Cosmic horrors versus stiff upper lips

Posted: April 2, 2012 in Features and opinion, Fiction, Journalism
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Spring is packed this year. Omega Point was out last week (in the US, UK edition out on 6th April), and Champion of Mars is out on the 26th of this month in the US, on the 10th of May in the UK. I’m not attending Eastercon, mostly because it’s Easter and I’m off back up north, but I will be at The Discover Festival on 18th-19 May at Snibston near Leicester.

There are a couple of interviews about Champion of Mars due soon, one at Solaris the other at I Will Read Books. In anticipation of that, I thought I’d post this article I wrote for Death Ray on William Hope Hodgson, as his work was a big influence on Champion of Mars. This piece appeared way back in 2007 (sheesh, time flies). I haven’t put it up until now as I had no copy on file and had to TYPE IT IN, so I hope you enjoy it. If you’ve not read Hodgson before, I seriously recommend him. I read the Gollancz collected novels of Hodgson whilst travelling around India on honeymoon, which was interesting. Nice bit of romantic, light reading.

Terrors of the Sea

Some of the all-time greats of SF are all but forgotten. Guy Haley puts the case for William Hope Hodgson, whose tales of the occult paint a powerful picture of a wolrd threatened by unseen horrors…

On occasion, at ist very best, science fiction is a genre of truly impressive  wonders. But only infrequently  are the heights of imaginative excellence scaled, and all too often the writers who accomplish the feat soon languish forgotten.

One of those rare visionaries was William Hope Hodgson, an early 20th century author, sailor, photographer and bodybuilder whose work deals with big stuff – no less than the spiritual perils of the outermost darks, and the fate of humankind.

Hodgson’s stories crackle with muscular energy, and his prose can –at its best – attain a stunning majesty. His work bears comparison with the later HP Lovecraft, and shares similar themes; notably that there are powerful alien creatures out there, and that their very existence is inimical to human life. As Lovecraft himself said, “The work of William Hope Hodgson is of vast power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life.” But unlike Lovecraft, Hodgson’s books brim with the indomitability of the human spirit, and his heroes are men of action who often survive their adventures to tell the tale.

Hodgson was born into the family of an Essex clergyman in 1877. At the age of 13 he attempted to run away to sea, and though initially unsuccessful, by 1891 he was allowed to become a cabin boy. He remained a sailor for eight years, and this career had great impact upon his character.

The sea appears in much of Hodgson’s fiction, although he professed to hate it. He wrote many nautical poems and stories, but it is in two of his better known novels, The Boats of the Glen Carrig (1907) and The Ghost Pirates (1909), that his interest in sailing and what he termed the “ab-natural” collided. The first is the more haunting (if harder going) of the two; a dark tale of shipwreck survivors who find themselves tormented by pallid creatures on an island swathed by entrapping seaweed.

Despite this recurrent theme, his finest creations actually have little to do with the sea. The House on the Borderland (1908) is a short novel that tells of a mansion built upon a metaphysical faultline, a liminal building that is neither of this world nor truly of the present. A diary reveals that the last occupant experienced an out-of-body experience there, which led to terrifying  encounters with “swine-things”, finally culminating in an almost psychedelically described trip to the end of time (a trip reminscent of that in HG Wells The Time Machine) and the house’s destruction.

It is the far meatier The Night Land (1912), however, that is generally reckoned to be his finest work, and should be read by all who enjoy weird fiction.

The Night Landis set millions of years in the future, a time when the sun has died. The ancient Earth is shrouded in blackness haunted by monsters, granted ingress to our own realm by the meddlings of aeons-dead science. Against all the odds, mankind survives in a vast pyramid known as the Great Redoubt, living in peace with one another, even as time marches on toward their unavoidable extinction. The story concerns a man who receives a message from a woman he believes to be his reincarnated wife, and he sets out to fetch her from the long-lost Lesser Redoubt.

True, The Night Land is written in appalling cod-archaic English and includes a great deal of what China Mieville – in his introduction to The House on The Borderland, the Gollancz Fantasy Masterwork collected works of Hodgson – calls “egregious romance”, but it triumphs over its self-imposed limitations to give us a quest story of breathtaking power. This is truly one instance where a writer can be seen to triumph in spite of himself, and Hodgson’s vision of this alien, inimical Earth remains in the mind long afterwards.

Other creations of note by Hodgson include Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, a collection of short stories which detail the adventures of a paranormal sleuth. Carnacki is a tough customer. While a Lovecraftian protagonist often ends a story with his sanity is tatters after an encounter with some horrifying monster, Carnacki chases after it with his revolver.

William Hope Hodgson was killed, aged 40, in The Great War by a German shell. With characteristic bravado, he died executing perilous, voluntary duty. He left behind only a relatively small body of work, but one which has had a lasting impact.

Here’s a couple of elderly websites with more on Hodgson. For general information go here, while The Night Land is devoted to, you got it, The Night Land and has stories penned by other authors. Gollancz’ collected edition of Hodgson’s novels, mentioned above, is a bargain and a great place to start.

  1. redfox4242 says:

    I think I would really enjoy reading William Hope Hodgson. This blog seems to be a great way for me to discover new and interesting authors.

  2. Dim Reaper says:

    I had no idea that Omega Point was coming out this month, but congratulations on getting the second R&K novel out. I’ll have to take a look on Amazon now to see if the KIndle version is out at the same time.

    Sorry I’m not going to be able to catch you whilst you’re “up North” but just to give you all a traditional Yorkshire welcome…it’s just started snowing.

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