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William Hope Hodgson’s books revolve about the eerie and the supernatural (or “the occult”); many of them also have the sea—of which he had much personal experience—as a focal point.
(Hodgson, like Arthur Machen, Robert W. Chambers, Sheridan Le Fanu, Clive Barker, Shirley Jackson, and some others who may eventually land on these lists, is on the fuzzy boundary between the territory I patrol and what is usually called “horror fiction”, of which I say elsewhere on this site: “Horror fiction, to my mind, is qualitatively different from SF&F in that its first and dominating goal is—as the name suggests—to excite a feeling of horror in the reader.” The works by Hodgson and the others I have mentioned seem to me to have sufficient futher goals and successes to justify their inclusion on this site.)
Hodgson, whose writing career was regrettably brief—he died at age 40 in World War I—produced several books, many of them either collections of short stories or novels of the sort that are really separate tales strung together as episodes by a narrative device. None that I have read—many are scarce today—is worse than zero stars (which, on my plus-five to minus-five scale, is creditworthy), but only three really have that something special that I look for in books I will list here.
Hodgson had a curious addiction to strange and often needlessly cumbersome “framing devices” for his tales. The House on the Borderland is, supposedly, almost entirely the writings on a found manuscript or journal; The Night Land is far worse, being presented as the recording, by a seventeenth-century gentleman—in, correspondingly, painfully archaic (by our reading standards) and stilted language—of a lengthy dream he has had of the very far future. Only the tales collected in Carnacki the Ghost-Finder are told in a relatively straightforward manner, and even those are recountings to a small circle of intimates by Carnacki of his various adventures. None of these have flowing prose, and most of them virtually clunk.
Hodgson is in this respect somewhat akin to David Lindsay, in that even leaden, turgid prose cannot muffle the power and intensity of the visions being communicated: each is so possessed by his visions that even in inept language, he convinces us of them as well.
Let us have some examples of the prose, so you may see if you agree. The examples are, as usual, chosen almost at random.
“A little to my left, the side of the Pit appeared to have collapsed altogether, forming a deep V-shaped cleft in the face of the rocky cliff. This rift ran, from the upper edge of the ravine, nearly down to the water, and penetrated into the Pit side, to a distance of some forty feet. Its opening was, at least, six yards across; and, from this, it seemed to taper into about two. But, what attracted my attention, more than even the stupendous split itself, was a great hole, some distance down the cleft, and right in the angle of the V. It was clearly defined, and not unlike an arched doorway in shape; though, lying as it did in the shadow, I could not see it very distinctly.
“I had a long conversation with the old Captain in which I pointed out that the ‘haunting’ had evidently no connection with the house, but only with the girl herself and that the sooner she was married, the better, as it would give Beaumont a right to be with her at all times and further than this, it might be that the manifestations would cease if the marriage were actually performed."
Now, by this time, that Monstrous Creature was dead; but I held off from it, and went upon the other side of the fire; for I was yet surely in horror of it. And I sat for a time, and did think upon all matters that did concern me; and I saw that I should have not comfort of heart, until I was washed clean from the taint of the Monster.
None of that is soon to be mistaken for Lord Dunsany.
We might as well also admit right now that character gets little or no attention in Hodgson tales. At the end of any one of his books, we know little more about the protagonist, or of any of the characters, than we did at the outset, save some superficies and perhaps a modest nod to their finer qualities (courage, decency, whatever—all in unconvincing, conventional form).
If Hodgson is not sounding terribly attractive yet, that is because I have deliberately paraded the worst first; I do, after all, give him an entire four stars.
If you have read much on this site, you will realize that Hodgson’s strength, at least as I feel it, must perforce come from the one remaining element of tale-telling that I have not as yet cited: setting. And so the case is.
The setting of many of his books not treated here—such as The Boats of the Glen Carrig or The Ghost Pirates—is the sea. But none the three books that make it to the lists here have that backdrop: rather, they have a remarkably diverse range of settings, as we will see. But in each instance, Hodgson’s immense success is his ability to power right through his pedestrian (or worse) language to a simply stunning overall effect. That effect is close to, but not entirely, terror (were it entirely terror I would not be discussing the books).
