William Hope Hodgson: Things in the Weeds - Novelists, Satirists, and Poets - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

William Hope Hodgson: Things in the Weeds
Novelists, Satirists, and Poets
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

One of the most distinctive voices in early-twentieth-century supernatural fiction was the British writer William Hope Hodgson (1877—1918), whose promising career was cut short on a battlefield in Belgium toward the end of the Great War. Although Hodgson wrote dozens, perhaps hundreds, of short stories, the chief interest in his work rests with his four novels, The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” (1907), The House on the Borderland (1908), The Ghost Pirates (1909), and The Night Land (1912). It was these novels that were the focus of a Hodgson revival that began in the 1930s, led by Herman C. Koenig and H. P. Lovecraft and culminating with August Derleth’s reissue of them in an immense omnibus volume, The House on the Borderland and Other Novels (1946).

Of Hodgson’s short stories much can be said. He wrote short stories prodigally but made relatively little attempt to gather them in collections: only four, Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (1913), Men of the Deep Waters (1914), The Luck of the Strong (1916), and Captain Gault (1917), appeared in his lifetime. This work has both its virtues and its drawbacks. Like many short story writers, Hodgson wrote too much, and his tales are in some instances marred by repetetitiousnes of conception, slipshod writing, and a certain monotony of setting, as he overused the sea topos that forms the most recognisable feature of his overall output. Hodgson appears to have had a relatively small body of distinctive short story ideas, and he often wrote several tales on the same basic premise with only slight variations in tone, setting, and execution. Moreover, his tales fall into several discrete categories, with relatively little overlap. The Carnacki stories, utilising the “psychic detective” scenario popularised by Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence—Physician Extraordinary (1908), form a class by themselves, as do the lesser-known Captain Gault stories, recounting the adventures of that genial smuggler. Other tales are purely stories of adventure, whether on sea or land. But a substantial residue feature the core element that infuses at least three of his four novels (The Night Land being put aside as an unclassifiable cosmic fantasy): the supernatural. More specifically, a number of short stories provocatively address whether the supernatural does or does not come into play, and do so in such a way as to fall variously into such rubrics as the clearly supernatural, the “explained supernatural,” the ambiguously supernatural, and even a few proto-science fiction specimens.

That the great proportion of Hodgson’s tales, of whatever type, take place in a maritime setting suggests that Hodgson, himself a former seaman, saw in such a setting a convenient means for effecting that “willing suspension of disbelief” so critical to the success of a supernatural tale. Because the sea—especially in its more remote stretches, as in the immensities of the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean—is a relatively unknown quantity to most readers, and because of the known existence of unusual creatures lurking in the depths of the ocean, a sea setting can be the locus of horrors that, on land, might appear too incredible for belief. This technique is no different in kind from other weird writers’ use of remote locales, and Hodgson incorporates within his zone of mystery not only the inaccessible reaches of the sea itself but those hapless islands of humanity—ships—that dare to venture upon it.

One of the means by which Hodgson seeks to convey a sense of the supernatural, even if in the end the supernatural does not actually come into play, is by the seemingly elementary use of the word Thing. The fact that Hodgson would use such titles as “The Thing in the Weeds” and “The Thing Invisible” points to the importance of this formulation in his aesthetic of the weird. What might seem like a kind of cop-out—an inability or unwillingness to describe in detail the entity in question—becomes instead a device for the segregation of the non-human (or the no-longer-human), or even the non-animal, from the known animate species that populate the earth. It is exactly in the indefinability of the “Things” encountered by Hodgson’s protagonists that is the source of terror in these tales; they inspire fear because, at least initially, they resist easy classification within the realm of biology, and their almost uniform aggressiveness and hostility to humanity renders them a far from abstract intellectual conundrum.

To be sure, Hodgson is variously successful at conveying the inimical qualities of his “Things.” In the early tale “A Tropical Horror” (1905) an immense monster that comes on board the deck of a ship is labelled a “Thing” (CF 3.146), but later it is identified as a “serpent” (CF 3.147). It is not entirely clear whether the serpent is actually a supernatural entity or merely a large sea-snake: Hodgson, as frequently in his tales and novels, relies on the increased dramatic pace of his narrative—many of his tales become adventure stories in which frenetic action must be taken against the hostile force, whether natural or supernatural, that is menacing the protagonists—to distract the reader from questioning too closely the reality or plausibility of the entity in question. In “A Tropical Horror” the entire absence of any plausible rationale for the serpent’s existence renders the tale unconvincing and preposterous. Similarly, in “The Call in the Dawn” (1920) the “Thing” (CF 1.227) encountered by a ship in the Sargasso Sea proves to be “some kind of devil-fish or octopus” (1.227)—presumably non-supernatural, even if “The thing was enormous” (1.228).

