Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Roving Jack the Pirate Hunter

“I am mad, mad !” gasps Jack; “oh, horror, horror!”

“Roving Jack the Pirate Hunter, a Romance of the Road and the Ocean,” by Charles Stevens, 40 nos. London: NPC, August 1862.

“Roving Jack the Pirate Hunter” “Boys of England Office” 40 parts.1882.

“Roving Jack, the Pirate Hunter.” Excerpts from; “Our Very Cheap Literature.” from The Contemporary Review, Volume XIV, 1870, by Alexander Strahan.

“Sensational art, however, attains its climax in the coloured illustrations of “Roving Jack.” On the first page Jack is lying in the “Death Hole” in the midst of chained, grinning skeletons - some with rags of red and yellow raiment still clinging to them. A man-of-warsman, with a cutlass in his mouth, and a torch in one hand, lowers himself down a rope by the other to the rescue. But even this impressivetableau appears tame when you turn to the double-page illustration of “Roving Jack’s Attack on the Phantom Captain in the Witch’s Cave.” Roving Jack, a juvenile cross between a stage smuggler and a stage foreign peasant, is coming down the witch’s cave’s rough staircase, at the head of his youthful companions, with his sword in his right hand. He looks horrified, and well he may. The witch, in crimson poncho and somewhat fashionably cut green dress, has a monstrously bloated toad squatting beside her train. A viper writhes round the pitchfork she brandishes in her right hand, another sits upon her shoulder, a third twines round the chain of the cauldron she is adjusting over an open fire, whose flames are rushing towards the opening which ventilates the cave. A bat, about the size of a crow, is hovering in the lilac smoke. Beneath a beam, round which a long, green snake is twisted, stands the Phantom Captain, with a death’s-head and a cross-bones embroidered on the undertaker’s cloak, which hides half of his red kilt and one of his jack-boots. Near him sits, with his red night-capped head between his hands, and his elbows on his knees, a grown-up stage smuggler, grinning in envious rivalry at a skull, through one of whose eye-sockets his twisted rapier is thrust. Between the smuggler and the skull, with her feet in the fire, lies a plump young woman, pinioned down to the ground by a dagger stuck through her right arm. We have inventoried the illustration before reading the text, which we supposed it illustrated. Turning to the letterpress we cannot find any such text. Here, however, is a specimen of the intellectual food supplied in “Roving Jack”:-

Oh! the unutterable horror and despair of that awakening in the pit of death and darkness.

The rude shock of his fall roused our hero from his state of insensibility.

He lifted his head. He felt blinded, racked with agonizing pain, sick, giddy, faint, bewildered, half-suffocated with that awful stench of corruption.

He was alone in the deep darkness, but where?

He knew not; his mind was a glass darkened and shattered.

He must shake off the wretched incubus that lies like a ton of lead upon his breast; he must awake - awake to the cheerful light; start from his hell-charmed slumber; break through the hag-spell that enthralls his soul with such dark and loathsome conceits.

The boy uttered a wild cry; the echoes laughed like mocking demons.

He raised his hands.

The hard steel clinked, and he found his wrists locked together, and his feet bound !

A twinge of exquisite pain shot through his aching head, and the veins of his brow seemed to swell to bursting.

He felt a clammy, warm trickling down his face.

It was a stream of blood!

By slow and painful degrees he collected his thoughts, and recalled all the dread incidents of that eventful night.

The savage face of the miscreant thief-taker seemed scowling upon him.

The fancy nerved the fierce heart of the fiery young hero to a pitch of desperate anger.

“No, you villain!” shouted Roving Jack, shaking his fettered hands through the darkness as if his enemy was actually before him, “you shall never, never conquer me ! Oh, if I had you alone, armed to the teeth as you are, with just my father’s pure sword in my hand !”

Jack gnashed his teeth with rage.

“I suppose I must die here,” he sighed bitterly, “That is hard, too - so young ! To leave no name behind me! all my bright gleams of glory to perish so soon and miserably ! And mother!”

Jack burst into tears.

“And - and Violet, who loves me so dearly; but there - there, I must not think of them, I cannot bear it!”

Jack dried his eyes and rested his head against the cold, dank wall.

He fixed his thoughts steadily upon holy things, and murmured a prayer.

Jack turned over upon his side, and managed to writhe along for a yard or two. He stretched out his arms.

“Ugh !” gasped Jack, recoiling with a violent shudder. “It is - a skeleton !”

He shook convulsively, and it was a long time before he could control his excited feelings.

“Oh, for one ray of blessed light!” he cried fervently.

Crawling about he laid his hands more than once on round hard skulls, and sharp fleshless bones.