(Recall the famous distinction between horror and terror: horror is when you realize that the monster is about to pounce on the defenseless heroine; terror is when you realize that it will then turn and pounce on you.)
The “extra” is the sense of whence the terror, and that is perhaps at the heart of Hodgson’s effectiveness. He does not do what, oh, say slasher movies do, show some particular circumstance, some bizarre monster or haunted house: rather, he shows us the terror that may lurk behind the entirety of what we naively think of as “the everyday world”—there is no sunlit “outside” to escape to. (Others, notably H. P. Lovecraft, have done that—or, more accurately, tried to do that—but Hodgson is effective where so many others, for whatever reasons, are not.) We feel terror not because of the individual situations Hodgson’s protagonists are experiencing, but because those situations purport to reveal that we all are, at all times, separated from overpowering terror only by an invisible wall a hairsbreadth thick and highly permeable. The terror is compounded with and made all the more explosive by that awful sense of despair, of the inevitability of the terror being there, of its very possible triumph in the end.
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This huge book (often published as two volumes) is Hodgson’s most extravagant work. It was written in 1910, thus obviously far predating Jack Vance’s first “Dying Earth” book, which is often thought—in error—to be the first set where The Night Land is set: on an Earth so vastly far in our future that the sun is guttering (ignore the science) or, as in this case, has gone out altogether (hence the title), leaving the Earth to stagger on into a long, slow death, warmed for a while by its internal plutonic activity. On this eerie world, much has changed; most crucial, the surface of the planet—the eternally sunless Night Land—is now occupied by monstrosities of psychic and spiritual as well as physical force, almost all profoundly perilous, many to the soul as well as the physical self. What remains of mankind lives in a single structure, a vast pyramidal arcology, “The Last Redoubt”.
The plot, such as it is, consists in the discovery that there may be a second redoubt, and the adventures of a young man who ventures out across the Night Land to seek that other place. It is an episodic quest tale, and—as to plot—little more. It is also, curiously, a romance, in the classic Victorian sense; in the Ballantine edition, though they printed most of the full two hundred thousand words, the editors found it needful to trim a few of the romantic scenes of what Lin Carter, in the introduction, called “their most excrutiating emotional excesses.” The trimming is doubtless of no harm, for the force and virtually the entire merit of the book is Hodgson’s somber portrayal of the Night Land itself, a place now implacably hostile to humankind, and which will be within the foreseeable future the tomb of the race. (None of this is spoiler: you get it all early on—at least relatively—in the book).
As I have remarked, the book, in a manner analogous to E. R. Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros, starts out as a dream voyage by the narrator, who is a man of the seventeenth century whose manuscript of his dreaming of (or rather, into) that far future we are supposedly reading (but which, again like the Worm, loses track of the dream-frame when once the story begins, and never returns to it). There is, even before the dream sequence starts, a first chapter set in the seventeenth century that many readers find tough sledding; if you do too, just carry on.
I have said above that Hodgson’s prose is crude, and by and large so it is. But he can, nonetheless, muster telling descriptive phrases on occasion, and these much augment his effect. The House of Silence (And in that House were many lights, and no sounds); the Road Where The Silent Ones Walk; the Three Silver-fire Holes (that shone before the Thing That Nods); The Watcher Of The South (a living hill of watchfulness…it brooded…there, squat and tremendous, hunched over the radiance of the Glowing Dome; …a million years gone…came it out from the blackness of the South, and grew steadily nearer through twenty thousand years, but so slow that in no one year could a man perceive that it had moved); and so it goes in the Night Land, a place of anarchy in which nothing seems causally related to anything else, each thing a solitary monstrousness.
The book has a peculiar bittersweet quality, for though it is a romance, it is also a morbid description of the end of humanity, hunkered down in a grim fortress stretching out the years till the inevitable.
No short description or catalogue of phrases or passages can begin to do justice to the cumulative effect of the book. It remains a major landmark in the field of speculative fiction, and one with a unique power and effect.
It seems that Hodgson prepared a drastically cut-down version of The Night Land—to about one-tenth the full work’s length—entitled The Dream of X. There is more information at Rick Kleffel’s Agony Column review of the work, not published till a limited edition came out in 1977. (You can also find the cover art.) The book can still be bought for a reasonable price (click the title link).
