William Annis, for proof that TJ’s personal life was much more interesting than his fiction. Seriously.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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