Thursday 19 April 2018

Lost in the Borderlands: William Hope Hodgson

This silence, when I grew fully aware of it was the more uncanny; for my memory told me that never before had I come upon a country which contained so much quietness. Nothing moved across my vision—not even a lone bird soared up against the dull sky; and, for my hearing, not so much as the cry of a sea-bird came to me—no! nor the croak of a frog, nor the plash of a fish. It was as though we had come upon the Country of Silence, which some have called the Land of Lonesomeness.
 - William Hope Hodgson, The Boats of the Glen Carrig

It is 100 years - more or less - to the day since William Hope Hodgson left this earthly plane of existence. With his passing in the monstrous horror that was the Great War, he left behind a rich library of supernatural fiction. I leave it to the Hodgson experts over at the William Hope Hodgson site for a truly fitting tribute, but I thought I'd put my own tuppence ha'penny worth too.

There are three great cycles in Hodgson's fiction, which I'll have the merest glance towards on this important occasion. Hodgson himself considered that his first three novels to be published - The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig,' The House on the Borderland, and The Ghost Pirates - form a "thematic trilogy," but I'd reckon given the multidimensional nature of his work, there's surely provision for a Hodgkins Multiverse that surrounds and penetrates; binds his work together like the tendrils of some dreadful unknown horror beyond the ken of humanity.

The Nautilus under the Sargasso Sea, from Gary Burley's masterful illustrated edition of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
Properly speaking, the Sargasso Sea covers every submerged part of Atlantis. Certain authors have even held that the many weeds strewn over this sea were torn loose from the prairies of that ancient continent. But it's more likely that these grasses, algae, and fucus plants were carried off from the beaches of Europe and America, then taken as far as this zone by the Gulf Stream. This is one of the reasons why Christopher Columbus assumed the existence of a New World. When the ships of that bold investigator arrived in the Sargasso Sea, they had great difficulty navigating in the midst of these weeds, which, much to their crews' dismay, slowed them down to a halt; and they wasted three long weeks crossing this sector.
Such was the region our Nautilus was visiting just then: a genuine prairie, a tightly woven carpet of algae, gulfweed, and bladder wrack so dense and compact a craft's stempost couldn't tear through it without difficulty. Accordingly, not wanting to entangle his propeller in this weed–choked mass, Captain Nemo stayed at a depth some meters below the surface of the waves.
 - Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (as translated from the Original French by F. P. Walter)

The first cycle is one that appeals the most to my fears: the Sargasso Sea Stories. Up to the early 20th Century, the Sargasso Sea was a place imbued with great menace and mystery: a great expanse in the centre of the North Atlantic Ocean Gyre where uncannily still waters and vast stretches of dense Sargasso seaweed conspire to entrap any vessel brave or foolish enough to encroach. That combination of treacherous waters and the hint of unknown horrors made the Sargasso Sea a tantalising subject for adventure and supernatural fiction alike: Verne's seminal Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea even spends a chapter in that strange realm. Dennis Wheatley's novel Uncharted Seas was later adapted into the curious Hammer adventure The Lost Continent (not to be confused with 1951's Lost Continent, or indeed C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne's Atlantean epic The Lost Continent), which featured a number of scenes and creatures that would be familiar to Hodgson readers.

Hodgson's first published novel, The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig,' featured the unco waters in a starring role. The marvellous weirdness of the setting - a floating continent built on ravenous seaweed and the flotsam and jetsam of the ages - is a Lost World unlike any other, and all the more memorable for that. It combines the sense of danger in an unknown landscape of Haggard or Burroughs with the oppressive tension of castaway stories - and though the climate is decidedly different, there's a little of the mounting dread of the ice-trapped ship which informed Dan Simmons' The Terror, the horror-drenched retelling of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition coming to terrorise the small screen soon. Likewise, Hodgson's work informed such modern cinematic masters as John Carpenter (whose The Fog is surely the most Hodgsonian film yet made, at least this side of Matango) and Guillermo Del Toro, who personally ranks him among his favourite authors.

The second cycle is composed of the Chronicles of Carnacki the Ghost-Finder. What was most thrilling about the Carnacki stories was the sense that you didn't know exactly what to expect: while Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin tended to go for the Scooby-Doo revelation for the supernatural mystery, the Carnacki stories zig-zagged between hoax and real supernatural menace. Of course, me being me, unless the explanation is particularly novel - The Phantom of the Opera being "just" a disfigured mad genius, or the Hound of the Baskervilles being "only" a rabid phosphorous-maddened dog - I tend to greatly prefer a supernatural explanation.

