Saturday, July 3, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #33: William Hope Hodgson, The House on the Borderland and Other Novels

Although barely a century separates us from William Hope Hodgson's most famous work, The House on the Borderland, out of all of the authors that appear in the Fantasy Masterworks series, his collection of four novels, The House on the Borderland and Other Novels (comprised of The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig' (1907), The House on the Borderland (1908), The Ghost Pirates (1909) and The Night Land (1912)), is perhaps, with the possible exception of E.R. Eddison's novels, the most distant in terms of narrative style from today's dominant forms out of any of the other books that appears in this series.  It is not fantasy in the sense of a constructed 'world' setting, nor is it strictly horror, and it certainly does not resemble any of the proto-SF works of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.  Instead, Hodgson's works seem to occupy a transitional stage between the 1860s "sensational novels" and each of the three main strands of speculative fiction today.  American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft cited Hodgson as being one of his main influences and for those familiar with Lovecraft's oeuvre, a close reading of Hodgson's works will show that there are indeed several similarities between the two authors.

Hodgson did not start writing until he was almost 30, in 1906.  However, between then and his death at the age of 40 in 1918 at Ypres in World War I, he produced several stories, such as The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig' or The Ghost Pirates, that referenced his time as a sailor during his youth and early adulthood.  Although Hodgson never was a bestselling author, his stories were well-received during his lifetime and in the near-century since his death, his works have repeatedly gone back into print.  He is renowned for his atmospheric tales, even though his writing may appear to be a bit archaic for some readers today.

The first novel in this omnibus, The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig', is a horror novel that takes as its central conceit that it is the true account, written in 1757, of events that took place years before.  Told in first-person PoV by a passenger on the 'Glen Carrig," the story begins as a sort of shipwreck account before veering off into the horrific.  Hodgson here uses deliberately archaic language in an attempt to capture the feel of the 18th century shipwreck tales, such as Robinson Crusoe, with mixed results.  There is no dialogue to speak of; the narrator reports other characters' conversations as indirect summations of much longer conversations.  Below is a paragraph that describes the first of the monstrous creatures that the shipwreck survivors encounter on a weed-filled island:

A little later, there came to my ears the noise of a very great splash amid the weed; but though I stared with intentness, I could nowhere discern aught as likely to be the cause thereof.  And then, suddenly, between me and the moon, there drove up from out of that great waste a vast bulk, flinging huge masses of weed in all directions.  It seemed to be no more than a hundred fathoms distant, and, against the moon, I saw the outline of it most clearly - a mighty devilfish.  Then it had fallen back once more with a prodigious splash, and so the quiet fell again, finding me sore afraid, and no little bewildered that so monstrous a creature could leap with such agility.  And then (in my fright I had let the boat come near to the edge of the weed) there came a subtle stir opposite to our starboard bow, and something slid down into the water.  I swayed upon the oar to turn the boat's head outward, and with the same movement leant forward and sideways to peer, bringing my face near to the boat's rail.  In the same instant, I found myself looking down into a white demoniac face, human save that the mouth and nose had greatly the appearance of a beak.  The thing was gripping at the side of the boat with two flickering hands - gripping the bare, smooth outer surface, in a way that woke in my mind a sudden memory of the great devilfish which had clung to the side of the wreck we had passed in the previous dawn.  I saw the face come up towards me, and one misshapen hand fluttered almost to my throat, and there came a sudden, hateful reek in my nostrils - foul and abominable.  Then, I came into possession of my faculties, and drew back with great haste and a wild cry of fear.  And then I had the steering-oar by the middle, and was smiting downward with the loom over the side of the boat; but the thing was gone from my sight.  I remember shouting out to the bo'sun and to the men to awake, and then the bo'sun had me by the shoulder, was calling in my ear to know what dire thing had come about.  And that, I cried out that I did not know, and, presently, being somewhat calmer, I told them of the thing that I had seen; but even as I told of it, there seemed to be no truth in it, so that they were all at a loss to know whether I had fallen asleep, or that I had indeed seen a devil.

And presently the dawn was upon us.

The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig' is replete with passages such as this.  The long, dense paragraphs, full of clauses and asides, can be a bit wearisome to read after a short while.  However, Hodgson for the most part manages to imbue this narrative with a sense of foreboding doom, as the narrator and the other survivors have nightly visits from the island's inhabitants to confront.  Although the description-heavy passages may be something that today's readers are unaccustomed to reading, once the rhythm of the narrative has been ascertained, the story itself moves at a brisk pace, with every few pages being devoted to outlining another horrific threat to the shipwreck survivors.

Hodgson's second novel, The House on the Borderland, is a much more accomplished novel.  Here, the story begins in 1877 in the Irish village of Kraighten, where two visitors, exploring the ruins of a quite singular house, discover the moldering diary of its previous owner.  In it, they find hints that a dark evil has existed somewhere beyond the borderland of life and of reality.

