Classic Review: The House on the Borderland

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The House on the Borderland is my first successful reading of William Hope Hodgson, and one that I initiated with some trepidation, given what a slog the beginning of The Night Land was. The latter’s pseudo-archaic stylization and meandering plot didn’t exactly inspire me to press forward, particularly in the midst of the obligatory readings I was undergoing at the time. I quit it early on, something I do a lot (and unapologetically) as a reader–there’s only so much you can read in a lifetime, after all.

The House on the Borderland is different. The elements that interested me (without quite winning me over) in The Night Land are still front and center–the narrative-within-a-narrative structure (here a narrative-within-a-narrative-within-a-narrative… this was written in 1908!), the passing experimentation with textual deterioration, and the fearless dive into blatant unreality–only this time housed inside an immediately manageable and engaging plot that allows these elements to get to work right away.

Hodgson’s truly unsettling novel opens with two young men who stumble across the ruins of a house while on a fishing trip in Ireland. The ruins are perched on a seemingly impossible outcropping of rock that stretches over a deep hole full of water, and even in his description of the locale, Hodgson already displays a fearless mastery of scene that will serve him well over the ensuing 290 or so pages. A transcription of the journal the two men find inside the ruined house serves as the remainder of the narrative, and my god, what a tale it is.

After the protagonist (called simply The Recluse) recounts an unnerving hallucinatory(?) journey to the “Plain of Silence,” humanoid beasts besiege the cursed house, searching for a point of entry with nightmarish determination. The Recluse’s frenzied attempts to protect his home are merely the beginnings of a horrific tale that only grows more cosmic in scope as it progresses (unwinds), leaving the reader less and less tethered to a firm metaphysical vantage point. It’s difficult to overstate the lengths this novel will cross to undermine the reader’s place in the universe, aligning it much closer thematically to contemporary cosmic horror fiction than many of Hodgson’s weird contemporaries. In many ways, Hodgson’s novel renders the metaphysical emptiness at the heart of Lovecraft’s cosmos more acutely than much of Lovecraft’s own fiction.

This isn’t to say that Hodgson is better than Lovecraft. Just as Hodgson’s strong core of “negative transcendence” makes The House on the Borderland difficult to describe, it also makes for a frequently taxing read (albeit well worth the extra effort). There’s also the matter of long-lost romance that inorganically materializes in some of the novel’s most hallucinatory moments, a misstep that Lovecraft himself rightly counted against the integrity of the work as a whole. It’s nevertheless an error to write The House on the Borderland off as anything less than a giant in the world of weird fiction. The relative nature of time in the novel is perhaps its most well-handled tool; the scene where The Recluse watches the world around him accelerate dizzyingly into the future has proven chillingly tenacious.

Perhaps this malleability of time is what aligns The House on the Borderland, at least to my mind, with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and William Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (especially the former). All three works stand out as utterly unafraid to test the outer limits of imagination (even at the expense of the reader’s comfort), and more than a little of Wells’ bitter rendering of the far-distant future appears to be echoed here by Hodgson. It’s nevertheless impossible to see Hodgson as derivative, even if Wells’ subterranean Morlocks seem to faintly present in Hodgson’s own cave-dwelling Swine-Things. After all, Wells’ protagonist had the Eloi for company. The Recluse, although technically accompanied by a sister who is next to invisible throughout the narrative, remains increasingly alone.

Hodgson’s work remains somewhere in between the imaginative science fiction of Wells and the weird, atmospheric mastery of Algernon Blackwood. For me, Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland embodies the best–at least the best possible for his time–of both worlds. It is an inexcusable mistake for any fan of classic weird fiction to overlook his work, and I look forward to revisiting The Night Land with this utter triumph of his in mind.

Verdict: More than deserves its sterling reputation!

by Justin A. Burnett

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