Echoes of a Cursed Ship part 2

Its October, the leaves are falling, the witches are abroad, and I’ve opened the blog up to guest writers again. Yes its Indie October. Throughout October some old favourites among my guests will be returning along with some new voices. Today’s Guest Post comes to you from the shores of Sussex, and the finest Dutchman I know, he’s also the only one I know but that does not detract from how lovely he is, Nils Nisse Visser, with the second part of his mildly epic guest post.

Accreditation, flag designed by Bram Janssens (Dreamstime) and Flying Dutchman on stormy seas by Corin Spinks, Corinography

In part one of this guest blog I went on a bit about the history of The Flying Dutchman, with due attention to the literary traditions. Born in The Netherlands myself and having a decent grasp of the Dutch language, I included Dutch contributions to the ongoing legend, as these are relatively unknown outside the Low Countries. That included Piet Visser’s novel De Vliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman) and ended with the revelation that I’m related to this author.

I didn’t properly find out about this until 2018. Ever since I had started writing fiction in 2014, family members had mentioned that a relative had written a book but I never really picked up on this. As other authors will know, a common reaction to being a novelist is “Oh, I know someone who wrote/is writing/might write a book” or “You know, if I didn’t have more serious things to do I might write a book” and similar remarks in that vein.

In 2018, corresponding with my father Rob Visser about writerly things, he mentioned it again, providing more details. He said that my great grandfather Piet Visser had a cousin, also called Piet Visser, who had been a prodigious writer in his day. My dad had several of his books lying about, and would I be interested in one of the copies?

That spurred me to do some online research and discover that Piet Visser (1867-1929) had a whopping twenty-one books to his name, predominantly boy’s adventure stuff related to Dutch history. He was reasonably successful, with many of his books seeing multiple editions printed between 1900 and the late 1920s.

Above: Book covers of Piet Visser’s many works. I had written DRAKA RAID before I knew about him and was pleased to discover we shared an interest in the old Saxons.

There was very little else I could find about the man himself, other than locating him in our family genealogy and discovering an academic study that touched on his writing. It was in the latter that I hit a jackpot. The author argued that Piet Visser’s writing was old-fashioned seen from modern eyes but that in his day he was quite innovative and influential, even inspiring other Dutch authors like Johan Fabricius.  To evidence this, he compared several extracts from Visser’s Heemskerk op Nova Zembla (1900) with extracts from Johan Fabricius’s Scheepsjongens van Bontekoe (1934) (Bontekoe’s Ship’s Boys) – and they did indeed show remarkable similarity.

It doesn’t happen to literary characters in the Netherlands often, but the famous ship’s boys have their own statues in the harbour of Hoorn where the story starts. Image Joop Hoek (Dreamstime).

If there are any Dutch readers of this ramble, they are likely to react with a wise nod and a “Say no more, say no more.” Fabricius’s book is enormously popular in the Netherlands. No less than 34 editions were printed between 1934 and 2016, with some 300.000 copies sold. At this point I recommend you watch the first six minutes of the 2007 feature film on YouTube, as there’s very little Dutch dialogue to contend with, and it will give you an excellent impression. Link:

Alternatively, if you’re not allergic to Dutch and happy to rely on images, the trailer is also a good indicator.

To pick up the thread again, like countless Dutch children, I too had encountered this book and for me it was THE book of my childhood. I’m pretty sure my mum Marijke must have sighed with exasperation as I picked the book again and again for bedtime reading, and then read it for the umptieth time with a torch beneath the bed covers after she had bid me goodnight (I had the good fortune of growing up in a household where reading after lights out was strictly forbidden but where, by miracle, my torch never ran out of batteries. When I moved out, I was highly surprised to discover that torch batteries needed to be changed every now and then).

I must have read the book a hundred times if not more, and that’s no exaggeration. My copy literally fell to bits and I would correct my mum if she so much as misread a single word or skipped a bit because I pretty much had it all memorised. To put it into an Anglo-Saxon context, Peter Hajo (the main protagonist) was my Luke Skywalker. I fully identified with him, not to mention his adventurous journey to Asia as well, as I spent six years of my youth growing up in Asia (Thailand & Nepal).

So many years later I was over the moon with the discovery of the Visser – Fabricius connection. It meant that Piet Visser had, indirectly, influenced my reading experience since childhood. This changed my interest in the man’s writing history into a full-blown obsession. The guy had got my mojo running, so to speak, and I felt that I simply had to do something creative with this ‘inheritance’.

