While still a 23- year-old medical student, before creating the wildly popular character of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle published “The Captain of the Pole-Star.” Conan Doyle’s tale is a ghost story set aboard an arctic expedition, narrated by John McAlister Ray, a young medical man. Conan Doyle’s own experience as a ship’s doctor aboard the whaling ship Hope in the Arctic Circle no doubt inspired this unsettling story of a captain haunted by memories the narrator can only imagine. The narrative also foreshadows Conan Doyle’s later interest in spiritualism.
The story takes the form of a diary kept by John Ray aboard a Scottish whaler, chronicling increasingly disturbing events that take place as the ship approaches the far reaches of the north. Although sympathetic to the nervous disorders that can plague men on a long and lonely voyage, the skeptical Dr. Ray nevertheless finds rational explanations for occurrences that convince the crew that the ship is cursed and that they are being haunted. The ship’s captain, Craigie, manifests strange behavior during the voyage, and at odd times this seemingly cultured and intellectual man becomes irrational, distraught, and even violent. The narrator is intrigued by him but does not believe that the captain’s behavior is caused by anything other than emotional or psychological distress. As the events in the diary come to a climax, the captain appears to glimpse a figure on the ice and becomes deeply agitated, then elated. Captain Craigie leaps onto the ice, speaking fondly to what the narrator characterizes as “a wreath of mist, blown swiftly in a line with the ship,” and disappears. When his frozen body is found a day and half later, it is in the attitude of an embrace and covered by a swirl of ice crystals that seem to be, to some of the crew, in the “shape of a woman.” Dr. Ray ends his diary here, and Conan Doyle includes an afterword by the young man’s father, noting that he, the father, has learned that the captain, as a young man, had loved a woman who died “under circumstances of peculiar horror” while Craigie was at sea.
“The Captain of the Pole-Star” is an interesting character study of both the captain and the narrator. The doctor begins the diary as a practical, skeptical man who is, as his father describes him in the afterword, “unimaginative.” He scoffs at the crew members’ superstitions and seeks to find rational explanations for their fears and his own uneasiness. The captain can also be read as a double of the narrator. Both are well-educated men, and the narrator is devoted to a young woman named Flora, whom he misses and regrets having left behind as the journey becomes progressively dangerous and bizarre. The captain’s fate may be a cautionary one for the younger doctor, since the captain’s beloved met her horrible death while he was away, and Captain Craigie has apparently never been able to forget, or perhaps to forgive himself. As the diary comes to a close, the narrator finds himself more open to the supernatural and remarks that from his experiences on the Pole-Star, he has “learned never to ridicule any man’s opinion, however strange it may seem.” The events described and the conclusions reached in the story are tantalizingly ambiguous and suggest a fin de siècle meditation on the inadequacy of rational explanations in the face of human emotion and supernatural phenomena.
Conan Doyle, Arthur. “The Captain of the Pole-Star.” In Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert, 283–303. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.