THREE NOVELS BY WILLIAM HOPE HODGSON

by Jeffery Scott Sims

Introduction

In a previous essay I dealt at length with an epic horror-fantasy novel, The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson, a writer admired by H.P. Lovecraft and much discussed in his Supernatural Horror in Literature. I wish now to continue the discussion by considering Hodgson's three other long works of note: The Boats of the "Glen Carrig", The Ghost Pirates, and his most famous novel, The House on the Borderland. Taken as a group, this trio provides all of the weirdness, the spookiness, and the quirkiness associated with this author. Those readers who haven't yet been exposed to these works hopefully may learn of treasures in store. Also, I intend to delve into Lovecraft's opinions of the novels, comparing and contrasting them with my own.

As in the other essay, I use for source materials the superb and comprehensive multi-volume set The Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson published by Night Shade Books.

Synopses

The Boats of the "Glen Carrig"

Hodgson spent a chunk of his early life at sea, and when he came to write fiction he composed a swarm of nautical tales, many with a weird bent. His experiences delightfully inform his maritime adventure stories, which always ring with authenticity. His first published (1907) novel, The Boats of the "Glen Carrig", offers a characteristic example of Hodgson's accomplishments in this vein.

Beginning in media res, the 18th Century sailing ship Glen Carrig has apparently foundered with loss of life, leaving the survivors, commanded by the ship's bo'sun, adrift in two lifeboats on the high seas. An educated passenger, young John Winterstraw, tells the story of their amazing odyssey. Five days since the undescribed accident, chancing upon an unknown, uninviting coastline of nasty mud and strange vegetation, they head up a creek in search of fresh water.

This "Land of Lonesomeness," as the narrator styles it, is an eerie place indeed. In it they discover an abandoned vessel, read disturbing passages in a pathetic sort of diary, confront shrubs bearing hints of human features, and most dreadfully are assailed at night by an unseen thing beyond comprehension, entirely mysterious save that it is certainly lethal. Terrified and helpless in the face of the nocturnal peril, crewmen and narrator clear out as soon as they can.

Once more on the ocean, they eventually wander into an incredible region of dense seaweed, an aquatic land studded with long-trapped ships and crawling with its own unique and horrid life forms. Making fall on a small island at the edge of this menacing realm, they shortly find themselves under attack from various ugly threats, the weirdest being a type of carnivorous humanoid prowling in huge packs.

Also they realize that a ship stranded not far out in the creepy weed is still inhabited. The remainder of the novel largely concerns the gallant efforts to rescue the unfortunates on that vessel, who have been ensnared for years in the midst of these horrors. The heroic sailors succeed, the narrator finds true love, and matters end nicely for most concerned.

The House on the Borderland

Hodgson detours to the mystic west of Ireland, where in 1877 two outdoorsmen discover the wreckage of an ancient house overlooking a dizzying abyss. Amongst the ruins they uncover a battered diary, and the fragmentary story it relates constitutes the main narrative of The House on the Borderland (1908).

Decades before, an old man dwelt there accompanied only by his dog Pepper, and his elderly sister serving as housekeeper. Long has this unnamed man and the locale been haunted by weirdness, earlier events only referenced in stray flashbacks, for the novel gets going with the latest developments of utter strangeness. A dumbfounding series of mysteries unfolds in rapid succession.

The man's spirit is drawn through space to another world where, on the Plain of Silence, he espies a gigantic duplicate of his house, about which lurk loathsome monsters. Later, emanating from a vast, watery pit of natural origin near the house, he is assailed by similar "swine-things" which he is barely able to repel from his fortress-like abode. Then he ventures in spirit to the Sea of Sleep, where he meets again a lost love, whose ability to reach out to him via the enchanted house is the main reason he stays despite mounting perils. More weirdness rushes upon him when, again at home, time unaccountably speeds up around the man and hurls him into the far future. He observes the decline and eventual extinction of the solar system, amidst the chaos of those end times meets his lost love once more. Returning to his world, he observes proof of his vision in the fate of Pepper, the poor animal having been reduced to dust by the enormous passage of time that harmed not his master.

Finally comes the ultimate nightmare. The swine-things close in again, backed by the great and terrible entity they serve. The man struggles valiantly, but the monsters swarm from all sides, relentlessly seeking to destroy him. . .

The Ghost Pirates

Hodgson returns to the sea in The Ghost Pirates (1909), his most detailed account of nautical matters, and a harrowing chronicle of terrors aboard a haunted sailing ship. An unnamed narrator hires on with her, only to learn that he has joined an almost entirely new crew, all but one man having forsaken her (giving up their hard-earned pay in the process) after the previous voyage. The Mortzestus has a bad reputation: unlucky, perhaps more; "too many shadows." In fact, the poorly regarded vessel draws to herself supernatural forces, which now come to plague her with a vengeance.

