Of the many forgotten names that I explore, none surprises nor saddens me more than the plight of E. H. Visiak (1878-1972), a long-lived writer referred to as “the last Victorian” by Colin Wilson. After market failure and ravaging by critics, Visiak gave up fiction, and for much of his life, he settled into the role of a noted Milton scholar. As a result, he left only three novels and a dozen short stories, all worthwhile, and much of what did find publication is due to the herioc efforts of John Gawsworth. In particular, Visiak’s second novel Medusa (1929), described by Arthur Machen as a “nightmare just remembered in time,” is nothing short of marvelous with its curious blend of seafaring adventure, Christian ethics and noetic horror. At its core, Visiak’s masterwork is a meditation on childhood wonder and innocence amidst a world of violence and moral darkness. It is a truly, an astounding achievement, as brilliant as it is rare, and I do not shrink from declaring it among the greatest horror stories in English literature. Visiak offers our latest ghost story, this one in verse, and it is taken from his third collection of poetry.
The Phantom Ship
E. H. Visiak
[Day. The poop of the Phantom Ship.]
How slow our craft,
Like a slug raft,
That limpets clog,
With ribboned weedOut-trailing.
The wind is fair;
But no light air
Can fill yon dropping rags—
Each spread sail sags,
And flaps on the bony mast…
My spirit is aghast.
O, shipmate, as I lay waking,
In the midnight,
I saw a dread sight.
It left my soul a-quaking:
The ship meseemed
(Think not I dreamed!)—
This ship is enchanted,
And we the ghosts that haunted!
I did not dream.
I was not mad.
By’r Lady, this sight I had!
That we be phantoms—all we men!
Out of earth, and earthly ken.
Jesus bless us! If this should be!
That this great ship,
And you and me,
Are, for our Captain’s blasphemy,
Fast shut in a ghost-prison
Our Lady, lift the vision!
Unlade thy thoughts,
And tell’t to none.
Yonder’s the sky!
And yon’s the sun!
Lo! the broad ocean!
This is but a mooncalf notion.
I stamp my foot.
Hark to the sound.
Spirits can’t stamp,
Nor ghosts can’t hear.
Lighten thy heart, mate,
And be of good cheer!
I would I might;
But the sight haunts me—
The word and the sight,
That ghosts we be—
Am I a ghost?
A misty ghost,
When my wife waits me,
My merry wife,
That I left behind,
With her cheeks as red
As a red cheese-rind?
Was I a ghost,
Or a skeleton,
When I kissed my wife
Last Christmas morn—
But six months gone!
An age-long voyage it seems to me.
A dim-dawn past.
The days, the weeks, the months are sheeted;
My toiling mind is overborne,
As in my soul it snowed and sleeted;
And all lies mistily and frore,
Save the African voyage and the time—
It be blowing up a gale!
All hands shorten sail.
[Night. The Decks of the Phantom Ship.]
She can’t abide. O Christ his Mother!
Look! Yonder black wave toppling to heaven.
Let us to prayers! O dreadful smother!
Ay, let us pray—
My ship shall ne’er be Ocean’s food.
[A sudden stillness and sinking of the seas.]
This is not earthly, by the Rood!
Look! There by the mast!
Where? O brother, what dost thou see?
Almighty God, have mercy on me!
Lo! by the mast. The ancient one!
[Advancing to the Captain.]
I am thy son.
I, o’er the waste of many a sea,
Thwarted and hindered unceasingly,
Am come, by the mercy of Jesus’ blood,
To deliver unto thee this holy rood,
Whereby, with penitential tears,
Shall be lifted the doom of dateless years.
This ship, the prison of the seas,
Shall sink, and thou and I and these,
Shedding our bodies of mist and strife,
Shall enter into the Eternal Life.
[Vanderdecken kisses the relic, weeping.
Father and son stand, with clasped
hands, ringed round by the entranced
mariners. The masts topple and fall to
dust, the guns sink through the crumbling
deck, and the Phantom Ship vanishes in
Bonus poem from the same selection:
The Skeleton at the Feast
Dance in the wind, poor skeleton!
You that was my dreary one,
You they hanged for stealing sheep.
Dance and dangle, laugh and leap!
To-morrow night at Squire’s ball,
I am to serve a sheep in hall:
My Lady’s wedding, Lord love her!
Wait until they lift the cover!