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It occurs to me that perhaps one reason we can accept Hodgson’s prose, over and above the effects he generates despite it, is that it is never that of an omniscient author, but rather always that of a first-person protagonist who is relating the tale—and so, we may excuse in that narrator what we would be less accepting as coming “from the author” (even though, in fact, it all does).
House is supposedly a journal manuscript found, in then-contemporary times, in a most peculiar ruin in Ireland. It is, as it develops, the diary of the owner and sole occupant of the house that once stood on that spot, then mysteriously vanished overnight.
The diary begins plainly, if suggestively. As it goes on, events stranger and stranger, and more and more awful (in both the new and the old senses of that word) befall. The narrator becomes more and more aware—and eventually caught up in the fact that—this strange, ill-regarded house is indeed in a Borderland: a borderland between the reality we think we know and some indescribably horrid and bizarre otherness that may, in fact, be the true, blood-freezing "reality" that we are all normally blind to.
Once again, it is Hodgson’s ability to summon not only a sense of terror—what is fumbling with the door handle?—but that nightmare sense of an inevitable terror, of things that cannot be escaped, things that there is no point in even trying to escape; and, above all, things that may be anywhere, or everywhere. The New York Times remarked of the book “Will produce genuine gooseflesh”, and that it will; but its overarching power comes, characteristic of Hodgson, in the way it makes us question the very nature of the world we think we live in.
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It is regrettable that, for Americans anyway, the name of the protagonist (and narrator) of these tales has been cheapened by Johnny Carson’s “Carnack the Magnificent” comedy routine. Karnak is a temple in Egypt, and the term will usually be associated, even by those not well familiar with it, with great antiquity and rites; when Hodgson named his character Thomas Carnacki, he was quietly suggesting some mystic connection between this man of the modern world (No. 472, Cheyne Walk, London) and powers of the ancient world.
Carnacki is a sort of “detective of the occult” (a not uncommon literary role in the Victorian and Edwardian eras—there were Jules de Grandin, John Silence, Morris Klaw, and numerous others). As with most characters of the sort, Carnacki investigates apparently supernatural phenomena that may indeed be such, or may turn out to have a mundane (often criminal) basis; he never knows which will be which, nor do we, which adds piquance to the tales, of which, in Carnacki’s instance, there are nine (not counting sequalae by Other Hands, of which there are several).
These tales are, as critics have rightly noted, not on the same scale of achievement as the two other works discussed here, but neither, I think, are they as trifling as Lovecraft, for one, makes them out to be. The concept, as noted, is by no means original, but why that should detract from the work is unclear (consider all the predecessors of Sherlock Holmes). The nine tales are not equal in effect, but of all one may say that the overwhelming virtue is, yet again, Hodgson’s ability to not merely evoke terror, but to evoke the sense that we are all but one short step from crossing from the warm, comfortable, but possibly illusory “real” world into a much real-er yet vastly more terrible underlying world. They differ only in the degree to which that chilling sense of the gossamer quality of the veil that separates this from that is conveyed, but the worst do it well and the best do it, well, chillingly. (The Carnacki story “The Hog” is perhaps the most vividly impressive thing of this sort I have ever read.)
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Probably the chief resource is Alan Gullette’s William Hope Hodgson sub-site, with a biography and other material [archived copy]; included there is Sam Gafford’s critically useful essay “Writing Backwards: The Novels of William Hope Hodgson” [archived copy]. There is also Dani Zweig’s “Belated Reviews” Hodgson page. Violet Books had a nice essay on Carnacki [archived copy]. And the late Andy Robertson created a specialty site, The Night Land, wholly dedicated to Hodgson. There is also this brief but insightful Hodgson appreciation [archived] by Deanne Sole, which I feel well captures the essence of Hodgson’s work. And of course there is a Hodgson page at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
There are other Hodgson pages; one is “In Search of William Hope Hodgson” at the Magzter site. Another is “Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers in the Great War”.
Hodgson was well known to other writers in the “occult” line; you can read some comments on him by H. P. Lovecraft and by Clark Ashton Smith.
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There are a few works:
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