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Literature / The Phantom Ship (1927)

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"My dear," her father mournfully cried,
"Tis the phantom ship we see,
Her ropes, her sails, her masts, her sides,
All gleam transparently."

—The captain, ninth stanza

"The Phantom Ship" is a Narrative Poem from 1927 written by Winifred Batdorf. It was a contribution to the yearbook of Garfield Junior High School in Berkeley, California. The poem belongs to the Horror genre and has elements of Nautical Folklore, mostly taking a cue or two from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

On a stormy night, a captain and his daughter find themselves on a ship with a broken rudder being swiftly pushed towards the jagged rocks of the cliffs of Devil's Glee. As all hope seems lost, which the captain blames on a curse following him, his daughter spots a nearby ship and wants to hail it for help. The captain has to disappoint her by explaining that the ship isn't one belonging to the living. Instead, it is manned by Davy Jones and a ghostly woman. The both of them call out for the captain, which marks the sinking of the ship.

The Phantom Ship provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Ambiguous Situation: There's a lot to speculate who the woman with Davy Jones is, with about three possibilities. The first is that she's Death by means of character osmosis, because her appearance and presence are reminiscent of Life-In-Death from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. She's unlikely Life-In-Death, given that only death happens in the end. The second possibility is that she's the wife Davy Jones sometimes has, and who is Mother Carey at those times she is identified. The third option is that she's an ordinary ghost; someone from the captain's past who's coming back to haunt him.
  • The Captain: One of the protagonists and only ever identified as such. He may have been or even still be a pirate; the poem uses the ambiguous word "rover" for him.
  • Curse: The captain speaks of a curse that follows him, which is given shape by Davy Jones. It's not said what the curse is or what he's done to get it on him, but being a rover may have something to do with it.
  • Davy Jones: He makes a high-spirited appearance on a phantom ship and with a ghostly woman as company. Once the captain sees them, he knows it's over.
  • Downer Ending: Everybody dies and in pure terror and panic to boot. Exactly how many die is unclear, because only the captain and his daughter are mentioned. It depends on one's interpretation of the scenario if a crew is (still!) supposed to be present too. Furthermore, while the captain may deserve what's coming to him, his daughter appears to be an Innocent Bystander.
  • Flying Dutchman: The phantom ship sailed by Davy Jones and his companion is one.
  • Hair-Contrast Duo: The daughter and the ghostly woman are the only two whose looks are described. The daughter has "hair like the dark sea water", while the woman has "golden hair" that "gleamed like a hood". Also contrasting is the color of their faces. The daughter is "red-lipped and cherry-cheeked", while the woman is "white and cold".
  • Hope Spot: The daughter has one when she spots the other ship. She excitedly announces that help is nigh, but her father knows better.
  • In Medias Res: The story starts where it ends and many questions on how this all came to be are not answered.
  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: This is how the poem opens. The first stanza is all about describing the environment the story's taking place in.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: The cliffs of Devil's Glee. Davy Jones and his companion show up there and the captain and his daughter die there.
  • No Name Given: Other than Davy Jones, no one in the poem is named.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Davy Jones is the red oni and the ghostly woman the blue oni.
  • Sinking Ship Scenario: The storm crashes the captain's ship, which rudder is broken, on the jagged rocks of the cliffs of Devil's Glee. It sinks quickly, taking everyone on board with it.