The House on the Borderland utilizes a double narrative approach, similar to that favored by many other horror writers of the past century (in this, I am especially reminded of Caitlín Kiernan's 2009 novel, The Red Tree, which utilizes a similar approach to outlining an incomprehensible evil).  Here, Hodgson's narrative is not filled with archaicisms.  Instead, it is a tale of intrepid exploration by the diary writer into the causes of the maladies that are occurring at this particular house.  Although creatures of this Evil are seen and described, the source of this Evil is never directly seen or described by the narrator.  Throughout this short novel, the tension keeps building and building, until finally the narrator succumbs to it...and the diary breaks off before the horrific end can be revealed.

It is a familiar formula now, but a century ago, this sort of writing went far beyond the previous generation's "sensational novels" with its descriptions of decay and malevolence.  The pacing is superb, as Hodgson does a slow build throughout this novel until it is time for the payoff, which proves to be well worth the time spent waiting to see what would ultimately occur to the diary writer.  It is easily the most accessible and perhaps most enduring of the four short novels collected in this single omnibus.

The third story, The Ghost Pirates, is the second nautical tale in this book.  In it, Hodgson relates the sad fates of a ship's crew as it encounters a ghostly ship intent on its destruction.  Unlike The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig,' The Ghost Pirates does not employ an epistolary, anachronistic narrative approach.  Much more than in his previous novels, Hodgson relies heavily on dialogue among the doomed ship's crew to convey the drama that is unfolding.  This is not to say that it is an entirely straightforward account.  Hodgson in his preface to this book refers to it as being the third part of a trilogy (with the two above-described books forming the first two parts), and there are indeed some "elemental kinships," as he put it, that unite these three tales on a thematic level.

The final story in this omnibus, The Night Land, is perhaps the most difficult to comprehend.  Although it is set in a Wellsian far-future where the universe has gone dark and cold and the remnants of humanity dwell in vast pyramid-like structures, the narrative and the vision behind the tale are quite archaic.  When reading this, I was struck, as I often am by pre-1914 works, by how there are none of the concerns that have worried writers and readers ever since World War I broke out.  There is no fear of human-caused annihilation; the universe may eventually grow dark and cold and creeping horrors may arise, but these feel somewhat removed from the internal fears of self-induced destruction.  And then there are some now-antiquated attitudes on gender relations, such as this short passage:

And I askt the Maid whether that she did be prepared; and she to be very white and wearied, and all besmirched with the dankness and growths upon the boulders and the hidden pools of the Gorge and the dripping of the waters; but yet did she be sound in her courage, and to show that she had all belief and abiding in me, and her judgement likewise to be with mine, in that her own Reason did approve.

And I took the bundle of her torn clothing from her, for it did be at her girdle, and like to trouble her movings; but she to refuse, very determined, in that I did be already over-burdened.  And I to be firm in my deciding, and to make her to yield the bundle, the which I hookt unto the "hold" of the Diskos, where it did be to mine hip.

And the Maid to be there, a little figure, and white in the face, and strangely angered, and her anger mixt with hidden acknowledgement that I did be her master, and half to be minded that she move not from where she did stand, and part to be reasonable and fearful of the hidden Beast; and in part also to thrill in her womanhood unto the man that did be so masterful unto her.  And all to pass in a little moment, and we to be to the Gorge side, and busied very eager to the climb.

For someone reading this in 2010, such talk and actions at best might seem to be amusing; at worst, deplorable.  In addition to this, there are references to an imagined "past" for this distant future that feels nothing like anything that has any relation to our shared recent past of mechanized warfare or of the Atomic Age and its developments.  In reading this, there is a sense of displacement, as if what is transpiring here upon the narrator's arrival near the end of time is but the horror of disassociation, as though the now-Present does not make much sense to the denizens of the now-distant Past.  This sense of alienation that runs throughout The Night Land partially preserves this novel from being cast off as being merely a pre-WWI oddity.  Nonetheless, the opaqueness of the prose and the less-developed characters made this the weakest of the four novels that I read in this omnibus.

So, is The House on the Borderland and Other Novels worthy of the title of "Fantasy Masterwork?"  Considering how influential Hodgson was on Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and other writers of the "weird" and horror narrative modes, I would have to conclude that yes, these stories, warts and all, are worthy of such an august distinction.  Even though time's passage may have aged the narratives and made them more difficult to process than it would have been for Hodgson's contemporary readers, there are still several strong elements in his stories that made most of these enjoyable tales to read.  In some ways, it is difficult, after reading this, to imagine Lovecraft achieving what he did with his horror fictions if he had not read Hodgson's works and developed his own takes on those tales.


  1. I'm interested in this author's work, thanks for the great review Larry!

    -Bookwyrm (Westeros Forums)

    p.s. It's very clumsy of Gollancz to misspell the author's last name when it's the largest thing on the front cover!!!

  2. Hodgson's influence on Lovecraft must have been negligible. Lovecraft did not read Hodgson until 1934, and after that he wrote very few stories.

    The name is misspelled only in this image. it is correct on my copy of the book.