Thursday, August 6, 2009
The Night Land
by William Hope Hodgson
Introduction by Lin Carter
Literary isolationism, or the isolation of literature.
Both aptly describe William Hope Hodgson’s massive dead earth epic, ‘the Night Land.’ Published in 1912, but with its first draft most likely written around 1904, Hodgson’s overlong 587-page curiosity is a literary rabbit-hole of grotesquery, archaic prose and willful peculiarity. In my last post, I called Wolfgang Bauer’s ‘the Feverhead’ a book that invites its own obscurity. ‘The Night Land’ does not ask for obscurity– but what it does is demand isolation within the niche that has since been termed ‘weird fiction.’ Which is not to say its author wasn’t writing for a mass audience. In fact, Hodgson was a workingman’s writer, he wrote to put food on the table, even as he also wrote in an ill-conceived pursuit of fame. This is the same man who opened a weight-training and self-defense school, rode a bicycle down a steep flight of stairs for publicity and controversially jammed Harry Houndini’s handcuffs on stage so that the escape artist would not be able to remove them. Yet, for a writer so doggedly obsessed with recognition, both critical and commercial, Hodgson inexplicably wrote with little to no consideration of an audience.
In a letter dated November 17, 1903, Hodgson writes, “…I've tried hard to be commonplace with it; but, I'm afraid, with poor success. I cannot ride above that failing of mine which urges me to write original stuff.” Hodgson’s four fantasy novels, ‘the House on the Borderland,’ ‘the Ghost Pirates,’ ‘Boats of the Glen Carrig,’ and ‘the Night Land,’ do contain a strong esoteric and fecund discomfort – these are strange and singular books. There are few shadow-rooms in our literature as mysterious and bizarre as the elliptical architecture of Hodgson’s collected novels and short stories. But to be fair, Hodgson’s notorious 427 rejection notices were probably not on account of his originality, they can be squarely placed upon Hodgson’s leaden mock-seventeenth century prose style, saccharine sentimentality and his wanton disregard for characterization or narrative motion.
I was drawn to ‘the Night Land’ both through my appreciation of Hodgson’s best known novel, ‘the House on the Borderland,’ as well as the fantastically bizarre cover illustration to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition of the book. ‘The House on the Borderland’ is a singular horror novel of albino pig-men and cosmic entropy only occasionally marred by its faux-Victorian sentimentality. It remains a touchstone in the canon of weird fiction. Over the past year, as I’ve methodically made my way through my stockpile of paperbacks, I’ve been looking forward to finally reading ‘the Night Land.’ Which perhaps accounts for how severely I was disappointed. The drab narrative is stretched over two monotonous volumes, and the incredibly difficult task of plowing through it in its entirety can only be compared with the more tedious prose sections towards the end of Dave Sim’s ‘Cerebus’ saga.
‘The Night Land’ follows an unnamed young man as he ventures out of the Great Redoubt, an immense silver pyramid, let’s call it an arcology, which has housed the handful of remaining humans for countless centuries. This young man embarks on a journey across a dread landscape populated by mountain-sized Watchers, shambling Silent Ones and baying Hell-hounds, in order to rescue Naani, his metaphysical beloved. Naani lives in the Lesser Redoubt, a recently discovered smaller settlement of humans, who reside in another pyramid hundreds of miles away. Ballantine Adult Fantasy series editor, Lin Carter, decided to divide the book into two volumes, as “It is a very long novel. It must be close to two hundred thousand words in length; far too long to appear in one volume at our standard price.” While this bifurcation may have been prompted by financial necessity, it makes aesthetic sense. Robert LoGrippo’s gorgeous wrap around cover for volume one is simply reversed for volume two; the front and back covers trade places. Whereas the first volume describes the narrator’s journey to the Lesser Redoubt, which has been ravaged by demons, leaving his beloved Naani the sole survivor, the second volume monotonous reverses this journey. What’s worse, the repetitive tablet taking and hour marking of the first half remains, but are now accompanied by sappy plaits of love and devotion.
Even my stubborn tenacity was tried as I read yet more statistics of hours walked versus hours slept divided by food tablets consumed. As happened when I read ‘the Worm Ourobouros,’ a novel marred by a similarly artificial prose style, I found myself lying in bed, my thoughts actually slipping into stilted faux- Victorianisms as I tried to fall asleep. But whereas at least Eddison exercised some acumen in his archaic prose, Hodgson has neither the chops nor the history to pull it off.
I left my copy of the book in my friend Zach’s van the other night. While waiting to retrieve it, I started a collection of ETA Hoffmann’s short stories. Though Hoffmann’s prose is, much like Hodgson’s, unfashionably padded and expository, I could not help notice Hoffmann’s expedient, smooth rhythm. His prose moves! In contrast, take, for example, the tedium apparent in this passage from Hodgson’s ‘the Night Land’: “…I was wondrous glad, and did make the Maid to sit upon a little rock, while that I made a fitting of the shoes. And, surely, they did be utter big and clumsy upon her little feet; so that I was in surprise to know how great is a man, beside a Maid.” Mind you, the narrator’s gentile reflections on feminine precociousness and charm occurs in a squat cave amidst a gore-streaked barren populated by horrendous humped creatures eager to pull the wet spines from the bodies of both him and his Maid.
