William Hope Hodgson, The Night Land

[Originally posted elsewhere 6 May 2009.]

Well, this certainly is a slog — in more ways than one! It took me over two months to read this book, and that’s about how long it takes the heroic protagonist of the story to rescue his beloved.

Cover for The Night Land, Volume 1This book is famously flawed. First of all, it’s very badly written in a faux-18th-Century style that had me gritting my teeth throughout. It made me appreciate once again how good E.R. Eddison is in his own attempts at writing in an archaic (in his case, Elizabethan) style. The second widely-observed flaw in The Night Land is the sentimentality of the love story. The love story is certainly treacly, but I would say that the bigger problem — which is a problem with the adventure parts of the novel as well — is the repetition involved. Hodgson uses the same descriptions and situations over and over again. With the love story it’s words like “naughty” and “impudent” and descriptions of rubbing in ointment and binding wounds; with the adventure it is descriptions of eating the food pills and powdered water and finding a safe place to sleep and repetitions of the phrase “as you will know if you’ve been following what I’ve said.” Well, yes, we have been following what you said, so why are you telling us again? Over and over again. Which is one reason why you feel as though you’ve been through a trip of many, many dull and unchanging days by the end of the book.

Still, despite the flaws this book is also widely acclaimed as a classic by figures as diverse as C.S. Lewis and H.P. Lovecraft. (In this review I’m only going to cite writers who go by two leading initials. Let’s see, does H.L. Menken have anything to say on the matter?) The reason for this acclaim is that it is a tremendous work of imagination. As with so much science fiction, the world-building compensates for the bad writing and characterization. However, I’d have to say that it barely compensates in this particular case. Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland is a far better book in almost every way, except for in scope of weird imagination.

The Night Land is a Dying Earth story, and the earliest example of this sub-genre that I’m aware of. As far as we can tell, in this far future the sun has died. The Earth has been riven by cataclysms, and humans have descended into the rifts to stay close to the warmth of the still-molten core and to the remaining atmosphere. Our protagonist resides in an enormous high tech pyramid called the Last Redoubt, which is the home of millions of people, with different cities on different levels and a huge excavation miles below the ground where crops are grown and people are buried. Outside this enclave, the dark world is swarming with a nightmarish array of monsters and evil forces. The Bantam Adult Fantasy editions of this book used covers that looked like Hieronymous Bosch paintings, and that’s a very good approximation of what the world of the book feels like. The bulk of the story is about the protagonist’s journey out into this nightmare world to save his beloved from a smaller, dying enclave of humans a long distance away and further down in the rift.

Cover for The Night Land, Volume 2This is definitely a romance in the old sense, with a literal knight in shining armor (except with a power weapon) striking off to rescue a damsel in distress. However, the fantastic landscape he crosses is shaped by the scientific imagination. The dying earth setting is only the most obvious sign of this, but throughout he speculates on how this and that aspect of the world came to be. (One of the repetitions is that he always comes around to the reminder that he doesn’t know if his speculations are true.) For example, he speculates that changes in the density of the atmosphere has caused lungs and chests of this far future to grow larger than they were in the past. At another point he encounters brutish sub-human men and wonders if they will ever evolve to become civilized again, like their distant cousins in the Last Redoubt. As with so much British scientific romance, entropy and evolution seem to be the big concepts being wrestled with. Both have left humanity in an imperiled state.

There’s a mystical side of the story as well. It’s implied that scientific experiments unleashed forces of evil from alternate dimensions — or rather, this is one of the protagonist’s speculations that may or may not be true. These forces are intangible, at least compared to the monsters and mutants prowling the ground. They are said to actually be able to take over the human spirit or soul and torment them for eternity, and thus all humans who venture out of their safe redoubt are prepared to kill themselves rather than let this happen. They have special implants of poison for that very purpose. As in The House on the Borderland, however, except even more explicitly, there are also forces for good at work in the world, and they act unexpectedly to shield people from the threat of the forces of evil. This all feels very Christian, like a struggle between inscrutable angels and demons.

In the end, it is the landscape and the non-human inhabitants that are the most memorable thing about this book. The eternal darkness is only illuminated here and there by human lights or smoldering volcanos. One unforgettable passage has the protagonist traveling through utter darkness using a rock tied to a rope, which he throws ahead to test for barriers or chasms. Despite his armor and power weapon, the feeling of existential threat is constant. The sense of dread and horror is almost overpowering. The repetition of his little rituals along the way adds to both the sense of the terrible passage of time and of the pathos of these little gestures in the face of the hungry, devouring darkness.

Illustration by Stephen Fabian

Yet the subtitle of the book is “A Love Tale”, and there is also an aspect of the story that is about love conquering all. Needless to say, it is less memorable than the dark journey itself, as much as it dominates the second half of the book. However, there’s something about this love story that I haven’t seen commented on elsewhere, and that is its brief resemblance to a John Norman Gor story. There is a short (but still repetitive!) section after Our Hero has found the Maid (as he constantly refers to her) when she starts acting all “naughty” and “impudent” and independent. She puts herself (and him) in danger by pulling away from him and resisting his directions. Eventually he puts her over a knee and gives her a few hard whacks with a switch. (This is after an earlier beating in which he was too easy on her and it only made her more resistant.) She becomes submissive at this point, and he pontificates about how women need a man to show them who’s boss — although it’s also men who cause women to get all excited and act up, and women who cause men to get all excited and dominant. All of this written in an excruciatingly treacly style. It’s very odd and strangely narcissistic, as our hero broods on his own hunky, muscular manliness. Hodgson was apparently a small man who went to sea and got into body-building as a way of protecting himself from the abuse of the other sailors. I thought I saw evidence of this personal history in the text, as cheap as that kind of psychoanalysis is.

Anyway, an ordeal of a book, but one with enough going on to keep me slogging through to the end. It’s a fascinating piece in the puzzle of British scientific romance, but one that I’m happy to have behind me rather than ahead of me.

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