The horrors creep by insidious degrees upon the stout sailors. Strange incidents accumulate. The sole remaining seaman from the earlier voyage vanishes. Before long the men realize (the narrator always first to grasp what is happening) that the ship is divorced from the world by more than ocean; they have entered a peculiar zone of baleful influence which cuts them off from normality. Sailing on helplessly within this umbra of mystery, they make straight for the greatest danger.

The scarcely visible ghost pirates begin to intrude, and the swelling menace becomes increasingly apparent. Attempts to investigate weird sightings result in deaths and disappearances, until finally no one can doubt that unfathomable tragedy looms. The ghastly incidents escalate-- huge, shadowy ships are seen approaching from under the sea-- and then all hell breaks loose as the murderous ghost pirates commence their mass onslaught upon the remaining crew. . .

Analysis

Under this heading I shall discourse on the merits of these novels as tales of horror. Also, I wish to ponder Lovecraft's take on the books, daring to compare and contrast his opinions with my own. Each sub-section begins with the Master's relevant quote from Supernatural Horror in Literature.

"In The Boats of the "Glen Carrig" (1907) we are shewn a variety of malign marvels and accursed unknown lands as encountered by the survivors of a sunken ship. The brooding menace in the earlier parts of the book is impossible to surpass, though a letdown in the direction of ordinary romance and adventure occurs toward the end. An inaccurate and pseudo-romantic attempt to reproduce eighteenth-century prose detracts from the general effect, but the really profound nautical erudition everywhere displayed is a compensating factor."

If you seek a whopper of a tale, replete with spiritual horrors, physical terrors, and grue, this one will serve admirably. It gets right to it, too, with the desperate voyagers entering the grim Land of Lonesomeness and plunging immediately into peril. There's a fearful monster on the loose, which is bad enough, and as for those creepy plants-- what can I say about them?-- do they in some hateful fashion absorb the soul? Hodgson leaves it to the reader's fancy to grasp the evil of the place, and he makes that work. Lesser authors would mistakenly require tiresome over-explanation of the inherently mysterious.

Having quickly absconded from there, the nautical party ply on to what can surely be understood as Hodgson's horrifically imaginative portrayal of the Sargasso Sea, a seaweed-clogged graveyard of ships. I can state that as fact since he penned a slew of short stories set in that semi-mythical region, identically described. The bulk of the story actually occurs there, presenting in fine detail the exploits of the sailors on the island, their battles against weird marine creatures, and the heroic endeavor (really, most clever and thrilling efforts) to rescue those poor folk trapped within the monster-crawling weed.

Considered as a spooky romp, I have nothing but praise for the novel, yet there are structural issues of which the would-be reader should be aware. For starters, it's an oddly disjointed tale, comprising two wholly dissimilar episodes of greatly unequal length, incorporating different forms of weirdness. Immediately after the first segment with the morbid plants and the night monster, the lifeboats are separated in a storm, with the other playing no further part in the story, which one wouldn't expect from the title. Speaking of the title, why no, even brief, account of the sinking of the Glen Carrig? For most of the book Hodgson minimizes the role of the narrator, instead emphasizing the importance of the (for no good reason) unnamed bo'sun, the true hero. Come to think of it, we learn the names of few characters in this story. Presented as the firm recollections of the narrator, that is odd.

Lovecraft's capsule description is basically sound, striking well the high points of the piece. It interests me that he doesn't mention what I perceive as stark structural flaws. The "letdown" of which he writes refers to the narrator's romancing of a beautiful young woman among those people on the weed-bound ship, and the lack of supernatural horror in that main Sargasso episode. If the initial short section is his standard, then I get Lovecraft's point. Of course, the great one is notoriously out of sympathy with any genuine expressions of romantic sentimentality in weird literature, so take his complaint there with a grain of salt. Hodgson certainly doesn't go overboard about it the way he does in The Night Land. As to Hodgson's writing style via his 18th Century narrator, it is mildly archaic but not, I assert, especially distracting. I do not find it any sort of barrier to an enjoyment of the tale. As to being "inaccurate and pseudo-romantic," I'll bow to Lovecraft on that point. What do I know?