Accreditation: Painting by Charles Temple, WikiCommons

Having just re-watched Johnny Depp strutting his stuff again in Dead Man’s Chest (Confession: I have two DVD copies of each Pirates of the Caribbean movie, just in case one has a flat tire or something) and having discovered Piet Visser’s De Vliegende Hollander in its entirety at the Gutenberg Project, I decided that The Flying Dutchman was a good place to start. This decision was also helped in that the famous ghost ship is more likely to ring a bell with English speaking readers than the siege of Alkmaar or the relief of Leiden.

Piet Visser’s publisher, Kluitman, is still very much active. Even though the pre-1923 copyright laws applied, I thought it polite to approach them and signal my interest in ‘doing something’ with my great grand uncle’s work. They were absolutely lovely about it and encouraged me to scribble away.

Arthur Dixon, a self-proclaimed fan of my writing, suggested I translate some of the books, and possibly think about Steampunking one or two of them.

I duly started translating the first chapter of De Vliegende Hollander, but as mentioned in part one of this guest blog, it was one long info-dump and my fingers itched to make editorial improvements. The obvious thing to do was to rewrite the story, so that was my next step.

I tinkered with the name of the protagonist and captain of The Flying Dutchman, Pieter van Halen. The Dutch ‘Pieter’ and English ‘Peter’ is pronounced exactly the same, so I decided to opt for Peter, as there would be sufficient Dutch names for the reader to cope with, and I personally do like main characters at least to have names that are easy to digest. ‘Van Halen’ is, of course, also a well-known and most excellent hard rock/heavy metal band, so there I opted for the old-fashioned spelling of ‘van Haelen’ to mark a difference. This was personal, as every time I read ‘van Halen’ I felt the urge to play ‘Jump’ at top volume, which was jolly much fun but didn’t help with the reading or writing.

Deciding on the name was the easy bit, because in every other aspect Peter van Haelen was to pose a great many headaches.

Accreditation: The skipper of The Flying Dutchman as imagined by Howard Pyle

In brief, Peter van Haelen is a misunderstood genius. He has great aptitude for building ships, but his designs are derided, his ambitions mocked at. It takes him more than a decade and many sacrifices to realise his dream, a ship unlike any other which he names The Swift Christina. He proves everyone wrong, but the strain of it all drives him into madness, and subsequently immortal doom aboard his beloved ship that becomes known as The Flying Dutchman.

As mentioned in the first part of this guest blog, Piet Visser deals with the emotional turmoil of going insane in a single short sentence: He went completely insane. It was my firm belief that the descent into madness was what most modern readers would be most interested in, so I approached the story from that angle, intending to equip van Haelen with relatable human emotions. That’s where the trouble started. This is going to sound really weird, but my internal dialogue produced Piet Visser himself, staring over my shoulder and contesting every change I wanted to make. I was basically having arguments with a dead relative.

The planned story ground to a halt, and then became completely bogged down because of this quandary. I decided to let it rest and pursue some other options, because Arthur’s advice to consider Steampunking the story had been ever present in my mind as well. I will get to those projects in a short while.

Returning to the possibility of a rewrite some months later, pondering the difficulty posed by Peter van Haelen being very much Piet Visser’s creation and reluctant to be tampered with, I considered different POVs. Another main character, van Haelen’s young cousin Andries, wasn’t a possibility, because he wouldn’t be a very sympathetic protagonist (can’t really reveal much more than this without going into spoiler territory). Then it struck me that both my Wyrde Woods books and my Smugglepunk books were much lauded for the realistic presentation of female protagonists.

The reason I like to opt for female protagonists, by the way, is simple. I taught in secondary education for twenty years and was struck by how many positive male role models could be found in books for youngsters, and how very few meaningful roles there were for girls and women. The best way to remedy that deficiency, I reckoned, was to do something about it and write them into existence. Hence Wenn, Joy, Maisy (Wyrde Woods), Alice (Smugglepunk) and Lewinna (Draka Raid).

With this in mind, I took another look at Lottie, Andries van Haelen’s sister who appears on a few pages only, with just a handful of lines in which she proclaims how lucky she is that a heroic man has come to save a damsel in distress. Cue an evil grin. Piet Visser obviously had very little interest in Lottie, discarding her as soon as possible after announcing her gratitude for a manly saviour. He could bloody well have Peter van Haelen, who I’d leave as intact as possible as Piet’s creation, and I would reinvent Lottie as Liselotte van Haelen, let her swan about the entire story and tell it from her perspective. This would also make the descent into madness easier to convey, as it would be told from a female perspective, and in general women are a lot more attuned to emotions and mental health processes than blokes who are still often taught to view this as unmanly ‘weakness’.

