Classic Review: The Night Land (Guest Review by John Linwood Grant)

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There has never been a book like William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912), and there probably never will be again. And I really need to explain what I mean by that…

One of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written. -H P Lovecraft

William Hope Hodgson (1887-1918) was not one of the literati of his time, not a chap widely circulating in the stylish Edwardian writing circles. He was an ex-seaman, son of a minor British cleric, and later a physical fitness instructor. He experimented with styles, wasn’t above being influenced by trends, and always wanted to catch the popular markets. That he should come up with this masterwork of weird fiction is therefore more than a little surprising from the start.

Not only is The Night Land quite different in setting and imagery from the work of almost all his contemporaries, it is also peculiar in its own right – a substantial volume with very few proper names and virtually no dialogue, occasionally given to maudlin romanticism, and written in a faux-historical style. A much-abbreviated, authorised version, The Dream of X, was also published in 1912, whilst editor Lin Carter helpfully removed some of the ‘excess’ and presented it in two volumes for his 1972 Ballantine paperback edition (this is the most reader-friendly version). The late, lamented Sam Gafford, a WHH authority, argued that The Night Land was written before Hope Hodgson’s other novels, despite its later publication date, and that afterwards the author abandoned its slightly extravagant approach to write more accessible works.

However, its style – an imagined 17th Century ‘romantic’ approach – does relate to the plot, which is the tale (distanced by a dream) of a young man who seeks to rescue a far-off lover, one he has never met, who he knows only vaguely by telepathic means, and who may be doomed anyway. Quite whether the style enhances the rest of the material or not is hard to judge, although sometimes the juxtaposition of almost hopeless old-fashioned love and nightmarish, far-future horror works rather better than you’d expect.

…it impresses the reader as being the ultimate saga of a perishing cosmos, the last epic of a world beleaguered by eternal night and by the unvisageable spawn of darkness. -Clark Ashton Smith

It is indeed a stunning vision of an Earth millions of years hence. H G Wells’ 1895 Time Traveller briefly visited the last days of the planet, and H P Lovecraft and Olaf Stapledon wrote in terms of distant aeons during the 1930s, but they never quite delivered the claustrophobic intimacy of mere humans simply trying to survive as does The Night Land. Remember, Hope Hodgson was a minor Edwardian author with some poetic skill and no formal scientific training, not an established figure like, say, Wells. Perhaps because of that, the book is not one of the more typical exciting futuristic worlds, strange dystopias, or star-spanning yarns. It is a tale set close to humanity’s tragic and apparently inevitable end, with small personal triumphs but no sweet promise in wait for the species.

The Earth is alone, and monstrously changed; the Sun is effectively dead. This is not the wry, hedonistic world found in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth tales. Here, the planet is bereft of the Sun’s light, of its warmth, and all that are left to sustain life are the residual geothermal energies, the volcanic churnings from below.

I heard a far, dreadful sound, down in the lightless East; and, presently, again—a strange, dreadful laughter, deep as a low thunder among the mountains. And because this sound came odd whiles from the Unknown Lands beyond the Valley of The Hounds, we had named that far and never-seen Place “The Country Whence Comes The Great Laughter.” And though I had heard the sound, many and oft a time, yet did I never hear it without a most strange thrilling of my heart, and a sense of my littleness, and of the utter terror which had beset the last millions of the world.

What remains of humanity is reduced to a single enormous arcopolis – the pyramidal, eight mile high Last Redoubt, alone in this utterly hostile land. Any other such redoubts have fallen, long ago – even their true fate is unknown – and people cannot survive outside this final sanctuary, because those beings beyond its perimeter are unknowable, bestial, or directly hostile to human existence on every level.

To the North, there stood, very far away, the House of Silence, upon a low hill… and the House was monstrous and huge, and full of quiet lights; and it was truly as that there had been no Sound ever in that House through Eternity.

The Last Redoubt is an astonishing act of imagination in its own right, and it is hard to see where it springs from in a literary sense – it is more akin to far earlier writers’ descriptions of Hellish or Heavenly cities. The Redoubt contains one thousand, three hundred and twenty lesser cities, gets its water from twenty-mile deep pipes running to lost seas, and has hundreds of underground ‘hydroponic’ levels, even more vast than the city above, which are artificially lit and sustained. Knowledge of flight has been lost, yet certain obscure technologies remain.

As for horror and weirdness – rather than science fiction – those qualities are here in full force. More than flesh is in peril, and those who venture beyond the Last Redoubt carry suicide pills to spare themselves from what might happen if they meet the Night Land’s denizens. Well before Lovecraft and others, Hope Hodgson conceived of vast beings crouching in the darkness, beyond human understanding.

Yet did we know them to be mountains of living watchfulness and hideous and steadfast intelligence.

These are truly alien things, not in any extraplanetary, exobiological way, but by their very nature – it isn’t possible to be certain if some of these beings even notice mankind, or if they have any purpose except to exist. Others appear to recognise humanity’s presence, but to be either intensely malign or mostly indifferent except when disturbed. Morlocks, to reference Wells again, would be light relief.

A million years gone, as I have told, came it out from the blackness of the South, and grew steadily nearer through twenty thousand years; but so slow that in no one year could a man perceive that it had moved. Yet it had movement, and had come thus far upon its road to the Redoubt, when the Glowing Dome rose out of the ground before it—growing slowly. And this had stayed the way of the Monster; so that through an eternity it had looked towards the Pyramid across the pale glare of the Dome, and seeming to have no power to advance nearer.

Lesser creatures – including possibly mutated or warped remnants of other humans – wait in the darkness ready to physically rend any stragglers who dare to cross the protective ‘earth current’ used to shield the Last Redoubt, whilst there are physical locations outside which are inimical in ways which are inexplicable… and so on.

In short, Hope Hodgson writes of a world in which humanity hopes only to sustain what it has, and may arguably no longer have a place. And rather than some coherent threat, he provides a crushing vision akin to later cosmic horror. There is no rationale; these many monstrous entities seem neither related to each other – no pantheons, hierarchies or recognisable cultures – nor propelled by any logic the protagonist understands. The House of Silence mentioned above is more terrifying precisely because you cannot comprehend its threat to the core, the soul, of any human who is drawn within. There is no Grand Plan which can be countered.

With its Night Hounds, its Place Where The Silent Ones Kill, and its Watcher of the North-East, to name but a few, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land should be a core text for lovers of cosmic horror. And to be honest, once you get used to the style – and you can do so – it’s also a terrific read.

Verdict: A landmark book, with a genius beyond its stylistic flaws.

by John Linwood Grant

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