Review of The Night Land (1912)


William Hope Hodgson (writer).

Read in 2017.

Humanity fading away in the Last Redoubt, beset on all sides by an enigmatic and dangerous universe, yet looking inward.

Iconic weird horror and “spirit romance”. It’s Byron’s “Darkness” (1816) again, bigger on every scale but quality. Like Lovecraft, I appreciate the macabre vision. It is a fine image both of human narcissism—albeit specifically Hodgson’s—and of cosmic indifference to the same. It’s a feat of fantasy worldbuilding and a profound failure in other ways.

Hodgson gets some of the details right: Playing up sounds and smells in the absence of light, setting the story in a caldera of sorts—“the Mighty Chasm”—where volcanism heats the ground a little, and speculating that above the steep walls of this caldera, the ruins are covered in snow. Animal life is quite rare for a wilderness and most things are poisonous. Other details make less sense. Inexplicably, there are still leafy trees standing, the air is still breathable, and the foundation of the Redoubt is both very deep and geologically stable.

Lovecraft would have kept the monsters. A later writer like Olaf Stapledon, Philip K. Dick or Greg Egan, more prone to the “sfnal” and less disgusted by difference, would have added stronger hints that the monsters are deliberate transhuman adaptations by the scientists of the “gloom years”. Rather than trying to destroy humankind, the Watchers would have been studying the Redoubt as a curious relic.

Contrary to Lovecraft, Hodgson undermines the cosmic aspect of his vision by adding moral dualism: mysterious forces of “good” directly aiding the hero against the ascendant “evil” forces, to a happy ending, including some hope for the future. The “Earth current”, which could and should have been simple geothermal power, is such a supernatural force for good that it miraculously resurrects a person dead for days, in a burial ceremony that everyone goes through. That happy ending is misguided.

The protagonist is a Gary Stue. The female lead, who seems quite sane and almost interesting as Mirdath in the framing narrative, like one of Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic women, is reduced in her reincarnation as Naani to an implausible object of Hodgson’s erotic fantasies, including his conspicuous sadism and foot fetishism. She responds extraordinarily well to being beaten and called a “baby slave”, while the narrator comments that it’s all done out of true love, as he thinks the reader will surely understand. There’s about 200 pages of that. Pathetic on its own, it is poison to this particular work.

Both the worldbuilding and the treatment of Naani recall analysis of patriarchal legendary motifs like the Sumerian Shamhat who sleeps with Enkidu, Adam and Eve, Pandora, and Homer’s harridans (Calypso, Clytemnestra, Circe, the Sirens etc., to be compared to passive young Nausicaä who corresponds to Naani). Quoting from The Ecology of Freedom (1982): “A gnawing sense of inferiority and incompleteness stamps every aspect of the newly emergent male morality: evil abounds everywhere, pleasure and the senses are deceptive, and the chaos that always threatens to engulf the kosmos must be constantly warded off lest nature reclaim ‘civilization’.” (page 194 in the 2005 edition).

The faux-Shakespearean language, while rarely beautiful, is so consistent that it cannot be mere Turkey City gingerbread. It’s like the deliberately archaic language of the King James Bible, intended to infuse its mythology with a false sense of permanence. The near-absence of names and dialogue, coupled with the high level of detail in other respects—like the number of boringly convenient food pills the protagonist is taking—make a unique impression. I have to assume Hodgson was earnestly going for a deep sense of legend, without a single one of Tolkien’s skills or insights in this regard. On that subject, it seems that the total length of X’s trek is about 1200 miles, back and forth, which is somewhere between the length of Bilbo’s and Frodo’s journeys going one way.

The language highlights and reinforces the chaste relationship of X and Naani on their trek. Despite being destined for each other in the most obvious and boring way, and despite Hodgson’s imagination, all they do is kiss. Aside from this detail, the incredible nature of the relationship seems to support Sam Gafford’s thesis that the late-marrying Hodgson’s novels were written roughly in the reverse order of publication. If it had been revised by the author after he married and experienced a conversation with a familiar human female, I bet The Night Land would have turned out more consistent in quality. Without the author’s constant masturbation it could have made a strong impression in literary history.

I listened to the 19-hour audiobook read by Mark Nelson for LibriVox on my bicycle commute, and was therefore unable to skip past the redundant sections of the work. Nelson did an amazing job maintaining neutral tone and pace even through the most ridiculous sections of the material.

References here: “Polaris” (1920), Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930), “The White Sybil” (1934), The City and the Stars (1956), Berserk (1989), Blame (1997).

text fiction