The Sargasso Sea stories, indeed, engage in a subtle dance between supernaturalism and non-supernaturalism. In several tales the supernatural does not appear to come into play, unless we are to assume that the very existence of this weed-choked realm is itself a supernatural phenomenon. Hodgson sometimes suggests that there is a kind of double remoteness associated with the site: not only is it in an unknown stretch of the Atlantic Ocean (where, theoretically, almost anything can breed and emerge), but those all-pervading weeds themselves provide an added layer of obscurity beneath which “Things” can lurk. In the two-part “From the Tideless Sea” (1906—07) we learn that “There was some dread Thing hidden within the weed” (CF 1.148), but this turns out to be an octopus. The hapless Arthur Samuel Philips, who, with his wife, is trapped aboard a derelict caught in the weeds, states, “I have grown to believe this world of desolation capable of holding any horror, as well it might” (1.156); but there is little justification for his alarm until he discovers that a pig that he had on board has been killed by “some monstrous thing” (1.165). But even this baleful entity proves to be “a gigantic crab, so vast in size that I had not conceived so huge a monster existed” (1.172). But when Philips, seeing an entire herd of crabs large and small, remarks that “the mystery [was] solved” and that “with the solution, departed the superstitious terror which had suffocated me” (1.172), we are to understand that no actual supernatural phenomenon has occurred.

The ambiguity of the ontological status of Hodgson’s monsters—are they supernatural or natural?—is maintained in a great many of his non-Sargasso Sea stories as well. “The Silent Ship”—evidently a variant ending of The Ghost Pirates—presents entities that are manifestly humanoid but, also, manifestly supernatural, in keeping with the nautical ghosts of the novel: “I saw Things coming out of the water alongside the silent ship. Things like men, they were, only you could see the ship’s side through them, and they had a strange, misty, unreal look” (CF 1.138). In “The Stone Ship” (1914) the eponymous ship appears to be the locus of a succession of supernatural phenomena: members of the crew that lands on the ship seem to see immense faces peering at them underwater, are pursued by what seem to be strings of red hair, and the like. But the narrator, Duprey, systematically explains all these phenomena: the strings of red hair prove to be nothing more than “some kind of big-hairy sea-caterpillar” (CF 1.302), while the faces are those of drowned men whose tissues have been swollen by what is explicitly noted as a “natural process” (1.303). All this lends credence to Duprey’s expostulation, “The natural wonders of the sea beat all made-up yarns that ever were!” (1.301).

There is little reason to doubt that “The Voice in the Night” (1907) is Hodgson’s most accomplished tale of supernatural horror. What distinguishes this story, aside from the gradualness and subtlety of its supernatural manifestation, is an element of religious criticism that is rare in Hodgson’s work. We learn that the protagonist—named only John—and his fiancée (never named), having survived the sinking of the Albatross (a name that immediately recalls Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem of supernatural horror that is itself heavily laden with religious imagery), find themselves stranded on a lagoon. Initially they “thanked God” (CF 3.160) for their apparent salvation, especially when they found that there were edible foodstuffs on a foundered ship near the lagoon, at which point John “thanked God in my heart for His goodness” (3.161). But the lagoon is nearly entirely covered with a curious grey fungus, which also grows on the foundered ship. A short time later a bit of the fungus is found growing on John’s fiancée’s hand—then on John’s own face. At this point the couple seem resigned to their fate (“God would do with us what was His will” [3.163]), but after several months in which their food has been reduced to virtually nothing, the woman takes to eating the fungus. Later John encounters a hideous creature—perhaps a man—covered with the fungus. Finally, John capitulates and eats some of the fungus himself. As in Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space” (1927), which features a somewhat analogous phenomenon, we are left to wonder at both the physical and the psychological degradation of the couple—and we are not surprised that John, in seeking help from a ship that has sailed nearby, refuses to allow the crew members to catch a glimpse of him. What is puzzling, however, is John’s insistence that “it is God’s wish that we should tell to you all that we have suffered” (3.159). The motivations of a God who would allow the creatures of his special care to experience such a loathsome fate can only be wondered at.

Although perhaps the best known of Hodgson’s short stories, the tales involving the psychic detective Thomas Carnacki do not, as a group, rank high in his overall output, as they are marred by the crude stylistic formulae customary in popular fiction—the mechanical use of a recurring character, a verbose drawing out of the plot beyond its natural parameters, certain irritating habits of speech by Carnacki himself (especially his repeated query, “Can you understand?” when dealing with apparent supernaturalism), the contrived use of occultist mumbo-jumbo (“electric pentacles,” the “Saaamaaa Ritual,” etc.), and so forth. That Hodgson was attempting to capitalise on the success of Blackwood’s best-selling John Silence is evident, as the Carnacki tales began appearing in the Idler only two years after the appearance of that volume.

And yet, where the Carnacki tales gain their interest is in their constant fluctuating, exactly as Hodgson’s other tales do, between supernaturalism and non-supernaturalism. In the first story, “The Thing Invisible,” Carnacki declares that “I am as big a sceptic concerning the truth of ghost tales as any man you are likely to meet” (CF 2.138). Carnacki goes on to say that he is an “unprejudiced sceptic,” by which he means that “I am not given to either believing or disbelieving things ’on principle’, as I have found many idiots prone to be … I view all reported ’hauntings’ as un-proven until I have examined into them; and I am bound to admit that ninety-nine cases in a hundred turn out to be sheer bosh and fancy” (2.138). The proportion is not by any means quite that high in the nine Carnacki tales, but a surprising number of them resolve themselves non-supernaturally: in “The Thing Invisible” it turns out that the dagger that has apparently hurled itself through the air and nearly killed a man has been operated by a secret mechanism; in “The House among the Laurels” the seemingly supernatural phenomena in a deserted castle have been staged by a group of squatters who may have lived in the place for years; “The Find” is an explicitly non-supernatural story of a forged rare book. Conversely, “The Gateway of the Monster,” “The Whistling Room,” “The Haunted Jarvee,” and “The Hog” are unequivocally supernatural, although several are spoiled by incomprehensible occultist pseudo-science.