"The House on the Borderland (1908)-- perhaps the greatest of all Mr. Hodgson's works-- tells of a lonely and evilly regarded house in Ireland which forms a focus for hideous other-world forces and sustains a siege by blasphemous hybrid anomalies from a hidden abyss below. The wanderings of the narrator's spirit through limitless light-years of cosmic space and kalpas of eternity, and its witnessing of the solar system's final destruction, constitute something almost unique in standard literature. And everywhere there is manifest the author's power to suggest vague, ambushed horrors in natural scenery. But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality this book would be a classic of the first water."

Save for his fabulous short story, that classic of horror "A Voice in the Night," this novel formed my first literary meeting with Hodgson. I'd read Lovecraft's glowing review, plus others offering high praise. Lovecraft description of its strengths is excellent, so far as it goes. So what? Well, then and (much later) now, I find myself, with curiosity and dismay, odd man out here. So far from being the "greatest," I judge this the least of Hodgson's novels.

To a major extent, it's this structural business again. What we have here is a rambling mess, extending way beyond my carps about the previous book. Indeed, we scarcely receive from Hodgson's pen a narrative at all. It's a series of episodes unrolling rapidly one after another, with hardly any logical links connecting them. Most of the mini-stories possess magnificent weirdness on a big scale (hence Lovecraft's esteem), but they simply don't unite into anything even feigning coherence; mystery without substance. The bookends involving the swine-things are divided by astounding but pointless digressions; all that cosmic stuff, I mean, that Lovecraft craves and quite properly appreciates. The lurid climax commences abruptly, unrelated to what goes before, and I can't shake the notion that it's clumsily tacked on, as if Hodgson couldn't figure how to wrap up this beast.

Lovecraft doesn't even hint at a problem of this kind. Have I missed something obvious? I probe, unsuccessfully, for an underlying idea, a mystic framework that would tie together the disparate chunks. I'll bet it's in Hodgson's mind, but he chooses not to communicate it to me. Lovecraft's only cavil refers to the minor "lost love" elements, which don't bother me at all, except that they're more head-scratching digression.

Even within the dollops of narrative, difficulties arise. Much is made of that scary pit near the house, from which emanates most awful evil. The hero begins to delve into it, a scene suggesting meaty pay-off-- is checked-- retreats, and never returns to his promising exploration. Hey, what gives? I want to see more of that! Oh, and don't get me started about this guy's housekeeper sister. That poor nameless dear, the epitome of a useless character, somehow contrives never to see or experience any of the crazy goings on in and about the house, and Hodgson apparently forgets her toward the end, because she simply drops out of the story, never to be mentioned again, and the reader can only presume her dismal fate. The frightful charm of this novel-- taken as a whole, mind!-- eludes me. I've read it a few times over the years, ever coming away with the same impression, reread it just for this essay, wondering if I had "grown up" in the meantime. I haven't. Despite so many powerful scenes, I deem The House on the Borderland a serious misfire. I'd give plenty for a batch of Hodgson's letters explicating his intentions in this case.

The Night Land, for all of its infamous quirkiness, handles sheer mega-weirdness much better. In that epic fantasy Hodgson artfully binds utter mystery with a taut, rousing narrative. I miss that combination here.

"The Ghost Pirates (1909), regarded by Mr. Hodgson as rounding out a trilogy with the two previously mentioned works, is a powerful account of a doomed and haunted ship on its last voyage, and of the terrible sea-devils (of quasi-human aspect, and perhaps the spirits of bygone buccaneers) that besiege it and finally drag it down to an unknown fate. With its command of maritime knowledge, and its clever selection of hints and incidents suggestive of latent horrors in Nature, this book at times reaches enviable peaks of power."

Here we have what, I believe, mainstream critics may be prone to describing as Hodgson's most "accessible" novel. If so, don't be repelled by that tired term. This is a ghost story, a straight up tale of haunting; I'd say "pure and simple," only it's not simple, rather a cunningly crafted, complex puzzle of relentless weirdness and horror. Simplicity, as an analytical concept, can be applied here only to elucidate how Hodgson masterfully sticks to the point of spinning a creepy narrative from the first page to the last. I'm amazed by how he never lets up in this one for a second.

Most impressive this time is the author's command of structural unity. The story unfolds like a dislodged pebble slipping down a mountainside, with such minor events-- a glimpse, an offbeat sensation-- gradually building through more fearsome developments toward the shocking avalanche of the climax when the ship and entire crew face ultimate peril. In that sense The Ghost Pirates feels more like one of Hodgson's short stories, and despite its book length the whole work races along, with never a dull moment. The author's creation of an enclosed, menacing environment amounts to perfection. The Mortzestus is the characters' habitat, and in itself a source of terror. Could any reader expect, for example, that the rigging of a sailing ship could be scary? Believe it, for beyond that spider's web of ropes and behind those billowing sails lurk the foulest evil! Danger pounces from every shadow, and there are indeed many shadows on the doomed Mortzestus.

