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The Frozen Pirate
William Clark Russell
The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 241 pages

William Clark Russell
William Clark Russell (1844-1911) was born of English parents at the Carleton House Hotel in New York City. He went to school at Winchester, and then at Boulogne. At 14 (some sources state 13) he joined the British merchant service and served for eight years (1858-1866), He made several voyages to India and Australia, and while off the coast of China in 1860 witnessed the capture of the Taku forts by the combined British and French forces. His early seafaring adventures, as well as accounts of historical voyages, provided much of his material for his fifty-seven sea novels. John Holdsworth, Chief Mate (1874) immediately made his reputation. Other successful stories were: The Wreck of the Grosvenor (1875), in which he pleaded for better food for English seamen; An Ocean Tragedy (1881), The Emigrant Ship (1894), The Ship, Her Story (1894), The Convict Ship (1895), What Cheer! (1895), The Two Captains (1897), The Romance of a Midshipman (1898), The Ship's Adventure (1899), Overdue (1903), Abandoned (1904), His Island Princess (1905). His novels provided much the same benefits for the merchant service as Capt. Marryat's had for the Royal Navy. Russell's novels stimulated public interest in the conditions under which sailors lived, paving the way for the reform of many abuses. His stories of maritime horror include The Frozen Pirate (Belgravia, July 1887-Jan. 1888), The Death Ship (1888; a tale of the Flying Dutchman), and the collection Phantom Death and Other Stories (1895). In the late 1880s he joined the staff of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, and afterwards became a leader writer on the Daily Telegraph, but the double labour of journalism and novel-writing threatened his health, and he resigned in 1887. Many of the papers which he contributed to the Daily Telegraph were collected in volume form in Round the Galley Fire and other volumes. He also wrote a Life of Lord Collingwood (1891), and, with W. H. Jacques, Nelson and the Naval Supremacy of England (1890).

BIOGRAPHY: 1 (at bottom)
Some W.C. Russell titles in print
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds


The Frozen Pirate Between Marryat's The Phantom Ship and William Hope Hodgson's tales of maritime horror, by far the best and most prolific purveyor of this sort of literature was William Clark Russell. Largely forgotten today, except by fans of sea stories, W. Clark Russell wrote close to 50 novels of the sea. The Frozen Pirate is the first instance in English literature of the use of cryonic suspension as a plot device, preceding H.G. Wells' suspended animation machine in When the Sleeper Wakes by a dozen years. The prolific French author Louis Boussenard's Dix mille ans dans un bloc de glace (1889) was also an early example of cryogenics, but in a more science fiction context. Of course, suspended animation itself had been the theme of Edgar Allen Poe's much earlier "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar."

Only survivor of a storm which leaves his ship on a huge Antarctic iceberg, Paul Rodney, mate of the Laughing Mary, continues to drift south. Seemingly sentenced to die alone in the Antarctic vastness, scene of the discovery of innumerable lost races in the literature of the era, the mate comes instead upon a ancient pirate ship locked tight in the ice fields. Aboard the pirate ship he discovers numerous members of a pirate crew, frozen stiff, and large stocks of food, drink, and coal. When placed near a fire, one of the sailors begins to revive. Aided by the mate, the pirate is gradually brought to consciousness. Jules Tassard, a French corsair is astounded to find himself alive, and refuses to acknowledge his fifty year sleep. In gratitude, he shows Rodney several treasure chests stowed in the hold, but becomes increasingly cranky, then begins slipping into madness, to the point that Rodney life may be endangered. Suddenly, as happened with Poe's M. Valdemar, the centenarian sailor begins to age rapidly.

Russell's writing, while plain and clearly of its era, certainly captures the feel of the sea, the hopelessness of being lost in the Antarctic. The scenes on the pirate ship are quite gripping and the tension developed when the thawed pirate begins drifting into madness is also very well done. The horror elements are well handled without being over the top, the atmosphere Russell develops in his description of the frozen pirate ship does much more to "creep one out" than any mere description of the dead bodies would have. So if you enjoy William Hope Hodgson's more tropical and fungus-laden Sargasso sea derelicts, you'll probably enjoy your travel to chillier climes with W. Clark Russell

Copyright © 2002 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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