Perhaps my favourite of the Carnacki yarns is one of the most famous: "The Hog." In the hands of Smith, Lofton, Milne, Nesbit, and Alexander, pigs are nothing short of delightful figures of whimsy and charm - but when transported to a horror setting, pigs become decidedly monstrous.

It is because of this particular story I would place Hodgson's most famous novel, the H.P. Lovecraft approved The House on the Borderland, squarely in the Carnacki Cycle. I'm sure some would disagree (the absense of Mr Carnacki himself in the novel being a particular issue), but the shared elements of swine-things, interdimensional transportation, and the curious name Berreggnog convince me of a certain synchronicity between not only Carnacki and the damned House, but of the third cycle.

It wouldn't be a Blog That Time Forgot Post on Classic Weird Fiction without the magnificent macabre of Stephen Fabian!

 In all literature, there are few works so sheerly remarkable, so purely creative, as The Night Land. Whatever faults this book may possess, however inordinate its length may seem, it impresses the reader as being the ultimate saga of a perishing cosmos, the last epic of a world beleaguered by eternal night and by the unvisageable spawn of darkness. Only a great poet could have conceived and written this story; and it is perhaps not illegitimate to wonder how much of actual prophecy may have been mingled with the poesy.
 - H.P. Lovecraft

The final great cycle is one that ties all the others together - The Night Land. An obvious inspiration for Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique, Jack Vance's Dying Earth, Lovecraft's far-future in "The Shadow Out of Time," and just about the entire Dying Earth after The Time Machine, The Night Land is also fascinating for its Dunsanian style and dreamlike - or, rather, nightmarish - qualities. In the grim dark future, the sun has gone dark. The last vestiges of humanity huddle in the Last Redoubt, a great monolithic pyramid, as they find themselves under unceasing siege by things that lurk in the dark. It is both profoundly oppressive, and unnervingly convincing, for its introduction of elements which have become staples of science fiction - arcologies in the Last Redoubt, food pills in the protagonist's supplies, public-key cryptography in his "Night Hearing," and even arguably a variation on geothermal energy in the "Earth Current." If you thought the sense of helplessness in the shadow of impending oblivion was hardgoing in The Walking Dead...

It's poignant to note that Hodgson died in one of the most terribly real horrors in the history of humanity - a man whose most famous and influential work was all about borderlands, liminal figures, that which is this side of a boundary and that which is beyond, died in one of the cruelest borderlands in memory:

On the day of 10 April 1918, the Germans launched a big attack, and apparently this put Hodgson in hospital briefly.  On the night of 16 April the Battery withdrew, and a Forward Observation Post was set up.  The man who volunteered for the Forward Observing Office the next day—17 April—on Mont Kemmel, was none other than W. Hope Hodgson.  The details surrounding the tragic death of Hope can now be clarified after nearly 55 years—and in clarifying them some errors regarding his death have been corrected.  His Commanding Officer filled in the details—on Thursday, 18 April, he sent Hodgson with another N.C.O. on Forward Observation.  On 19 April, Hope was heard from once and then there was silence from him for the remainder of the day.  That day, 19 April, William Hope Hodgson was reported missing in action to his C.O.  The following day, under continuous fire, the C.O. went to check himself to determine the fate of his F.O.O.’s.  He eventually found a French officer who showed him a helmet with the name Lt. W. Hope Hodgson on it—and reported that a British Artillery Officer and a Signaler had suffered a direct hit by a German artillery shell on 19 April and had both been blown nearly completely apart.  What little remained was buried on the spot—at the foot of the eastern slope of Mont Kemmel in Belgium.  During this period, the C.O. was under continuous fire, and upon his return to base, he confirmed the death of Lt. W. Hope Hodgson, and it was entered on 23 April.1
 - R. Alain Everts, Some Facts in the Case of William Hope Hodgson: Master of Fantasy, 1987.

There is a memorial to those who died in that conflict in my town. There are 53 names on the plaque. While I'm unsure exactly where or how some of them died, I found that a few died in the same month in April - possibly at the 22-day Battle of the Lys, or one of the other hellscapes that blights the lands of France to this day.