Lottie, or rather Liselotte, took to her new role like a fish to water. The wind picked up and the story sailed out of the Doldrums at amazing speed. It’s not fully finished yet, but I was confident enough in a successful conclusion that I asked Tom Brown, the artist behind Hopeless, Maine, to design a cover for me. At my request, Peter van Haelen is an echo of Howard Pyle’s Dutchman, and Liselotte full of vulnerable determination and courage that very much reflects her character. I’m hoping that the first book of three planned, Flying Dutchman: BLEAK FUTURE, will be available for purchase in 2021.

Accreditation: Peter van Haelen and Liselotte van Haelen aboard The Swift Christina, as created by artist Tom Brown of Hopeless, Maine fame.

Next up, I had run into Jan Slauerhoff’s poetry on the phantom ship. I translated a few stanzas to use in Bleak Future and was then inspired to write an epic poem of my own, inspired by his work. I called the poem The Flying Dutchman, which isn’t very original but at least makes reasonably clear what it’s about. I’m chuffed that the poem has been selected for inclusion in the CUPPAS (Coastal Union of Pirates, Privateers, Aviators & Steampunks) Anthology SCADDLES, especially because this book is choc-a-bloc full of excellent goodness with fantastic stories about nautical naughtiness in different genres by authors whom I all admire a great deal. The book is due to be published in the next few months (autumn 2020).

Accreditation: All artwork by Corin Spinks, Corinography, featuring some of the Hastings and Eastbourne Pyrates.

Back to Arthur Dixon’s suggestion that I consider Steampunking (or in my case Smugglepunking) some of Piet Visser’s work. It was very tempting indeed, because a mad & misunderstood inventor would feel most at home in this genre. Moreover, the essence of Smugglepunk is the continuation of the heyday of south coast smuggling into the latter half of the nineteenth century with the use of airships and Steampunk technology. As such, I had been exploring aviation a great deal already, and it didn’t require a great many braincells to connect the concept of a Flying Dutchman to this approach. Peter van Haelen could be reborn as an airship designer, genius once again and unashamedly mad as a hatter. Fortunately, this time, Piet Visser remained silent on the subject.

Accreditation: Top two Peter van Haelens, Maya Kruchankova (Dreamstime). Bottom two Peter van Haelens, Andrey Kiselev (Dreamstime).

The final prod needed to embark on this project was the news that Writerpunk Press was organising their sixth Anthology, Taught by Time, based on myths and legends. The only response I could give to the question on whether I felt comfortable writing about any well-known legends or myths was a hearty “Yarr”, of course, pretty much having all I needed at hand already.

I had, by the way, already contributed to two Writerpunk Press anthologies, with ‘The Oval Sky Room’ (my very first Steampunk story) in the Poe themed Merely this and Nothing More, and the first version of ‘Rottingdean Rhyme’ in What We’ve Unlearned.

When I was first encouraged to submit a story, my main selfish thought was that Writerpunk Press were based in Seattle, Washington, which to my mind was Nirvana territory and wouldn’t it be awesome to have “I’m a West Coast SteamGrunge Writer” as a pick-up line in pubs?

Whereas these days, I find it hard not to write Steampunk, back then it was all new and the kind folk at Writerpunk Press helped me take my first steps in this new genre, supplying endless wise advice and words of encouragement that helped me gain confidence. In short, I owed them my very best.

I decided to set the story in my existing Smugglepunk world, in which rumours of The Skirring Dutchman allowed a look back at the early days of aviation, in which Peter van Haelen played a considerable part in developing ‘skicing’, wind-powered flight by heavier-than-air vessels (‘skirring’ being the name used for steam-powered flight). Not too much of a spoiler, I reckon, to suggest that should The Skirring Dutchman appear in this story, Peter van Haelen would be at the helm for a guest appearance.

So far all the Smugglepunk stories had been told from smuggler perspectives, so I reckoned it would be refreshing to reverse that perspective. Enter Ensign Albert Peabody, serving on Her Majesty’s Aeroship Beresford, a brand-new state-of-the-art Cloud-Corvette class coastal patrol ship.

Accreditation:  Rigging background AndyH12 (Dreamstime), boy Roberto Galan (Dreamstime)

Taught by Time is scheduled for release before the end of 2020 and includes most excellent stories by many other authors as well.

All of the Writerpunk Press Anthologies published so far, and I, for one, can’t wait for #6, Taught by Time.

A late-night chat with author Mark Hayes on female protagonists who were more than wallflowers or receptacles of manly favours, resulted in his suggestion that I ought to read his newly published Maybe. I did and wasn’t disappointed. His Eliza Tu-Pa-Ka dances across the pages as one of those characters whose spirited and realistic portrayal will linger long in the memory.

