Frederick Marryat’s novels have gone almost entirely out of fashion, and of his numerous works (both for adults and children), only a few, such as Peter Simple (1833), Mister Midshipman Easy (1836), and The Children of the New Forest (1847), continue to preserve his minor reputation. Scholars regard him primarily as an influence upon more gifted authors such as Charles Dickens.
The Phantom Ship demonstrates all of Marryat’s considerable weaknesses as a writer and many of his greatest strengths. Marryat, himself a seaman, usually draws his narrative life from the sea. The Phantom Ship, with its beginning on land, is likely to tire most readers before Philip puts out to sea the first time, despite the introduction of Flying Dutchman material, the death of the mother, and the mysteries of the hidden room. The love interest between Philip and Amine is as inept as the worst Dickens, and some of the non-nautical material, such as Philip’s attempt to burn down Poots’s house to make him give up the relic, is frankly silly.
Matters are quite different when Marryat writes of the sea. He loses most of his artificiality and writes very convincing and often gripping narrative. The storms, shipwrecks, fires at sea, and desperate activities of the human animal when stranded need no apology, nor does the Inquisition section near the conclusion of the novel. Although Marryat is clearly spinning out the length of his novel and slowing the main plot with these nautical adventures, he is no more digressive than most of his contemporaries.
Although it is true that Marryat bungles the introduction and often the development of the supernatural materials, the appearances of the Phantom Ship itself are usually vivid and effective. The final pages, with the time-locked sailors trying to send their letters to people now long dead and the dissolution of the ship, certainly deserve a niche in fantasy literature.
The indisputably great and best-known episode is the narrative by Herman Krantz, Vanderdecken’s companion. It is the longest single chapter in the novel. Often anthologized as “The Werewolf” or “The White Wolf of the Harz Mountains,” it is the earliest and one of the finest treatments of the subject in English.