William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land

Paul R. Potts

This piece was assembled from several blog posts written when I was recording Hodgson’s work for my podcast. I recorded chapters 1 and 5 of The Night Land, and some other stories, but the recording quality I could produce at the time was very poor, so I have removed them from the web. I don’t regard this work as entirely wasted, though, because it helped me learn how to make better recordings.

I did not read any more chapters of The Night Land, although I have long wanted to take another crack at the project. I think to be really listenable, it would require that I adapt the novel into an episodic radio drama.

Because of their various business practices, I no longer purchase anything from Amazon, or their subsidiary companies.

For more about the incredible fantastic world of The Night Land, take a look at the Wikipedia article about the book: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Night_Land. Full disclosure: I wrote portions of the article…

A Treat from Amazon

I got a treat from Amazon yesterday… three more volumes of the Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson. I’m now missing only Volume 5, which I think may not have been printed yet.

The whole set has the same handsome midnight-blue covers and silver embossed artwork. It is slightly disappointing that the artwork for each of the volumes is the same, although the section headings vary slightly — there are different mysterious figures floating around on the same background. The typography and printing are of the same excellent quality. I am looking forward to eventually having some nice shelves in our living room where I can display some of my more attractive books. These will definitely be there!

The bindings seem, for the most part, quite sturdy, although one of the volumes seems like it didn’t get enough glue during manufacturing. I can’t tell if these books involve any sewing, or just glue. Binding technology is a bit of a mystery to me: you want to make a backing which will hold the pages in place securely, while still allowing the book to be opened flat, which means that the binding forms a steep arch. The binding thus has to be very flexible. You also want it to remain securely attached at both sides to the rigid cover, even though as it flexes, it must change width. Oh, and it also should withstand fairly regular handling for at least 100 years. It seems like quite an engineering challenge, and there is probably still room for improvement.

Hodgson’s Work

Hodgson wrote several novels and many short stories, ranging from somewhat traditional seafaring adventure stories through monster stories and ghost stories as well as creepy, surreal fantasies and more traditional ironic short stories and romances. He generally gets credit for inventing, or at least perfecting, the supernatural sailing tale. His character Carnacki is a kind of cross between Sherlock Holmes and Fox Mulder: an investigator of the supernatural who finds that sometimes he is investigating an elaborate hoax, sometimes a true “haunting,” and sometimes a little bit of both.

Even his stories that are told perfectly straight always seem to me to contain just a bit of deadpan humor. It is a bit hard for me to judge whether this was always intended, or whether it just appears that way because I’ve become conditioned to see irony everywhere. For example, one of his more conventional stories is about a “haunted” water tank. It turns out to contain a giant snake, or eel — it is unclear exactly what it is — which crawls out and kills people. The mystery is eventually solved, and the last line in the story is one of the characters saying something about the “importance of cleanliness.” That’s it — that’s the moral of the story!

It seems deliberately silly to me, but it makes me wonder whether the contemporary reader would have laughed, or would have had a more thoughtful response, with the creature serving as a metaphor for germs, infection, horror of disease, fear of the unknown, horror of empty spaces, or some other response that I just can’t appreciate almost 100 years later.

The Night Land

Volume 4 of the Collected Fiction consists mainly of a very long, strange fantasy novel called The Night Land. See the Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Night_Land. The Night Land is written in a forced archaic style, with strange word usage (for example, Hodgson frequently, but inconsistently, uses the word “eat” as a past-tense form, as in “I drank some water and eat some bread.” To achieve an ancient feel, I think it would have made more sense to use the archaic form “et,” but he didn’t, or else it was “corrected” by an editor.) The sentences are extremely long, with many semi-colons and prepositional phrases. Some parts are worse than others in this regard, but in general, it has the effect of forcing you to slow down and read very carefully, or you will find that you’ve quickly lost track of subject and verb. Here’s a small taste, from the framework story:

