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The Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson Volume 4: The Night Land & Other Romances Hardcover – August 1, 2005
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About the Author
William Hope Hodsgon (November 15, 1877 – April 1918) was an English author. He produced a large body of work, consisting of essays, short fiction, and novels, spanning several overlapping genresincluding horror, fantastic fiction and science fiction.
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And then there's "The Night Land". And while you think that reading four volumes of novels and short stories will prepare you "The Night Land", the truth is, absolutely nothing will. As mentioned in previous reviews, there's some debate as to whether the written order matches the published order and with evidence sometimes suggesting what's oldest is newest and so on, its possible that this is his first novel despite being the last published. Even so, the style and subject matter come almost completely out of left field. It's SF, it's horror, its fantasy, its adventure, its a love story, its written in the style of ye olden dais but meant for the young, its all of these things.
It's also about four hundred pages and takes up the vast majority of volume four, so when attempting to review this one, you can't sidestep it. It's all about "The Night Land" or its nothing.
The story itself is actually both straightforward and fairly bizarre. After a brief prologue where a guy meets the girl of his dreams and loses her, the action shifts ahead millions of years into the future where the sun has gone out and our hero (either the initial narrator brought forward or his descendant) is living in the Last Redoubt, a haven against the increasing hostility of a dying world. Before long the narrator has become aware of another Redoubt that has run into some trouble and races off to rescue them, in the process not quite succeeding but getting a nice consolation prize in the form of the reincarnation of his lost love. Which could be the answer to his all prayers except 1) they're nowhere near safety and have to walk back through a vast land where literally everything is trying to kill them, 2) his lady love, while loyal, is not exactly Xena, Warrior Princess. But she has nice feet, which the narrator takes pains to point out, again and again.
For a lot of people you're going to be in a situation where you may admire and even greatly respect what the story is trying to do even as you find the execution of said story to be completely teeth clenching and grating. Because, for whatever reason, Hodgson decided to write this story in not-at-all-trendy-then and still-not-trendy-now 17th century style, which can take a lot of of getting used to because his level of commitment to this style is nothing short of Olympian and it readily makes "Boats of the "Glen Carrig'" already not the easiest prose in the world to parse, read like a "See Spot Run" book. For me this would have been more of an issue except for one thing: I've already made it through Eddison's "The Worm Ouroboros" which is written in a similarly eye crossing style and depending on what order you read them in, it can seem like one is an homage to the other, or at least an attempt to one-up the other (for the record Hodgson's was published first, in 1912, with the all devouring worm book coming along in the 20s). But going into this cold is going to take an adjustment, one the story is not going to wait around for you to do.
What makes this fascinating to me is not only Hodgson's ability to depict the sheer feel of a dying earth through the eyes of someone with ancient but to imbue the land with a barely understandable strangeness that borders on touching some collectively unconscious logic to power all the imagery. The sights, the giant pyramid of the Redoubt, the Night Lands themselves, the Watchers, the Humpt Men and the other various monsters they encounter, its all vividly detailed and there are many moments when the all enveloping waves of prose that crash down upon you serve to completely immerse you in an alien landscape. The closest comparison I can make, at least on a visual level, is Gustave Verbeek's early 20th century strip "The Terrors of the Tiny Tads" where a group of nameless kids wander through strange terrain encountering all manner of very unsettling beasts, depicted in a manner that isn't adorable at all but mostly very eerie. That's the feel you get from this, a land that is dying but not quite dead, littered with the remains of a past that is so far ahead its still the future, and yet possessed of enough verve to go out of its way to kill you.
If this was the sole foundation the book was built upon it would be pretty memorable despite the off-putting prose. However, in either a nod to his sentimental side or just a desire to be very, very contrary, Hodgson goes and decides to make his nice adventure fantasy tale into a flat out romance. And while its not a bodice ripper (sadly), its pretty much from the onset that this narrator is built for wooing across the ages as no man has ever wooed before. From the getgo his thoughts are consumed with his lost love and once he seems to find her in the body of another, all heck breaks loose and by that I mean the soppy sentimentality of the last fifteen or so minutes of "Love, Actually" taken to the hundredth power and distilled to such a concentrated potency that it could make stones fall in love with other stones, that could make "All You Need is Love" seem like a vaguely heartfelt grocery list, that could ensure every meaningful wedding vow written in the world when combined has the melodic complexity of an improvisational song banged out on a child's toy xylophone. It could give diabetes to sugar itself. It is, in its way, one of the most sustained and ultimate expressions of love and devotion ever expressed in fantastic literature.
However, it is also like when your two good friends first start dating and become one inseparable organism of "wuv" that has to pour its gooey good times all over you in every single encounter no matter how mundane and shower completely single you at all times with paeans to how amazing love can be. The first few times, you find it cute. After that you tolerate it with a fixed smile. After THAT it crosses the line into sheer tedium and you begin researching how you can sign them up for the next manned Mars mission.
