The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”: Ahab and William Hope Hodgson

The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” is a novel written by William Hope Hodgson in 1907, which also provided the concept for German funeral doom metal band Ahab’s eponymous fourth album released in 2015. In the following post, Weird Metal Blog provides a double review – technically with spoilers – comparing both versions.

Hodgson’s work is a rare example of that slippery beast, the Weird novel, a form often maligned for the short story. The book’s main effect is certainly that of Weird horror, through a gradual accretion of unsettlingly strange sights, sounds and occurrences, with all out terror and abjection kept to a minimum. Beginning in media res, the Glen Carrig and crew are lost, shipwrecked in an unnamed “land of lonesomeness” in the year 1757, their story narrated in first-person by passenger John Winterstraw. Largely a tale of survival and adventure, the crew face giant octopuses, face-hugger-esque tentacled creatures (as depicted on Ahab’s album cover), slug-like invaders, as well as the more predictable onslaught of fierce storms and generally harsh living conditions. In their struggle for survival, the strict class divisions on-board relied upon whilst sailing the Glen Carrig break down, and they attempt to rescue the similarly-stranded crew of another vessel.

Ahab is no stranger to creating albums inspired by literature. Predictably given their name, the band’s debut The Call of the Wretched Sea (2006) – following in the then-recent footsteps of U.S. progressive metallers Mastodon’s second album Leviathan (2004) – was a concept album that interpreted Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), while their third album The Giant (2012) adapts Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). Ahab have adopted the epithet “Nautik Funeral Doom” for their sound, as all aspects of their music are drenched in narrative and imagery relating to the sea.

The songs on The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” share some of their titles with the novel’s chapters – ‘The Thing That Made Search’, ‘The Light In The Weed’ – suggesting that the narrative of this concept album follows that of Hodgson’s novel in a fairly direct manner, whilst other are taken from lines in the novel which sit naturally alongside Hodgson’s originals – ‘Like Red Foam (The Storm)’, ‘The Weedmen’. The album opens with gentle, clean guitar chords while frontman Daniel begins the narrative with a straightforward first-person account, “It’s been five days/In these boats of the Glen Carrig”, also sung in clean, ernest and melancholy style. As is often the case on the album, the lyrics either repeat Hodgson’s original lines (‘I was awed by so much solitude’) and phrases (‘lonesome wind’), or suggest the archaic style of his language (“flagrant flatness”).

Hodgson’s novel already contains within it examples of Weirdness in sonic form. As dusk falls on the strange land on which they are stranded, the Glen Carrig’s crew are traumatized by a “doleful wailing” on the night air, which begins as the “weeping of lost souls”, but soon becomes “an insistent, hungry snarl” that brings terror to our narrator’s heart. This sound returns in the dead of night, when a fearsome Thing is heard growling, searching through the wreck of their boat. It would, therefore, have been possible for Ahab to reproduce such sounds, including them non-diegetically in the tracks, for added effect – however, the story is told entirely through lyrics and music, with no added voice-over or effects.

“I saw that it had the appearance of a many-flapped thing shaped as it might be, out of raw beef—but it was alive.”

The lyrics from Track Two follow directly those of Track One, describing ‘The Thing That Made Search’, which Hodgson’s narrator sees “at the glass of an unbroken window, a reddish mass, which plunged up against it, sucking upon it, as it were.” Hodgson is at his best here, dishing out the half-glimpses of monstrous creatures that fans of the Weird come to expect. When crew-mate Josh holds up a candle, “I saw that it had the appearance of a many-flapped thing shaped as it might be, out of raw beef—but it was alive” – a line that Daniel death-growls at the very bottom of his range, accompanied by riffs as steady and churning as the angry ocean. With ‘The Thing That Made Search’ Ahab add some much-needed direct dialogue to the story (“Now take the pipe right from your mouth!/At outmost tension – listen! Crouch!), something notably missing from Hodgson’s novel, which relies almost entirely upon reported speech.

Track Three, ‘Like Red Foam (The Great Storm)’, is the only from this album with a feature video, although the video’s narrative – featuring a woman being tortured for information, and dedicated to Amnesty International – appears to be linked to the track’s lyrics only by the prominence of the colour red. The track, a highpoint of the album, focuses on the more everyday danger of “so great a storm/As might well fill the heart with panic”, with riffs continuing the churning feel previously established. The track is perhaps controversially fast for Ahab, sounding more like mid-paced death metal rather than funeral doom, yet is perfectly placed on the album, providing an injection of movement and momentum.