  Mirdath, My Beautiful One, lay dying, and I had no power to hold Death backward from such dread intent. In another room, I heard the little wail of the child; and the wail of the child waked my wife back into this life, so that her hands fluttered white and desperately needful upon the coverlid.
  I kneeled beside My Beautiful One, and reached out and took her hands very gentle into mine; but still they fluttered so needful; and she looked at me, dumbly; but her eyes beseeching.
  Then I went out of the room, and called gently to the Nurse; and the Nurse brought in the child, wrapped very softly in a long, white robe. And I saw the eyes of My Beautiful One grow clearer with a strange, lovely light; and I beckoned to the Nurse to bring the babe near.
  My wife moved her hands very weakly upon the coverlid, and I knew that she craved to touch her child; and I signed to the Nurse, and took my child in mine arms; and the Nurse went out from the room, and so we three were alone together.
  Then I sat very gentle upon the bed; and I held the babe near to My Beautiful One, so that the wee cheek of the babe touched the white cheek of my dying wife; but the weight of the child I kept off from her.
  And presently, I knew that Mirdath, My Wife, strove dumbly to reach for the hands of the babe; and I turned the child more towards her, and slipped the hands of the child into the weak hands of My Beautiful One. And I held the babe above my wife, with an utter care; so that the eyes of my dying One, looked into the young eyes of the child. And presently, in but a few moments of time; though it had been someways an eternity, My Beautiful One closed her eyes and lay very quiet. And I took away the child to the Nurse, who stood beyond the door. And I closed the door, and came back to Mine Own, that we have those last instants alone together.
  And the hands of my wife lay very still and white; but presently they began to move softly and weakly, searching for somewhat; and I put out my great hands to her, and took her hands with an utter care; and so a little time passed.
  Then her eyes opened, quiet and grey, and a little dazed seeming; and she rolled her head on the pillow and saw me; and the pain of forgetfulness went out of her eyes, and she looked at me with a look that grew in strength, unto a sweetness of tenderness and full understanding.
  And I bent a little to her; and her eyes told me to take her into mine arms for those last minutes. Then I went very gentle upon the bed, and lifted her with an utter and tender care, so that she lay suddenly strangely restful against my breast; for Love gave me skill to hold her, and Love gave My Beautiful One a sweetness of ease in that little time that was left to us.
  And so we twain were together; and Love seemed that it had made a truce with Death in the air about us, that we be undisturbed; for there came a drowse of rest even upon my tense heart, that had known nothing but a dreadful pain through the weary hours.
  And I whispered my love silently to My Beautiful One, and her eyes answered; and the strangely beautiful and terrible moments passed by into the hush of eternity.   And suddenly, Mirdath My Beautiful One, spoke, — whispering something. And I stooped gently to hark; and Mine Own spoke again; and lo! it was to call me by the olden Love Name that had been mine through all the utter lovely months of our togetherness.
  And I began again to tell her of my love, that should pass beyond death; and lo! in that one moment of time, the light went out of her eyes; and My Beautiful One lay dead in mine arms … My Beautiful One….

This has a maudlin feel, perhaps, but a certain beauty to it as well. From the narrator’s wife’s death, the story slips into a dream, or vision, which forms the bulk of the text. It is a strange, strange journey. Here’s another excerpt, describing the preparations as the narrator prepares to leave the fortified redoubt and venture out into the Night Land:

  And three days and three nights did I abide within the Room of Preparation; and upon the fourth day was mine armour brought unto me; and the Master of the Preparation stood away from me, silent and with sorrow upon his face; but touching me not, neither coming anigh to aid me; nor having any speech with me; for none might crowd upon me, or cause me to answer.
  And, presently, was I clad with the grey armour; and below the armour a close-knit suit of special shaping and texture, to have the shape of the armour, and that I might not die by the cold of the Night Land. And I placed upon me a scrip of food and drink, that might keep the life within me for a great time, by reason of its preparation; and this lay ready to me, with the armour, and was stitched about with the Mark of Honour; so that I knew loving women thus to speed me.
  And when all was done and made ready, I took up the Diskos, and bowed in silence to the Master of the Preparation; and he went towards the door, and opened it; and signalled that the People stand back; so that I might go forth untouched. And the People stood back; for many had crowded to the door of the Room of Preparation, so that I knew how that my story must be to the heart of all, in all the Cities of the Great Redoubt; for to come unbidden anigh that Door was against the Lesser Law, and that any erred in this matter, betokened much.
  And I went out through the Door; and there was a mighty lane of people unto the Great Lift. And about the Great Lift, as I went downwards, did the countless millions stand; and all in a great silence; but having dear sympathy in their souls; yet loyal unto my safety, in that none in all the Mighty Pyramid did make speech unto me, or call out aught. And as I went downward through the miles, lo! all the aether of the world seemed to be surged with the silent prayers and speedings of those quiet multitudes.
  And I came at last unto the Great Gate; and behold the dear Master Monstruwacan did stand in full armour, and with the Diskos, to do me honour, with the Full Watch, as I went forth. And I looked at him, quietly, and he looked unto me, and I bent my head to show respect; and he made silent salute with the Diskos; and afterwards I went onwards towards the Great Gateway.
  And they made dim the lights in the Great Causeway, that there should no glare go forth into the Land, when the Gate was opened; and behold, they opened not the lesser gate within the greater, for me; but did honour my journey, in that they swung wide the Great Gate itself, through which a monstrous army might pass. And there was an utter silence all about the Gate; and in the hushed light the two thousand that made the Full Watch, held up each the Diskos, silently, to make salute; and humbly, I held up the Diskos reversed, and went forward into the Dark.