Or consider the narrator’s account of his sleeping arrangements: “And I turned my back, and went a pace away and lay down, for truly there did be no way else but to be near the Maid, for it was a little cave. And I lay very husht, because that I was so sore in the heart. Yet, truly, I could not come unto my slumber, for I was so disturbed in my love; and I stayed very quiet maybe for a great hour; and did fight that I shake not mine armour to jinglings with the utter cold that did make me to tremble. But the Maid did sleep very sweet and calm, as I perceived by her breathings.” First, isn’t it ridiculous for the narrator to concern himself with some facile chivalry about keeping a ‘proper’ distance between himself and Naani as they sleep? Secondly, in the wake of the genocide of a good third of the remainder of the human race, and hopelessly lost hundreds of miles from any refuge, should a recent lover’s tiff with Naani really keep the narrator up at night?
Ok, so I’m being somewhat harsh here. If ‘the Night Land’ is such a poorly written book, why read it? Or, for that matter, why write about it? We often assume that people read books on account of quality. A book is worth reading because it’s ‘good.’ Isn’t it? But Weird Fiction doesn’t necessarily operate that way. Maybe that’s what draws me to it. Which is not to say that there aren’t well written works in the genre – HP Lovecraft, for all his faults, has emerged from the isolationism of the Weird Fiction ghetto for a reason. I have not read any Clark Ashton Smith, but I have heard similar praise for his writing. As for the others? There is no need to make an apology for the Pegana cycle of Lord Dunsany, for Eddison’s ‘the Worm Ourobouros,’ or David Lindsay’s ‘Voyage to Arcturus.’ Despite the clumsy writing. Despite the inconsistencies and missteps. That’s where Lin Carter misreads the genre. He attempts to apologize for the genre. In the anthology “Dragons, Elves, & Heroes,’ discussed elsewhere on this blog, he erroneously attempts to place Weird Fiction in a mythic context. But myth deals with cultural extroversion, while Weird Fiction is first and foremost introspective. And why shouldn’t it be?
Hodgson was killed in 1918 by shrapnel while serving the British army in the First World War. Most of the notable works of the genre were written prior to the war’s outbreak. I mentioned ETA Hoffman earlier in this post, and it is important to note the influence of German Romanticism on the Weird Fiction genre. ‘Pickman’s Model’ or ‘The Music of Erich Zann’ by HP Lovecraft has something of the delirium and madness of Hoffmann’s ‘the Sandman’ or ‘the Artushof.’ There is a similar concern for the transcendence of wild inspiration – its corresponding creative and corrosive elements. But the hundred or so years separating European Romanticism from the pulp genre of British and American Weird Fiction demands a drastically different context. Whereas Romanticism was a push outward, Weird Fiction signifies a desire to move back. Romanticism questioned the tenants of the Enlightenment - rationalism was not a sufficient lens with which to view the world. Weird Fiction, on the other hand, arose as a reaction, conscious or otherwise, to modernism. The abstract is terrifying. The non-Euclidean is demonic. This is an anti-Modernist sentiment! If cyberpunk novelists William Gibson and Bruce Sterling at the end of the 20th century spoke of the post-human with an air of utopianism, them Hodgson at its inception wrote with derision of the Ab-humans and others – a race engendered from humanity mating with ‘the other.’
The eugenics of Weird Fiction is, of course, the elephant in the room. What does one make of the smug Orientalism of Lord Dunsany or the debased races of HP Lovecraft? Even the ‘gentle grandfather’ of the genre, JRR Tolkien, can either be misappropriated, as in the Nordic overtones of Middleearth, or is, at times, himself blatantly racist – how does one reconcile the alliance of the ‘dark races of the south’ who side with Sauron, or the racist implication of the Orcs? Hodgson writes “…to be mixt and made monstrous or diverse by foul or foolish breeding- as you to have knowledge of in the bodies of those dread Monsters that did be both Man and Beast.” Soon after, he weighs in on Darwinian evolution, writing “…I still then to have no occasion that I think Man to have been truly a Fish, or aught truly different from a Man; but only that he did be once modified physically to his need, and to be still possessed of the Man-Spirit, though all lackt of development.” To ignore the bigotry and ignorance of the genre is dishonest.
But it’s not an outright condemnation as such. ‘The Night Land’ is not a well-written book, but there is something to be said about such curious literature. Books like ‘the Night Land’ or Eddison’s ‘the Worm Ourobouros’ present us a telling portrait of their contemporary moment, just as much, or arguably, moreso, than the great works of their era. ‘The Night Land’ is a strange novel. It is a singular novel. The faults of Hodgson and his peers, then, offer us an exhilarating and peculiar challenge to our conceptions of literature. These novels exist on a planet where the sun has indeed burned out. It is a frozen earth, and books such as ‘the Night Land’ are its frozen literature.
NEXT: Penguin Classic's Tales of ETA Hoffmann.