Lost at sea after the ferry he is travelling aboard collides with another vessel, the quiet, bookish Humphrey Van Weyden is picked up by seal-hunting schooner, the Ghost. His relief at being rescued is short-lived, however, after her meets her captain, the brutal, nihilistic Wolf Larsen.
Caught between Larsen and his terrified crew, Van Weyden has to survive an attempted mutiny, a cataclysmic storm and the appearance of Wolf’s equally delightful brother – with an even more delightful name – Dearth Larsen. But everything changes, and not necessarily for the better, when Wolf preys on survivors of another maritime disaster, and rescues a woman from a lifeboat.
Van Weyden may be the main character of this novel, but he isn’t the most interesting. His soft-man-turns-hard storyline went on to become rather generic after Jack London’s untimely demise. Wolf Larsen, on the other hand, is fascinating. Amoral, unsympathetic and often cruel, he sees little difference between people and yeast.
He’s a survivor in an unforgiving natural world, but he’s not an unthinking animal. He’s an intelligent man – an intellectual, at least compared to his crew of rough sailors. He engages with Van Weyden about art and literature, and relishes the opportunity to discuss these things with someone. That makes Van Weyden his new favourite, which doesn’t help Van Weyden ingratiate himself with the crew, and means it’s not necessarily just Wolf Larsen he needs protecting from. Indeed, it may be Wolf who is doing some of the protecting.
It’s this dynamic – a battle of brains in a story full of muscle and brawn – that lifts an otherwise exciting adventure yarn into something all the more interesting, and which is made even more interesting by then dropping a woman in between them. As with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, I read this one because I’m working on a brand new edition of it at the day job, but it’s made me more curious about Jack London’s other books.