If I have any gripes with this one, it concerns the narrator's feckless penchant for withholding vital information from the crew, plus his inane attempts to convince others that no threat exists. It's a pet peeve of mine, this character trait of self-defeating secrecy. Is it a British thing? Probably not, though I've written about it often in relation to the works of fellow countryman Basil Copper, who carries this nutty tendency to absurd lengths. In this case, thankfully, Hodgson doesn't waste too much time on it, just enough to irk me. Other readers, I suppose, might not even notice.

Lovecraft just about nails this novel with his summary. There's nothing especially cosmic about The Ghost Pirates, but otherwise he must be entirely satisfied with it, as he should be. The Hollywood version would insert a pretty girl into the mix (if that movie ever be made, take my word for it that she will join the cast), but necessarily Lovecraft hands out no demerits for her absence. As a gripping account of horrors, this one stands fine as is.

Thoughts on the Portrayal of Horror

"Of rather uneven stylistic quality, but vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life, is the work of William Hope Hodgson, known today far less than it deserves to be. Despite a tendency toward conventionally sentimental conceptions of the universe, and of man's relation to it and his fellows, Mr. Hodgson is perhaps second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality. Few can equal him in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details, or in conveying feelings of the spectral and the abnormal in connexion with regions or buildings."

Lovecraft refers to the totality of Hodgson's corpus (most definitely including the previously discussed The Night Land), but these points ring true for the trio of novels considered here. I detect startling stylistic-- I would tend to say structural-- swings from the textbook polish of The Ghost Pirates, through the inconstant The Boats of the "Glen Carrig" to the mighty rough edges of The House on the Borderland. I gather, though, that Lovecraft rates them differently than I on this score, or more probably he just means something else. I rate Pirates the best of the three in terms of overall story-telling, House the least, while apparently Lovecraft flips these ratings. Having made my points already, I'm ever squeamish of arguing with the Master. Well, I can disagree, once in a great while, yet remain his obedient servant.

In this coarse age of ours, when horror all too often is understood to comprise gruesome bloodshed and sudden thrills (granted, a legitimate subset of the whole), Hodgson's ability to construct insidious frights must be hammered home. He isn't a stranger to descriptive nastiness, quite capable of delivering deliciously unpalatable imagery, but his strength lies in his power to foster a climate of fear and unease, horror engendered through assaults from the unknown or the impossibly strange. Hodgson's horrors develop rather than occur, cloaking the reader in a deadly miasma that slowly contaminates the mind with its evil force. His weirdly natural terrors lurk in lonely, isolated places awaiting mystified discovery, while supernatural menace may irrupt from those regions or press by degrees from the most prosaic locales. However or wherever it happens, Hodgson favors the "slow burn," a technique infinitely more effective for creating an eerie atmosphere.

Hodgson excels at manufacturing poisonous atmosphere. His sure hand makes of the common schooner Mortzestus a lethal realm of fear and death. He converts the mildly interesting Sargasso Sea into a convincing dominion of biological nightmares. He makes an old house in Ireland into a font of all the vileness of the universe. Having fabricated the horrors, he seldom lets up on his scheme of enhancing his desired literary goal, by layering one dreadful revelation on top of another, until the suspense becomes unbearable. When Hodgson's method combines with structural unity within a story his results are indeed difficult to surpass. Few writers since his day have done so. Lovecraft is one of those few qualified to pass judgment.

About those "conventionally sentimental conceptions," I have little comment. Generally speaking Lovecraft alludes to romance or religiosity when he makes such references, most often the former. The romantic angle in House doesn't help the story because it's a disconnected item; the same in Boats doesn't hurt because it heightens character motivation and the sense of adventure. It isn't relevant to Pirates at all.

It strikes me as odd and unseemly that, close on a century after Lovecraft's critique, the work of William Hope Hodgson is still "known today far less than it deserves to be." His novels are imaginative marvels of weird fiction (yes, I include The House on the Borderland in that category), yet I'm not aware of them possessing the kind of undying influence that-- an obvious example-- Lovecraft's oeuvre has had, nor anything like. Hodgson's novels, along with his short stories, are capable of such, however. Fans of literary horror, and would-be writers of same, could do worse than to peruse what he has to offer. Among Hodgson's finest works I find items approaching the gold standard of horror, rewarding the discerning reader, serving as models for fellow professionals.


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