The House on the Borderland; and other novels by William Hope Hodgson (The Boats of the Glen Carrig; The House on the Borderland; The Ghost Pirates; The Night Land)

This book is in Gollancz’s series of backlist reprints under the heading of ‘Fantasy Masterworks’. It contains four novels; The Boats of the Glen Carrig, The House on the Borderland, The Ghost Pirates and The Night Land. It has an introduction by China Miéville.

The Boats of the Glen Carrig starts with a group of shipwreck survivors already in the lifeboats and looking for a safer landfall. The first land they find is anything but safe; later, they leave that place, survive a storm and finally sail through a sea of vegetation to find an island where they can plan their escape from danger. In between times, they endure attacks by a variety of strange sea creatures. Miéville’s introduction warned me that Hodgson indulged in nautical techno-babble (and provided a hilarious example of such from Jonathan Swift), but despite that and the relative simplicity of the plot, the imagery is remarkable. But the imagery is just plonked into the story for effect – ‘we rowed past this ship that was in the grip of a giant octopus’ sort of thing. It’s utterly memorable; but as for where the giant octopus came from, why it was attacking the ship, or indeed where any of the weird and not-so-wonderful creatures came from is never made clear. They are just strange things that happen at sea. Indeed, this seems to be a recurrent theme in Hodgson’s writing, as we shall see. Also a recurrent theme is the sudden reveal, although these are not exactly gasp-inducing plot twists. Towards the end, we find out that our narrator was a passenger on board the Glen Carrig, not one of the crew. Lest anyone accuse me of dropping spoilers into the discussion, let me add that that does not affect the plot one tiny bit.

Some of the same recurrent themes can be found in The House on the Borderland itself. It’s a strange tale about an abandoned house somewhere in rural Ireland, told in flashback via an abandoned journal. The occupant of the house encounters strange visitations from savage creatures, experiences accelerated time and undertakes (psychic?) voyages to other realms and distant planets. Hodgson appears minimal on explanation but his scene-setting and imagery is powerful. There is an impressive sense of place, but as for plot? Denouement? Answers? Questions, even? The protagonist is horrified by the attacks he suffers and the things he sees, but the creeping horrors that keep occurring have no apparent origin and the protagonist never seeks an explanation for these events. The story never gets to the bottom of them (or, indeed, shows any sign of wanting to get to the bottom of them).

If nothing else, The House on the Borderland has acquired an iconic reputation as the stylistic progenitor of a lot of fantasy and horror writing. I found the imagery striking.

The third novel is The Ghost Pirates; and because Hodgson seemed to be working at slightly longer length in this one, the weirdness quotient doesn’t ramp up all that quickly, though he keeps saying “Something truly uncanny then happened…” and then it’s only slightly odd – nothing hair-raising the way it was in The Boats of the Glen Carrig. Mind you, it shares that story’s load of naval proto-technobabble and I kept thinking of Edmund Blackadder’s encounter with Sir Walter Raleigh “and his Golden BeHind”. And guess what? The ghosts turned out to be pirates at the end, after all! Hodgson pulls another reveal out of the hat in this one; the narrator turns out to have his mate’s ticket, but that hardly really influences what happens even though the ship’s captain suggests it might. The story ends very suddenly. All die. O the embarrassment (as Joe Haldeman once wrote).

Finally we come to The Night Land. This has an unpromising start with a love story set at some point in Olde Englande, but then the object of the narrator’s love dies and he experiences a vision of a distant future time and a similarly distant future existence. We are supposed to accept that the protagonist and his One True Love share souls across time, and indeed this provides a motivation for the future protagonist’s actions. But really, this was not necessary. Viewed as a story set at the far end of time, when the sun has died and the Earth is plunged into eternal night, the story could stand on its own in those terms. After all, The Night Land dates from 1912, yet Forster’s The Machine Stops was written in 1909 and quite happily plunged the reader into a future time without any framing device connecting it to the present day.

All the same elements that we have already seen in the other novels are present here: weird creatures of unknown origin and savage intent; strange situations; striking imagery. Yet this all works; the beasts and altered men of The Night Land don’t need any explanation because they are not located in the world we know. And Hodgson introduces what must be science fiction’s first megastructure; we are some way into the story before we realise that the Last Redoubt, the great pyramid housing the remaining humans on Earth, is several miles high and of similarly impressive footprint; Hodgson describes the mechanisms of the Pyramid in some detail. In so many ways, the story provides a foretaste of later works by other hands – Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon and the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic all came to mind at different times.

Yet the novel is written in the same cod-archaic language (as Miéville so tellingly describes it) as the first Olde Englishe chapter; and this gets very irritating very quickly. Our super-competent hero – possibly channelling the author’s fascination with physical fitness and body images – evades all the horrors and perils of the setting to rescue a survivor from a forgotten outstation of the Redoubt. This survivor turns out to be another incarnation of the Best Belovéd from the first chapter, and the description of the relationship between this survivor and our hero rapidly turns increasingly toe-curling in its tweeness. Of course, the hero’s attitude to this woman is typical of its time – there is a sequence of corporal punishment that we would find totally unacceptable today – so it is refreshing when the Belovéd suddenly displays a feisty side. But sadly, this is only temporary.

I ended up skimming the text as life was too short for all the cod-archaic language and all the stuff about ‘Mine Own Belovéd”. But the pace increases as the protagonists get nearer to their goal, their return to the Pyramid; I was torn between rushing to the end just to get the novel finished with and actually wanting to see how it ended and whether there would be a happy ending or not.

The Night Land is probably the most iconic of the four novels in this omnibus; the world-building (well, dismantling, really) and the visual descriptions are stunning. It would actually film rather well, I think; a film adaptation could make the female protagonist a lot tougher, and easily cut out the reams of superfluous material and drill down to the weird and visually stunning adventure story underneath.

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