A Different Side of Hodgson

26 Apr 2006

Last night I read aloud (as a bedtime story) the Hodgson story “The Homecoming of Captain Dan.” This is also found in the Collected Fiction, Volume 2, from Night Shade Books — if you want to buy just one of the volumes, I would recommend that one, since it contains “The House on the Borderland,” the Carnacki stories, and a scattering of other adventure stories.

Hodgson is best known for his science fiction and ghost stories, many with a sailing theme. “The Homecoming” is a little bit different, though. There is nothing supernatural about it. It is primarily a character sketch, at least by word count, although it is also a conventional short story involving a treasure hunt with an ironic twist, in the mode of O. Henry.

Hodgson is frequently a bit weak on character development, and in particular does not often describe them in much detail, although he makes up for it a bit by giving characters various dialects and mannerisms. Captain Dan is richer than many of his characters. He’s abrasive, hilarious, and contains elements of both broad and subtle humor.

NOTE: spoilers if you continue reading!

In the “broad” category, he’s a heavy drinker, muttering phrases in gutter French, and he bellows like Yosemite Sam, firing off his pistols here and there to punctuate his orders. In the “subtle” category, he’s actually a lonely romantic at heart, at least as far as his own slightly peculiar notion of romance goes, and we find out that he’s actually smarter than everyone around him, as he manages to get the last laugh long after his death.

There is also some humor in “The Homecoming” which I think is not quite as fit for polite company as I would expect. When “Cap’n Dan” meets up with his former sweetheart, twenty years later, who presumed he was lost at sea, and married another man, he sums up his opinion of the other man by repeatedly calling him the “tip ’o my thumb.”

I puzzled over this phrase for a moment, but then I help up my hand in puzzlement (with a closed fist) and realized that this was probably an insult to the widow’s dead husband’s manhood — looking “something like a man’s penis, only smaller!” (If you don’t recognize that quotation, see Spider Robinson’s story “Fivesight,” in the Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon story collection Time Travellers Strictly Cash.) There’s also the funny detail that he fathered five daughters, another indication that his manhood was not all it could be (yes, I know this has more to do with chromosomes than virility, but consider when it was originally written, and the prevailing stereotypes).

Cap’n Dan gets his revenge, in somewhat sexist fashion, against the woman who had the gall not to wait indefinitely for him to return from the sea. But it all ends neatly, if a bit sadly.

Hodgson also uses the trick of apparently citing primary source materials from the time to back up his story, giving Cap’s Dan a veneer of historical authenticity. The actual sources are very doubtful, but it is a neat little bit of world-building and it does make the story feel more realistic.

Anyway, we all enjoyed the story, and I hope you will enjoy it someday, too!

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