He uttered a fearful cry, his brow exuded a cold clammy sweat, his limbs quivered like reeds in the wind, his lips became parched, his hair roused, and he felt as if he were losing his senses.

He threw himself down against the wall, and buried his face in his hands, crushed by despair and dismay.

At last he roused himself from his stupor, and glared wildly around him.

The stench grew more and more oppressive and the darkness was intense.

All at once there arose from the floor at some distance from him a greenish lambent flame that flickered faintly, and threw a ghastly light upon the awful scene.

Transfixed with awe, our hero glanced around.

The place was a very charnel of dead bones.

But whence that spectral light illumining the ghastly scene ? *

It lapped upon the floor, and in its fantastic waverings resembled the flare of ignited ether.

At last it settled at the feet of a lank and hideously-grinning skeleton propped against the opposite wall. Then it spread about the dread relict of miserable humanity, and flared upwards in an unconsuming blaze, playing round the smooth bare skull and creeping into the hollow eye-sockets.

Presently he was startled by a quick stealthy rustling.


Tumbling and squeaking among the rattling bones, a legion of these detestable vermin surged around him.

One darted right across his face, inflicting a sharp bite upon his cheek.

Jack shrieked and staggered on to his feet, supporting himself against the wall.

Goaded to a pitch of madness, he snatched up a skull, and sent it clattering along the ground.

Squeak, squeak! and a terrific scampering.

Jack hurled another skull, and another, and another, till he sank with exhaustion.

He fainted.

His mind wandered, and he feebly muttered his incoherent prayers.

Now, the darkness seems peopled with dusky, yet visible forms, shapeless, yet living; they surrounded him, and seemed to gloat over his dying agonies.

“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha-a!” the cavern resounds with demoniac laughter.

“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha-a !” roar the echoes.

A mystic blue light dawns in the place.

The skeletons move!

They rear themselves on their gaunt shanks, and clack their bony hands together.

“I am mad, mad!” gasps Jack; “oh, horror, horror !”

Now they whirl round him faster and faster and faster, till he becomes dizzy.

One of them is taller than the rest, and seems to be their leader.

He is mantled in a heavy, black velvet pall, fringed with light lawn.

He pauses in the dance, and, approaching the captive, seems to proffer him assistance.

Jack holds out his chained wrists.

The spectre touches them with the hard tip of his bony finger, and an electric thrill darts through the captive’s shrinking veins.

The steel manacles are shattered, and clash to the ground like broken glass.

Jack shouts in mad triumph, and then points to his scorching lips, and sues for drink. The spectre presents a skull into which he has poured some ruby liquid.

Jack takes a greedy draught.

Then, with a horrible scream, he dashes the ghastly chalice to his feet.

His face and hands are smeared - with blood.

“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha-a !” yell the death spectres, and away they go round again, whirling dizzily, dizzily, deftly, nimbly, tossing up their jointed limbs, and nodding their faceless heads.

A delightful sensation of languid repose now overpowers the captive, and he stretches himself on the ground.

But what strange spell is on him?

Now there is a deep hush; the skeletons depart and he is left alone.

After awhile they return and swathe the living corpse in the garments of the grave and place it upon the bier.


The hollow echoes respond solemnly.

Boom, boom!

The passing knell of the living dead!

The bier is raised on the clacking shoulders of the ribbed spectres.

Boom, boom!

The cavern rings with a grand organ peal - the dirge of the dead alive !


The funeral procession is formed; some of the grizzly skeletons march before, and they scatter fresh flowers that wither to dust ere they reach the ground.

Others of the spectres follow.

The black-mantled leader acts as chief mourner.

Still the enchanted retains perfect consciousness.

A dark grave yawns beneath him.

He is lowered amid the hollow moanings of the skeleton mourners.

Cooped in his narrow cell, still conscious, but dumb and impotent to stir a muscle, the living dead glares up at the black cloud that is descending upon him.

It is the pall!

He feels the mazy velvet folds wrap round his spell-bound limbs, he hears the last grand chorus of the requiem dying away; - then


* It is a well-known fact that dead bodies in advanced stages of composition emit certain foul gases, which occasionally appear in a state of combustion, flickering round the corpse in a faint blue flame. This natural phenomenon will account for many of the strange tales told of “corpse candles” and “death lights” seen glimmering around graves in old and dank churchyards. A similar luminate gas is engendered by miry swamps and marshy fens, and is often descried by the belated traveler dancing before him on his dark path as if luring him to follow, and which is considered by some superstitious country folk to be a certain tricksy fire-sprite, called “Will-o’-the-Wisp,” or “Jack-o’-Lantern.”

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