That's sort of what happens here. You experience the kind of love you wish would happen to you someday. But its not happening to you and so you find its constant reminders extraordinarily grating. But it soldiers on anyway with tiny hearts in its eyes, not at all aware of what its doing to you. And so you carry on, slowly seething. Hodgson was going to make this a romance and by gum, did he succeed. The question is what did he succeed in doing.
Prior to the narrator finding his long lost love, the prose takes on a near lulling rhythm not that far from watching a slew of episodes of "Mr Roger's Neighborhood" all in a row. He gets up, he gives you a near hour by hour recap of what he's doing, including telling you every single time he eats a food tablet, as if the book is attempting to have you experience the plot in real-time. Every so often he gets attacked. Once he rediscovers his dream girl, those rhythms don't go away but we are treated to page after page of description as they tease and bicker and kiss each other, as he repeatedly calls her Mine Own and obsesses over the parts of her body that drive him relatively wild (this being the early 1900s), namely her hair and her feet. The latter seems to be a particular obsession as we're treated to pages of description as he holds her feet, rubs ointment on her feet, she teases him with her feet until you get the impression that you've stumbled unknowingly upon a future where the currency is erotic fetishes. If the book was two hundred pages it would be cutely annoying, at four hundred pages it comes close to maddening, so cloyingly romantic it insists on being.
Yet. While the sentimentality has, dare I say, both feet in standard romantic hero traditions, there's an honesty to the gooiness that raises it somewhat above mere artifice and attempting to emulate some Victorian style. While they remain lovingly devoted to each other like a bad SNL sketch that's run about five minutes too long, there's enough hints of personality conflicts that give it some dimension beyond people making doe eyes at each other.
And believe it or not, it does come together in a satisfying fashion. The introduction to the collection makes a number of apologies for the story but does point out that the gradual accretion of the stilted prose and the romance and the strange setting all add up to something oddly memorable and while partway through the story I didn't see how that was possible, the truth is, it does. By the time we get to the climax we're invested in these ridiculous people in this bizarre world and the combination of heart on its sleeve storytelling and epic (and near tragic) circumstances lends the closing narrative a power that it might not have achieved if he had written it in a normal fashion, one not so hysterically beholden to romantic ideals.
Whether that conclusion will be worth the previous four hundred pages is up to the individual reader's tolerance. I wound up being glad that I read the book and whether that comes from a honest appreciation of the story's aims or simply trying to make myself feel better for the hours slogging through it is a question I may look into my soul in the years to come and never satisfactorily answer. But I did leave the story with much more fondness for its archaic sense of style than I felt perhaps halfway through, proof that stories, like that annoying couple you find yourself friends with, can sometimes win you over through relentless charm and sincerity. I don't know if it counts as innovative but if you name another pure romance set against the backdrop of a crumbling earth millions of years into the future that was written before this one, you're a better seeker of obscure reading material than I am. This one makes a case for being in a category all by itself.
Given how much space "The Night Land" takes up, its hard to believe there's room for other stories, but the collection makes space for six more romances, all told much more conventionally and not carrying a fraction of the ambition that makes up the behemoth in the front of the book. All of them have a sentimental streak but not are quite as cloying as his larger tale (the first one "The Captain of the Onion Boat" comes close) and for the most part read like his normal stories but with an added romance angle in them to go along with the plot. In that sense they're quite charming because Hodgson was a good and steady writer and when he clips the lovey-dovey stuff with a more solid plot (both "The Smugglers" and "In the Wailing Gully" work quite as well as adventure tales) the combination of capable men and women sorting through an issue while falling in love on the side remains nicely readable. When the balance tips more toward "aww" things don't quite get as strong ("The Girl With the Grey Eyes" and "Kind, Kind, and Gentle Is She" despite the latter having a pretty intense action sequence) but none of them are outright terrible. They exist as both palette cleansers and more conventional tales to bring you back down to earth after the imagination ride that is "The Night Land". The collection rises and falls based on your perception of that tale and all the rest pales in comparison, for better or for worse.
These books are my favourite not only for their content but the way in which the publishers have presented them. The Amazon picture does not give full justice to them - they are full size harcovers with blue faux? leather boards, no dustjacket, each book has a wonderful silver gilt lithograph? imprinted into the covers, illustrated within by Jason Van Hollander. Flat spine with silver compass floret and vol no , title , author , publisher. Back cover has silver guilt Hodgson portrait and occult border. Section sewn pages add to durability and I would imagine acid free paper.
Years later when I decided to write my own fantastic fiction it came to mind and re-inspired me. Although I only recalled the name of the title - not the author - it was quickly recaptured with a google search that ultimately led me to Amazon, and hence to The Night Land.
It was in the midst of reading The Night Land that I began writing, inspired as I was by this towering classic. I was as much attracted to the depths of his descriptions as I was by my intrique, my curiousity to decipher his writing style (READER BEWARE: Hodgson used an adaptive, not entirely consistent archaic English - I was drawn to it as I was required to read and understand the decisions from several 16th and 17th century cases as part of my legal education, and actually like them).
The Night Land drew me even deeper into the rabbit hole, and some would say I have never really returned.