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The House on the Borderland: Gothic Horror Novel Kindle Edition
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|Kindle, October 23, 2018||
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If you have heard of Hodgson, even vaguely, its no doubt due to the lead story in this collection "The House on the Borderland" which remains a touchstone for writers of a particular brand of strange even today, something that writers like Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith went out of their way to note. Hodgson's gift was to take what was weird and potentially macabre and strip it of any lurid details that might steer the story into sensationalism, instead sticking with a more realistic approach that only highlighted just how weird everything was getting. He envisioned this novel as a thematic trilogy of sorts with "The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig'" and the later "The Ghost Pirates", but anyone who has read all three (I have the latter coming up in the third volume) will probably find this story the easiest going despite how trippy it gets later on, simply because the tale is written in a more modern style and not Hogdson's deliberate attempt at writing in what feels like a nineteenth century style that can bog down the other two.
Indeed, "House on the Borderland" is weird to the point of being psychedelic but its also one of those novels where the beginning doesn't at all prepare you for what's coming later. As is typical of his longer stories, its structured as a story discovered by someone else who is exploring the ruins of an old house with a friend. Inside they find the diary of a man later termed the "Recluse" who moves into this strange house with his sister and dog, at which point things start to go utterly wrong. The landscape is strange in itself, with a pit and a river, but that quickly becomes the least of his problems as he becomes beset by swine-like creatures that continually attack the house like persistently homicidal salesman, turning the story into a variation of the last stand at the Alamo and the movie "Signs". It makes for tense reading, both for the inhuman circumstances and the strange architecture of the house. But even that pales in comparison to what comes next.
In what has to be one of the smoothest yet jarring shifts I've ever read in a novel, after the immediate threat is taken care of the story deftly slides into a sequence where the house apparently takes the Recluse on a whirlwind tour of space and time as he whips further and further into the future in what feels like a much grittier and despairing form of "The Time Machine" and a near presaging of Olaf Stapledon's "Star Maker", where eons pass in an instant and we're not quite capable of grasping all that we're seeing. It doesn't help but that chunks of the Recluse's diary are missing and thus we have to piece together what happens in the fragments by what remains. Then after that all calms down the story takes one last left turn into pure horror before simply ending right as the soundtrack is beginning to peak unnervingly in frequency and pitch. He also manages to do all that in about a hundred and thirty pages. For all the tonal shifts that occur over the course of it, the story never feels like a sewn together monstrosity but instead easily shifts from place to place as if its all part of some seemingly incomprehensible plan. Reading it, you can understand why a lot of authors who were starting out in the wake of it found that blew a lot of preconceptions of what the genre could do out of the water. Its quite possible that you'll never read anything else quite like it, even very close imitations. There's a distinct feel here, cosmic and terrible and calm, that can't be easily recaptured.
After that, pretty much anything else is going to feel like a denouement but fortunately the collection is able to hold off that feeling by including the Carnacki the Ghost Finder stories. Some people might recognize the name as one of the members of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (as part of his quest to use every public domain character that was even published) and here he's basically an Edwardian gentlemen who investigates the supernatural and then calls his friends together for dinner to tell them about it later. Much like the Captain Gault stories of the first volume, Hodgson proves he knows how to work inside the structure of a formula and never come across as repeating himself even when the stories could easily be bogged down in a rut (though the repetitive "Mr Roger's Ghost Neighborhood" aspect of it does make it somewhat comforting after a few stories, like settling in to watch your favorite TV show). What makes these fun is that Carnacki is a good storyteller, to the point without getting hysterical and keeping an open mind from the get-go, no matter how odd things seem at first glance. In fact, what makes these interesting in how many of the situations here don't actually involve ghosts and yet some do, keeping the reader off base since you never know if there's going to be a logical answer or a simply supernatural explanation (and sometimes Carnacki can explain most of the occurrences but not all of it . . . though he is quick to whip out the All Purpose Pentagram Circle when things start to get too "I ain't afraid o' no ghosts!" for his liking) and the tension as strange happenings stack on each other as Carnacki has to quickly sort out whether he needs to bring in the heavy artillery or simply hit someone over the head can be fun. The best of the stories, the ridiculously titled "The Horse of the Invisible" nicely blends a human drama (a young woman is next in line to be killed by a maniacal horse from beyond the grave but she would rather get married than be trampled on by intangible hooves) with an escalating series of events with plenty of reasons to believe that it could be human or otherworldly in origin, leaving Carnacki to sort out the mess before anyone else gets killed (runner up: "The Hog" pushes the series neatly into "House on the Borderland" territory, with winning if weird results).
After those are over, what we're left with is another set of catch-all tales, these ones focusing on supernatural incidences, although the eventual explanation winds up being something rather mundane (though sometimes gruesome in its own way . . . even if you don't believe the statue is murdering everyone brutally in "The Goddess of Death" the truth of it isn't much better). They run the gamut of his career, with the aforementioned murderous statue story being among the first he ever wrote and not all of them involve boats or people at sea. Most of them average between ten to fifteen pages in length, long enough to get their point across without overstaying their welcome and even if some are more memorable than others (the one that surprised me the most was "The Homecoming of Captain Dan" which takes quite a long time to get to its ultimate point but when it does hits like a minor punch to the gut) the quality never seems to veer too far away from readable. It makes for a nicely consistent collection that unfortunately tends to frontload the good stuff but at least makes the case that his masterpieces didn't come out of nowhere, and weren't the only stories he was capable of writing.