Terrors of the Sea (2007)
From Death Ray 1‘s ‘Deep Thought’ section.
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 world 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.