The full text is available from Project Gutenberg here: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/10662. You might initially love or hate the style in the excerpts above, but it grows on you, and the story, although ponderous and slow-moving, is quite fascinating. There is a strange, sentimental heroic romance interwoven in The Night Land, but it is also a bleak fantastic/science fiction-ish story, as if “The House on the Borderland” was played on a record player at too slow a speed. Later, Hodgson revised and edited The Night Land into a much shorter, tighter piece called “The Dream of X,” which should be in volume 5; I am looking forward to reading it.

Hodgson wrote this amazingly varied and interesting body of work, which contained both popular commercial successes as well as intriguing stories that were not commercially successful. He did all this over the course of about ten years. He was then killed, rather pointlessly, near the end of World War I, like so many of his generation. I’d like to believe there was some higher purpose to this, but I think he probably had a lot more writing in him. He turned his years of experience as a sailor into an amazing number of works with sailing themes and sailor characters. If he had survived the war, and been able to draw on that experience in his writing, what kinds of stories, or even entirely new kinds of stories, could have have told?

The Night Land Online

There’s a web site out there all about The Night Land: http://www.thenightland.co.uk

It has a bunch of neat maps, some beautiful artwork, and a number of articles on the book and on Hodgson. There is also a lot of fan fiction, some of which seems to be quite good. I think the pieces by Richard Wright are by the same Richard Wright that wrote the Golden Age trilogy, which I quite enjoyed.

Reading The Night Land

Chapter 5 of The Night Land recounts how our hero decides to leave the great Redoubt and go forth to hunt for Naani. It also recounts the destruction of the Youths and their capture into the House of Silence. The language inspired me to post-process my voice — I am lowering the pitch (slowing it down) to 86% of the original speed, adding a light flange effect, and then also adding some background sounds generated by the Flow program by Karlheinz Essl.

I like the results — I think it somehow captures something of the strange dark mood of The Night Land. It also serves the purpose of slowing down the reader/listener, forcing him or her to pay closer attention to the language. Hodgson’s sentences are so convoluted that slowing down really is imperative, whether reading or listening. The sound effects give something of the sense of strangeness of the landscape.

I don’t think I can record the entire book, and even if I did I am not sure anyone would want to listen to it. I have not even finished reading it, and the later chapters become very wordy. The story becomes a kind of idealized romance, and while the action is still interesting, the interactions between our hero and his true love make a modern reader grit his teeth. I’m not sure I could make it through reading example after example where the hero refers to her tiny, dainty feet, or how she was a slight and slender Maid, or her impudent naughtiness in disobeying him. It reminds me of a joke by Douglas Adams from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

  The first part of each song would tell how there once went forth from the City of Vassillian a party of five sage princes with four horses. The princes, who are of course brave, noble and wise, travel widely in distant lands, fight giant ogres, pursue exotic philosophies, take tea with weird gods and rescue beautiful monsters from ravening princesses before finally announcing that they have achieved enlightenment and that their wanderings are therefore accomplished.   The second, and much longer, part of each song would tell of all their bickerings about which one of them is going to have to walk back.

The Night Land is kind of like that. At one point our hero and his Maid spend something like seven pages arguing over who is going to get to use the our hero’s cloak to keep warm when sleeping. It goes on and on — she insists he wear it, he insists she wear it, and finally — gasp! — they cuddle together for warmth and both sleep under the cloak, although we assured that she retains her maidenhood and this is only right and virtuous and does not imply anything improper whatsoever is going on between them.

About this point you start to wish that something less than virtuous would take place between them it it would become a Different Kind of Story, just to relieve the tedium.

He calls her at various points his Babe, his Slave, his Own. He even whacks her (lovingly, I suppose) to try to correct her behavior on a couple of occasions. If this was a Gor book, a consensual S&M subtext would make the book more interesting, but here it just makes me wince. It makes me want to rewrite the second half from her perspective; I’m not sure that she looks up at him with quite the hero-worship that he imagines she does.

It is still quite a beautiful and fascinating book, and it isn’t quite fair to condemn Hodgson for his somewhat weird idealism regarding romance; this book is almost a hundred years old, and things are different. In a way it’s almost sweet.

This afternoon I recorded a reading of Chapter 1, which is often condemned, because it takes place in Hodgson’s past. It is interesting, though — Hodgson models his hero on his own idealized self (he was a bodybuilder). It is a brief and flowery romantic tale, but it is also more than that — the events of chapter 1 prefigure much of what goes on in the later story set in the distant future. I have a feeling that Hodgson had in mind the various interpretations of the Bible where events from the Old Testament are shown to prefigure events in the New Testament. It is easy to just ignore it because it is flowery romance, but it deserves study. I’ll get Chapter 1 edited and completed at some point and perhaps introduce it, and then consider whether I want to continue from there.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
April 27, 2006

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