The Thing from Track Two turns out to be one of the Weedmen – humanoid, repulsive creatures whose tentacled limbs move like slugs – which are probably Hodgson’s most memorable creation in the book, amongst other uncanny flora and fauna of this forgotten landscape, such as monstrous devil-fish and valleys of huge fungi. When ‘The Weedmen’ fully manifest on Track Four, they are accompanied by a return to Ahab’s funeral doom of old, with the lines “The weedmen come anigh/Soon – they are upon us!” rendered almost unintelligible by a sustained, gurgling bellow. The last section of ‘The Weedmen’, in particular, with its oddly-timed triplet chugging riff and mournful lead guitar, achieves for the album a new point of sorrow, supplemented by an exceptional soaring vocal performance from Daniel, pitched somewhere between his clean and growled styles.

The sorrow conveyed on ‘The Weedmen’ prefigures the literal funeral doom of Track Five, ‘To Mourn Job’, concerned with the death of one of Hodgson’s more developed characters. Here Ahab details the discovery of Job, with soaring clean vocals detailing the bo’sun placing “his hand with dread/Over the poor lad’s heart” accompanying chugging, dissonant riffs and piercing lead guitar. It’s at this point where the emotive potential of funeral doom is realized, with Daniel tenderly describing Job “mangled an bled/And the boy moved not ever again.”

Hodgson’s novel is something of a frustrating read and certainly has its faults. At points, it captures moments of exceptional horror and weirdness, and it is clearly an important work in the Weird canon, but it’s heavily overshadowed by the novel that followed, The House on the Borderland (1908), which will rightly be remembered as Hodgson’s masterpiece. The Boats on the “Glen Carrig” is a perfect exemplar of why many writers of Weird fiction prefer shorter forms, ensuring that the slow build-up of Weirdness is not too slow, becoming lost amidst normalcy. It’s no surprise then that The House on the Borderland – which packs a deeply unsettling punch of Weirdness – is little more than a novella.

Ahab wisely condense Hodgson’s 320 page novel into a roughly hour-long album by focusing on key scenes. The book is frankly an arduous task to read at points: stodgy with near-obsessive nautical detail, huge sentences that roll literally for pages conjoined endlessly with semicolons, a lack of characterisation and direct dialogue, archaic language, and fairly minimal plot. There is an extended scene where the crew of the Glen Carrig save a boat of fellow sailors, in which we’re told in excruciating detail how they manage to save them, using the slightly implausible device of a giant catapult. Hodgson certainly gets his details right, and it’s impossible to find flaws in his technical and nautical authenticity, but such scenes kill the tension with boredom.

The novel’s ending rings false, also. [SPOILER!] Our protagonist survives this host of Weird occurrences seemingly without any impact, and settling down to a quiet married life back in civilization (a conclusion that even H.P. Lovecraft, a great fan of the book, described as a “letdown”). Hodgson ultimately chooses the conservative narrative closure of a return to the status quo and the ‘Wife at Home’[1], rather than the more radically open-ended and altered outcome of much Weird fiction, which often results in madness, possession, a remain in Othered space, etc.

The narrative logic of Ahab’s album reproduces this conclusion reasonably faithfully. Final track, ‘The Light in the Weed (Mary Madison)’, set seven years after “the desolation of the weed continent”, celebrates the titular woman who has now become our narrator’s wife. Reprising the clean, melancholy chords that opened the album, Ahab however end on a musical and lyrical downbeat. While the story is technically wrapped up as happily as the novel, the last lines serve as a warning that such lands are still out there, and no doubt others will follow in the travels of the Glen Carrig: “So brace yourselves, ye seamen brave/ Behold a bright light burning/Whenever be the seas so grave/For man and maid the tide is turning”.

For me Ahab come very close to achieving the quintessential form of this story – trimmed down to its essentials, and given a stronger narrative momentum through the music. It is the overall sorrowful tone achieved on Ahab’s album that cements this for me, highlighting the melancholy and hopelessness present at times in the original novel, but which Hodgson often swamps with gung-ho adventure and excessive nautical fascination. Hodgson’s book will no doubt remain seldom read outside circles of Weird aficionados, but Ahab are ensuring that some form of this bloated monster still washes up on fresh shores.

Ahab play a few select European dates later in the year, including at the mighty Roadburn festival, where they will play The Call of the Wretched Sea in all its “Nautik Funeral Doom” glory.

[1] See Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Wesleyan University press, 2011) for more on the narrative forms of colonial adventure in science fiction.

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