Being selfishly absorbed in my own work, it struck me that Eliza and my Alice Kittyhawk would have got on well, and that Eliza was precisely the sort of role model I’d like Alice to be exposed to. It also occurred to me that the two were contemporaries, albeit in different creative universes. When life gets back to something representing normality, I hope to meet Mark at an event one day and have a few drinks at the end of it to discuss the possibility of mayhap having the two meet and interact.

Nils supplied no accreditation notes for this picture, I have no idea of its origins

In the meantime, I reckoned, there was another possibility. In ‘The Skirring Dutchman’, the Steampunked (and still relatively sane) Peter van Haelen is described as arriving in London aboard his revolutionary new airship and receiving some attention from the press. This was at about the same time that Eliza’s father, MaeYaBee Tu-Pa-Ka, was setting up shop in London. So, we have two genius ship-designers, both somewhat misunderstood, and both suffering from that unnatural defect of not being English, in London at the same time. Would they not have sought one another out to exchange ideas? I thought it would be interesting to plant a seed of possibility in the Smugglepunk novel Fair Night for Foul Folk I am working on. It would also allow me to add a very brief reference to ‘The Skirring Dutchman’in the novel.

I contacted Mark who was happy to have a short reference in Fair Night for Foul Folk. He’s written a splendid blog about this exchange although – until he reads this blog – remains unaware of my vague notions of perhaps exploring these connections further in the future. Mark’s Blog on this topic can be found HERE (LINK).

The passage in question is part of a conversation highwayman Andreas Black conducts with Alice, in which the early history of aviation is referred to:

“A Rozzer?” Black smiled. “I preferred to think of myself as an aviator, truth be told. It was in the early days of flight, when pioneers like MaeYaBee Tu-Pa-Ka, Madeline Scarthorpe, Al Hapfold, Pascal Houvin, and Peter van Haelen were at the forefront of new discoveries. Before the Air Corps was renamed the Royal Aero Fleet. The Corps was never deployed against Free Traders, unlike the RAF.”

I’m sharing this novel online as a Lockdown special, btw, and Daren Callow of Tales of New Albion is reading chapters on the British Steampunk Broadcasting Co-operation. The Lockdown special can be found here and the BSBC readings on Daren’s Tales of New Albion FB page, or the BSBC FB page.

Accreditation: Background image Lee Roberts CC by-sa 2.0. Portraits of Alice & Pip Heijo van de Werf. Cover design Corin Spinks.

Having agreed to my use of MaeYaBee Tu-Pa-Ka, Mark smelled an opportunity to press me once again about considering a submission to a Harvey Duckman Anthology. He mentioned a pirate themed special coming up later in the year. Ever so slowly my dim mind perceived that this would be a great opportunity to build further upon my Steampunked version of The Flying Dutchman. Moreover, developments in Fair Night for Foul Folk had provided a perfect crew, airship, and reason for another run-in with Peter van Haelen’s cursed airship.

The main character of my Smugglepunk stories is Alice Kittyhawk, the daughter of a legendary smuggler. Alice actually appears very briefly in ‘The Skirring Dutchman’, literally just a few seconds and she remains unnamed, although faithful readers will know exactly who she is. I decided that a Harvey Duckman story could be twinned to the Writerpunk Press story, told from Alice’s viewpoint this time, and taking place a few weeks before ‘The Skirring Dutchman’ does in order to throw a whole different light upon her brief appearance in Ensign Peabody’s story.

Thus, Alice takes to the sky once more, in ‘Learning the Ropes’, as apprentice of Cap’n Ray Spinks aboard his Dread Leopard, with a motley crew consisting of real-life members of the Hastings and Eastbourne Pyrates gang. Mayhap, just mayhap, she’ll meet Peter van Haelen up there in the realm of clouds – tis for me to know and for you to find out.

So, two years after encountering my great grand uncle’s  De Vliegende Hollander and his Peter van Haelen, I can look back with some satisfaction. The rewrite of the original story progresses in a healthy manner. A long poem on The Flying Dutchman inspired by Dutch traditions is due to be published in SCADDLES before the year is up. Arthur Dixon’s suggestion to punk away has been heeded, with ‘The Skirring Dutchman’ due to be published in Taught by Time this year, and ‘Learning the Ropes’ out now in the Harvey Duckman Pirate Special.

