Tuesday, May 14, 2013
The House on the Borderland (1908) by William Hope Hodgson
William Hope Hodgson, an almost legendary figure in weird fiction, died all too soon during the final year of the first world war. He left behind a handful of books that, while unappreciated by the larger reading public, have consistently maintained a loyal following. He was no master prose stylist, and I think it is fair to say that his occasional attempts at archaic language did not turn out well. That being said, any defects in his writing style were more than made up for by the pure power of his far-reaching imagination. In his books anything could happen.
The House on the Borderland is Hodgson's finest work. It was greeted in 1908 with critical praise and poor sales. It remains one of the strangest novels ever written, one that shifts from tense, realistic scenes of horror to mind-bending cosmic explorations of time and space. The duality of the novel is surprising. It leaves the reader unsteady, never knowing what bizarre scene might come next. The most surprising thing about it is how well it works.
The novel begins with two young men who are on a fishing vacation in the west of Ireland. They follow a river and find it ends in a vast abyss. Over the abyss hangs a giant rock, upon which they find the ruins of some kind of structure. Among the ruins they find a musty old book that contains our story. The manuscript was written by a nameless recluse that lived with his creepy sister and loyal dog in a sinister old house. The house had an evil reputation and for that reason the recluse got it cheap. For a number of years they lived there peacefully.
Then one night the recluse experiences a kind of cosmic vision. He finds himself flying bodiless through the universe, eventually finding himself in a vast tableland surrounded by high mountains. Towering among the mountains are the shadowy figures of various gods that the recluse recognizes from mythology, and before him sits an exact replica of his sinister home. In the shadow of the house lurks a gigantic, swine-faced monster. Then, the vision ends and he finds himself back home.
Days later he is startled to find a ghastly face peering in at him from a window, a face similar to the monster from his vision. Unfortunately it is not alone. A week later the house is attacked by a small army of the creatures. The recluse boards up the house, grabs a shotgun, and goes into battle.
Here, in a story from 1908, we get an episode that could come, scene for scene, from a modern horror movie. It is a great departure from the cosmic opening of the novel, being a gritty, realistic siege narrative. The central portion of the novel is concerned with the recluse defending his home from the monsters and eventually trailing them into a dark chasm near the house.
Then, in the later portion of the book, our narrator experiences another vision, one that is vast in scope. He literally transcends time and space in a kind of cosmic odyssey. I could try and describe it, but doubtless I would fall far short of doing it justice. It is a brilliant example of Hodgson's boundless imagination and really has to be read to be appreciated.
For decades Hodgson's work has itself existed in a kind of borderland. In 1927, H. P. Lovecraft wrote, "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." In 2013 it is still known far less than it deserves to be. It is a rare bookstore that stocks Hodgson. Fortunately, we live in the age of ebooks. Being in the public domain, all Hodgson's books are readily available online. For a reader interested in the weird, his work is well worth seeking out.