This leaves the two stories, “The Searcher of the End House” and “The Horse of the Invisible,” in which many but not all of the “supernatural” phenomena are resolved naturally: Carnacki, at the end of both stories, insists that a slim residue of genuine supernaturalism may still remain. The first tale is set in a house being rented by Carnacki himself and his mother; and it is plagued with strange odours, inexplicable rappings, and so forth. Although Carnacki discovers that many of the occurrences were engendered by a Captain Tobias, a smuggler, he is unable to identify Tobias as the source of the most striking phenomena—the ghosts of a woman and a child, seen variously by Carnacki himself and others. Carnacki is compelled to conclude: “I can only suppose that fear was in every case the key, as I might say, which opened the senses to an awareness of the presence of the Woman” (CF 2.230). Similarly, in “The Horse of the Invisible,” while it is determined that a man named Parsket has dressed up as a horse in order to scare away a naval officer named Beaumont who is engaged to Miss Hisgins (Parsket being in love with her himself), Carnacki believes that “there was something more at work than [Parsket’s] sham-haunting” (CF 2.252) and concludes tentatively that “Parsket had produced what I might term a kind of ’induced haunting,’ a kind of induced simulation of his mental conceptions, due to his desperate thoughts and broodings” (2.254). The suggestion in both stories is that intense emotions can of themselves produce quasi-supernatural phenomena even when other phenomena are convincingly explained away as the product of deceit and trickery.

As for Hodgson’s novels, one of the most incredible things that can be said of them is that—as the research of Sam Gafford has established—they were written in almost reverse order of publication, with the immense apocalyptic fantasy The Night Land written first, as early as 1903, followed by The House on the Borderland (1904), The Ghost Pirates (1904—05), and The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” (1905). There is perhaps no great surprise in this, for it is difficult to credit that a relatively unknown author could have published such an enormous and difficult novel as The Night Land as his first book; indeed, it becomes clear that Hodgson, having his novels repeatedly rejected, settled for a more accessible style with “Glen Carrig,” a routine tale of weird phenomena encountered by the survivors of a sunken ship.

As a contribution to weird fiction, The House on the Borderland ranks as Hodgson’s most substantial work; but it too is marred by defects. The text purports to be portions of a manuscript written by a man living with his sister in a remote house in Ireland, but it is fraught with conceptual difficulties and awkwardnesses of execution. The manuscript opens with the narrator’s mental voyage to an area he denotes as the Plain of Silence; in some unexplained fashion, this voyage opens the gates to hideous swine-entities and other creatures that besiege him in his lonely abode. These monsters are of impressive loathsomeness, and Hodgson is able to generate an almost intolerable atmosphere of horror and oppression; but he conveniently uses the fragmentary nature of the manuscript to veer off into another direction entirely, depicting the (admittedly fascinating) voyage of the man’s mind into cosmic realms that involve the far future, perhaps the end of the solar system itself. This is, again, one of the finest set-pieces in horror literature, but it does not seem to have any integral connexion with what preceded it, or with what follows. Overall, The House on the Borderland succeeds as a series of horrific interludes but not as a unified novel.

The Ghost Pirates can be dispensed with quickly, as it is a relatively conventional tale of hauntings at sea. The Night Land would be worth extended discussion if visionary fantasy were within the scope of this volume, but sadly it is not. Nevertheless, this novel is certainly Hodgson’s most sustained venture into pure imagination. We are now dealing with the remote future, where the pitiful remnants of humanity are by and large restricted to an immense metal pyramid known as the Great Redoubt, which is besieged by monsters not unlike those in The House on the Borderland. The protagonist detects the presence of a female human being in a remote region called the Lesser Redoubt and undertakes the arduous journey to rescue her and bring her back to the Greater Redoubt.

The Night Land qualifies, as I have suggested, as fantasy or perhaps even as proto-science fiction, but it does contain its share of horrific episodes and is well worth the herculean effort of reading it. That effort would have been considerably eased if Hodgson had not made the colossal blunder of writing it in what he believes to be seventeenth-century English (by the implausible means of having an Englishman of that era reincarnated in the far future), but which is in fact a nearly unreadable gibberish of his own devising. Why Hodgson resorted to this grotesquely unwieldy device, which also results in oceans of nauseating sentimental romance that sorely tries the reader’s patience, is beyond comprehension. Nevertheless, this work, as with Hodgson’s as a whole, represents a substantial contribution to the literature of the weird, and no devotee can afford to overlook it.