Book Review: The Derelict by Neil Williams

“… unfolds at the perfect pace with not a wasted scene. He mounts the dread perfectly, filling the pages with atmosphere, with a fully-realised, dark world.”

The Derelict Neil Williams - cover
There are some story settings which seem to come pre-loaded with atmosphere. Post-apocalyptic worlds, for example. Or ice- and snow-locked stories. Then there are ocean-going tales, which, when done right, can immediately transport the reader to the high seas. From way back with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the chapter in Dracula featuring The Demeter, to certain works by H. P. Lovecraft, through to Jaws and The Meg. Then there are more modern works such as Alma Katsu’s The Deep and Benedict J. Jones’s Hell Ship. Atmospheric, rich, and well-researched, which is often what marks out a good seafaring yarn. Which brings us to The Derelict by Neil Williams.

First published by now sadly defunct Pendragon Press back in 2014, this welcome new edition has been put out by the equally excellent Black Shuck Books. Part of its stellar Signature Novella range, the book is a slim tone but packs in a full and complete story. Mention of Coleridge’s prose poem and The Demeter above is appropriate. The opening pages recall that famous sailor’s stopping of the wedding guest—in this instance, our narrator relates his story to someone in an alehouse. Then, the meat of the tale that follows takes the sad fate of The Demeter as a jumping off point to craft a wholly original and compelling story.

Mister Gilling—our narrator—is second mate aboard the Albin Grau, a sturdy German-built schooner. Aside from the captain, the first mate Briggs, and Gilling, there are five other crew members. Dmitry from Russia, Gorski from Poland, and three Germans—Nemetz and the two Schröders. Shortly after entering the North Sea, heading back to England, Gilling notices another ship on the horizon. What marks this sighting as unusual is the other ship’s sails are not unfurled, yet it seems to be keeping pace with them. The ship slips from sight and mind over the course of the day, but keeps returning, a speck in the distance. That night, through first watch and then attempted, uneasy sleep, the thought of the strange ship keeps tugging at him. Next day, the vessel is nearby, still and quiet, sitting lower in the water than it should be. The captain decides to go aboard, accompanied by Gilling and the younger Schröder. What they find is a seeming ghost ship, bereft of crew but with vague signs of distress—sails cut free, strange, claw-like gouges in a door, and a table with a long axe buried in its surface …

In just a few short pages, Williams manages to introduce his cast, paint his setting vividly, and generate enough atmosphere to fill a whole novel. And we’re only on page eighteen at this point. This is due to Williams’ writing, which is both lyrical and crisp, recalling stories from that era but also with a knowing, modern sensibility. In addition, he clearly knows what he’s talking about, or has carried out impeccable research. The attention to detail when it comes to the nautical world is impressive, yet is never overwhelming or overly analytical. He slots descriptions in naturally and effortlessly, and without confusion because additional context explains even the most technical of terms.

The three men move through the ship—the Persephone—eventually finding the hold flooded. Gilling thinks he sees something, “… a hunched figure retreating …” in the deep shadows down there, but dismisses it as imagination. Retreating back to the Albin Grau following heavy waves, they decide to tow the ship with them. It’s during this first night—the captain deciding no-one should stand watch on the other vessel—when disaster strikes. Nemetz, who is on night-watch, is attacked by a terrible figure. In the preceding chaos, Gorski is knocked overboard by an unseen force. In the dark, the crew are confused as to what’s happening. Gilling finds, on the upper deck, Nemetz buckled beneath the wheel and blood all over the boards. And then he comes face to face with a terrible figure with blood dripping from its mouth.

Though the word is never used, it’s clear the creature is a vampire. We’ve already been given hints—the blurb mentioning The Demeter, boxes of dirt in the Persephone’s hold. And then there’s the manner of Nemetz’s death and the creature’s appearance. It’s quite a shocking scene, not least because it’s so unexpected. Williams confounds expectation by giving the reader an early encounter with his monster, his threat. Common wisdom and rote story-telling would have this encounter further in the narrative, allowing for a slower build-up. Yet Williams decides to drop this surprise on us quicker and it works exceedingly well. The creature is alien, wholly unnatural, a truly terrifying aspect. It’s a scene that gives genuine chills. But the next day when terror and darkness have abated, Gilling says it was just a man he saw. The captain, both Schröders, and Briggs head over to the Persephone to deal with this miscreant. This leaves Gilling and Dmitry to wait, guarding their own vessel and watching their crewmates from a distance with trepidation.

Despite being less than one hundred pages, Williams gives us enough for at least a novel’s worth. Yet it never feels crammed or rushed. It unfolds at the perfect pace with not a wasted scene. He mounts the dread perfectly, filling the pages with atmosphere, with a fully-realised, dark world. He also hints at a possible wider mythology. There is enough scope in this novella to carry further stories. And perhaps that’s the greatest sign of a truly successful work. That it feels absolutely perfect for its length yet the reader always wants more, never wants it to end. It’s a real shame Neil Williams hasn’t released much more than this book. Based on The Derelict alone, it’s obvious he’s a gifted writer and a natural storyteller. One hopes with this re-release, it might indicate further works by this author. But if this is to be his only long-form book, it’s still a fine addition to a long tradition of ocean horror and horror in general. A unique, distinctive vampire tale.

PAUL MICHAELS

 

Publisher: Black Shuck Books
Paperback: 88 (ps.)
Release Date: 29 April 2021

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