Accreditation: Background image Ratpack2 (Dreamstime), rat by Linda Bucklin (Dreamstime), all completed by Corin Spinks

It would be remiss of me not to mention the other Flying Dutchman story in the Harvey Duckman Pirate Special, Peter James Martin’s ‘The Rat Who Served on The Flying Dutchman’ (A Brennan and Riz Story).

Peter James Martin was kind enough to make some time to chat about  his submission.

He told me, “The main thrust of the Brennan and Riz series has been shining a light on folklore, myths and legends. I’ve discovered so much folklore from the area, some of it on my doorstep I never knew about. England is a nation of immigrants, each bringing stories with them, and I love dissecting them getting to the roots. What I really hope is that after reading my work, people will go off to discover the root tales for themselves and then maybe keep looking for more.”

I told him I really enjoyed reading his story, taking special delight in just how delightfully unpleasant Riz (a rat) is. I was kind of worried about a cutesy cute overload, which is what I usually encounter when talking animals enter the fray.

Martin’s response, “Riz’s origins are a bit more complex than turning the talking animal trope on its head. His development started him off as a small robot back when Brennan was the star of a sci-fi idea. The character that would become Riz held many of the same attitudes. When I revised the idea in 2017 and came up with the Brennan and Riz series, the move to a rat felt natural.”

Naturally, talk focused on The Flying Dutchman.

Martin said, “When I first heard of the pirate special, I didn’t think I could submit to it because of a perceived difficulty in doing a pirate story. Could I fit what I wrote about around pirates? And vice versa? Did I have any stories I could tell about pirates?”

“To solve this, I looked over myths and legends of the oceans, and among the first was The Flying Dutchman. First thing I had to do was to separate it from the Davey Jones mythology that a certain company forced the legend with for a certain movie franchise. I studied the first few stories of the mysterious vessel and that of its true captain. At this point the ideas of the story began to take shape. I do wonder about the effect of Disney combining the legend with the Davey Jones lore – what new generations will learn about it.”

The true captain Peter James Martin refers to is a familiar face in the story to be sure, the aforementioned Hendrik van der Decken. To be honest, my first reaction was to (nearly) exclaim that Hendrik van der Decken was an English invention, but then I realised I’d be skating on very thin ice there.

For one, the Dutch sources remain mostly shrouded in the Dutch language which isn’t spoken or read very widely, so it would be unfair to expect people to have easily located this. Secondly, I’d placed my Steampunked version of Peter van Haelen, and his phantom airship, on the Sussex coast simply because I like writing about the Sussex Coast, so I wasn’t exactly being faithful to the likely historical origins at the Cape of Good Hope. Last-but-not-least, I have been unable to find any historical precedents for Peter van Haelen, so it’s likely that he was entirely the brainchild of Piet Visser. That places his invention around 1900, which gives Hendrik van der Decken a considerably longer pedigree.

I told Peter James Martin that I quite enjoyed the movie franchise we’d been talking about, but that I had certainly noted that mainstream mass entertainment tends to suffocate the tales tied to regional culture and geography.

That meant our own submissions to the Harvey Duckman Pirate Special was unlikely to even leave a dent in the popular images evoked in people’s minds by a superpower like Disney.

Nevertheless, we agreed that it was great that so many different interpretations could result from a single subject – in this case The Flying Dutchman. We concluded that the strength of the legend is that the lack of exact facts, or supremacy of any one of many captains for that matter, allowed a great deal of scope for creative reinvention and the subsequent rejuvenations of the story allowed for its enduring legacy. We were both pleased to have played a part in this by means of the Harvey Duckman Pirate Special.

All in all, I greatly enjoyed our conversation – just as I thoroughly enjoyed Martin’s take on the Dutchman.

For more, Peter James Martin has a splendid blog on which he shares tales:

but you could also check out  The Strange Tales of Brennan and Riz

That’s all for now me hearties, must run, photographer Corin Spinks says he has a nice surprise for me 😊

Accreditation: Author’s portrait  ☹, Corin Spinks, Corinography

About Nils Nisse Visser

Nils is a free-lance writer, occasional poet, archer, Homelessness activist, who was born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 1970 (which was the best year ever to be born *Mark), he grew up in the Netherlands, Thailand, Nepal, Oklahoma, Tanzania, England, Egypt and France. Taught English at various Dutch secondary schools for 18 years, but his firm belief that education is most effective when it is fun raised a few eyebrows. Having been told too often that he lived in his imagination, he took the hint and moved there on a full-time basis. He currently lives in Brighton in the county of Sussex in England. 

Rather confusingly he sometimes writes as Nils Visser, Nisse Visser or Nils Nisse Visser. For which he apologies.

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