Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #32: William Hope Hodgson

Between 1907 and his death in 1918, William Hope Hodgson wrote some of the most unusual fantasy novels. I've sometimes seen his books classified as supernatural horror: I'm not sure I agree with that classification, but it is true that his books share a key characteristic of horror, which is that they stand or fall on their ability to sustain a mood, rather than to tell a story.

"The Night Land" (*?****?) is Hodgson's masterpiece. Sort of. Readers who appreciate a remarkable use of language should read it. Readers who don't like language getting in the way of a story should avoid it like the plague. The first chapter is placed in the seventeenth, maybe eighteenth, century. The narrator finds the love of his life and loses her, after which he is granted a dream of finding her again in a future so distant that the sun has burnt out. The rest of the book is set in that future. The bad news is that, since the narrator is supposed to be from a few centuries ago, so is the language. More specifically, it's a combination of pseudo-archaic language and Victorian prose (the sort where 'Beauty' is mentioned frequently and always capitalized) apparently designed to set my teeth on edge. Amazingly, remarkably, it works.

The Night Land of the title is the Earth, billions of years from now. (It's not sf: Accept as a premise that the sun has guttered out but theEarth is still slogging along on tectonic activity, and don't worry about it.) The world outside the last bastion of humanity, is dark and inimical (albeit with some bright spots), and through four hundred pages of the narrator's sojourn in this land (to rescue the last survivor of another habitat) we never forget it. And that's what's remarkable about the book -- not the story, which is basically a journey from here to there and back again, fighting off assorted dangers and monsters on the way, but Hodgson's ability to create and sustain an atmosphere. Despite the unfortunate language (or perhaps because of it: I certainly haven't seen this pulled off half as well in modern colloquial English) Hodgson draws the reader in and makes that dark land real.

"The House on the Borderland" (***) is Hodgson's most accessible novel. It begins with two vacationing friends discovering the ruins of house -- eerie ruins, dismal and disconcerting -- and in the house a hand-written manuscript. Most of the rest of this short book is devoted to the contents of the manuscript.

(Digression: The modern fantasy genre isn't much more than a century old. There are many older works that we point to as predecessors, or even call fantasies, but it was only in Hodgson's lifetime that writers started creating worlds out of whole cloth and setting their stories in them. That's why Hodgson and other writers had the awkward-to-us habit of using an opening chapter to ground the story in the real world, via a dream or a manuscript or some similar means. The genre *convention* of letting the author define a setting with no reference to the real world was not yet established, and writers had to provide an explicit transition from the reader's world to the writer's.)

The writer of the manuscript was a old man who came to live in the house, alone except for his sister and his dog. The house was odd, old, and -- because nobody in that part of the country would live there -- cheap. The tale was told it was built by the devil. Perhaps it was. At the least, the house turns out to border more than one reality, and some years after the writer came to the house, another reality -- or perhaps the same reality in a later eon -- began to impinge on it. The tension builds, from the first intimations of danger to the attack of the monsters (the swine creatures have always provided my mental picture of Orcs) to the writer's travel through an incredibly distant future but, typically for Hodgson, that tension is never allowed to build too far. Hodgson is more interested in creating an atmosphere of mystery and wonder and terror, and maintaining it, than in settling for climax and anticlimax.

(Roger Zelazny's novel "The Changing Land" centers on a building which seems to be meant to be this same house.)

"The Boats of the Glen Carrig" (**) is Hodgson's first novel, and the only other one that is reasonably findable. (I was told -- I don't have the details -- that a collection of his short stories has recently been issued in a $90 limited edition, but I don't consider that "reasonably" anything. "The Night Land", "The House on the Borderland", and "The Boats of the Glen Carrig" are the only Hodgson books I've seen in paperback.) "TheBoats of the Glen Carrig" begins in media res, the Glen Carrig having sunk a few days earlier, with the lifeboats lost in a strange sea. In the pages that follow, the survivors make landings on two strange islands, both of which seem to have been plucked from the drearier portions of Dante's Inferno.

The sailors have to fight storms and monsters, but the main enemies seem to be the dismal islands themselves. This book is weaker than the others, but the style Hodgson would use in later books is present. The story being told is slight, and serves mainly to anchor an atmosphere, a picture of dank lands that are hostile to healthy life. The novel's main tension is provided by the activity of the sailors in the face of the depressing half-life and decay of their surroundings.

William Hope Hodgson wrote fourteen or fifteen books, of which these are the best known. His influence on the other major fantasists of the early twentieth century is probably slight, as his books fell out of sight for awhile after his death. When the books did come to light, however, those fantasists were *impressed*. The cover blurbs on my copy of "The NightLand" are by H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. You don't find many books about which you can say that!

As I indicated with respect to "The Night Land", I can only give anambivalent recommendation. If you like plot-driven fantasy, Hodgson's books don't have much in the way of plot. If you like character-driven fantasy, you're in no better shape. If you're attracted by the prospect of seeing a talent which can work language so as to shape and sustain a mood across hundreds of pages, you'll want to read Hodgson -- because there's virtually nobody else.


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Dani Zweig