Archibald Lamont
Born Stratford-on-Avon, resided Gourock, enlisted Glasgow.
Buried at ROYAL IRISH RIFLES GRAVEYARD, LAVENTIE, France. Grave Reference III. C. 7.
Died: 9th April, 1918
Age: 38
Rank: Gunner
Service No: 184238
Regiment: Royal Garrison Artillery
Unit: 32nd Siege Battery
Hugh Armstrong Keays
Buried at Amara War Cemetery, Iraq. Grave Reference IV. C. 1.
Born: 31st May, 1879
Died: 14th April, 1918
Age: 39
Rank: Pioneer
Service No: 75334
Regiment: Royal Engineers - Renfrew Fortress
Unit: Army Signal Company
John Simpson Holborn
Awarded the Military Medal (MM) and the Meritorious Service Medal (MSM). During a course of instruction in live grenade throwing, a N.C.O. threw a live Mells bomb which lodged in the parapet of the bench just above his head. L/cpl Holborn pushed the man aside & grasping the bomb threw it over the parapet. Thus averting a most serious accident & probably saving several lives.
Deed performed at Bordon. 23rd July 1916.
Served with the South African Colonial Corp - Constabulary B & C Division in South African War
Buried at Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Belgium
Died: 17th April, 1918
Rank: Company Sergeant Major
Service No: X15
Regiment: South African Expeditionary Force
Unit: 4th Regt (Inf) Scottish
Wallace Boyd
SON OF THE LATE WILLIAM BOYD; HUSBAND OF MATILDA EDGAR MCKIMM BOYD, OF 2 JOHN WOOD ST., PORT GLASGOW, RENFREWSHIRE. Employed in the Torpedo Factory. Brother of Adam, John and William. Leaves a widow and two children
Formerly 46698 Royal Scots. Killed in action
Buried BAILLEUL COMMUNAL Cemetery Extension, France. Grave Reference Sp. Mem. B. 2.
Born In: Gourock
Died: 16th April, 1918
Age: 25
Rank: Private
Service No: 119060
Regiment: Machine Gun Corps
Unit: 34th Battalion
Mrs Wallace Boyd, residing at 7 Willison's Lane, has been officially notified that her husband, Private Wallace Boyd of Machine Gun Corps, was killed in action on the Western Front on 11th April. He formerly belonged to Gourock, and was employed in the Torpedo Factory. He is the second of four brothers with the colours to make the supreme sacrifice, the other brother being killed one year ago. He was 25 years of age, and leaves a widow with two children, one aged 2 years and the other only 6 weeks old.
BOYD.-In memory of my dear husband, Pte. Wallace Boyd, M.G.O., killed in action on 11th April, 1918.
    My grief the world can never know,
    Nor thoughts of sadness that are mine,
    As with the years I older grow,
    My heart for you will ever pine.
Inserted by his Widow and two Children, 2 John Wood Street.
BOYD.-In loving memory of Pte. W. Boyd, who was killed in action on 12th April, 1918.
    Not now but in the coming years,
    It may be in the better land
    We'll read the meaning of our tears,
    And then some day will understand.
Inserted by his aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs Ed. Boyle, 7 Willison's Lane.
BOYD.-In loving memory of Pte. W. Boyd, who was killed in action in France, 12th April, 1918.
    No morning dawns, no night returns,
    But what we think of him.
Inserted by his aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs A. Laing, 7 Gillespie's Lane.

One wonders how a work of fiction, even as potent as the tales he wrote, could possibly compare to the merciless reality of this planet.

The sun was pretty low as I came back, and far off across that desolation, here and there they showed–just formless, squarish, cornerless masses erected by man against the infernal Storm that sweeps for ever, night and day, day and night, across that most atrocious Plain of Destruction.  My God!  talk about a Lost World – talk about the end of the World; talk about the ‘Night Land’ – it is all here, not more than two hundred odd miles from where you sit infinitely remote.  And the infinite, monstrous, dreadful pathos of the things one sees – the great shell-hole with over thirty crosses sticking in it; some just up out of the water – and the dead below them, submerged…
 - William Hope Hodgson, letter to his mother, (courtesy of Sam Moskowitz) Out of the Storm: Uncollected Fantasies by William Hope Hodgson, Donald M. Grant, 1973.

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