The Borderland Between Subgenres

by Arthur B

A William Hope Hodgson classic balances cosmic and psychological horror deftly.
Two British gentlemen go on a camping holiday in the west of Ireland, and exploring the region they are staying in discover a massive pit and, overhanging the edge of it, some crumbling ruins. There they discover the diary left behind by an unnamed recluse, who along with his sister Mary and faithful dog Pepper was among the last residents of the old house, having moved there to try and get away from a great and terrible grief.

However, it transpires that the house is - through whatever means - aligned with other planes and dimensions, whose inhabitants eventually take an interest in the recluse. He is gifted with cosmic visions of other realms of existence, of the fate of the Solar System and the grand Central Suns about which all others orbit, of the Sea of Sleep where even his dead love can be found… but he's been noticed. At first the outside influences take the form of an attack on the house of a horde of humanoid pig monsters that are not unfamiliar from subsequent stories by William Hope Hodgson, but more subtle dangers soon also threaten.

It’s the piggies people largely remember about The House On the Borderland, largely because they occupy by far the most conventional stretch of the narrative, the good old “besieged by ravening savages" adventure story trope rendered less problematic by said savages being alien avatars of ultimate cosmic evil instead of cartoon caricatures of human beings. Even then, though, there's much more going on than meets the eye; as well as strange subterranean activities that for the most part we never get a good glimpse of, Mary behaves really quite strangely during the attacks.

Whilst at first on the face of it, this seems to be Hodsgon doing the whole “oh, silly hysterical women are the weaker sex!” thing, it feels like there is more to it than that. The recluse devotes more thought to Pepper the pupper than to his own sister for much of the account; not only is this a rather telling point of characterisation, but it also means that at points when the narrative pays particular attention to Mary, I’m inclined to think that that is important and we should pay close attention in turn. You see, an awful lot about Mary’s odd behaviour during the pig siege sequence could be entirely explained if you assume that Mary can’t see the pigs or other supernatural manifestations, and believes that her poor brother is either making up wild stories to keep her prisoner or has simply completely lost touch with reality.

Whereas subsequent authors would make a big fat reveal about that point, Hodgson plays his cards much closer to his chest, in keeping with the pretence that the bulk of the novel is based on the recluse’s own notes and would therefore reflect his biases, beliefs, and any delusions of his; at most, the recluse wonders towards the end of the novel whether Mary perhaps hasn’t spotted some things he has, but he never questions whether she was aware of the piggies.

The idea that the supernatural manifestations may be, if not simple delusions, at least an extremely personal experience for the recluse is backed up by the way that significant chunks of the books are given over to weird visions experienced by him. These visionary sequences can go a little long, but unlike the infamously wordy and overlong The Night Land Hodgson does at least show some self-restraint here; he declares that a big chunk of pages from the book smack in the middle of the longest vision section was simply too damaged to recover any text from, with the result that the visions end up truncated and crucial answers are kept deliciously mysterious.

You wouldn’t have thought that a novel published in 1908 would be able to combine action-packed monster siege action reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead and its imitators on the one hand and hallucinatory Eraserhead-esque explorations of the depths of consciousness and outer reaches of the cosmos on the other, but somehow The House On the Borderland manages it. It is astonishingly ahead of its time, especially when it comes to the cosmic horror angle - so it’s no surprise that it was a major influence on H.P. Lovecraft and, via his praise, subsequent generations of horror authors.

What’s particularly interesting about it is that, given the clear eccentricities of the recluse and the way his bereavement hangs over everything, it’s also a fusion of cosmic horror and psychological horror, a bit like the most horrific stories in Chambers’ The King In Yellow - or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the works in question came from an era in which cosmic horror and psychological horror were not yet separated out to the extent they were subsequently. Perhaps the major point of distinction between Lovecraft on the one hand and Chambers and Hodgson on the other is that the latter two tend to assume that the cosmic terrors of the universe care about or respond in some way to human emotions or psychological states, whilst Lovecraft doesn’t think they care.

Of course, here we’re talking about the sort of “caring” which prompts you to send armies of pig people to wreck someone’s shit, but don’t we all deserve someone who’ll send the pigs after us when we most need them?
Themes: Books, Horror

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Comments (go to latest)
John at 17:06 on 2018-09-04
Hodgson is one of those authors with a huge gap of quality between his good stuff and the drek. My first encounter with Hodgson was through the Carnacki series which I found out about on Ferretbrain. Carnacki isn't horrible, but it's the worst kind of "scientific occultism" as Lovecraft would put it. Then I tried The Night Land, and didn't touch a single thing of Hodgson's for five years or so. It was only last year that I tried reading House and the difference is incredible. A Stephen King story reads like a Stephen King story, whether good or bad, but Hodgson seems completely different from good stories to bad.

According to Wikipedia, Hodgson considered The House on the Borderland to be the middle of a trilogy of sorts. The other two books are The Boats of the Glen Carrig and The Ghost Pirates, and both are pretty great. Boats is an adventure story; think Harryhausen meets Lovecraft, but it's much better quality than, say, Robert E. Howard's attempts at horror, and has no racism and decent woman characters to boot. The Ghost Pirates, despite sounding like a Scooby-Doo episode, is one of Hodgson's creepier stories, and in my opinion the most successful of the "trilogy."
Arthur B at 17:22 on 2018-09-04
I'll have to revisit Boats and The Ghost Pirates in that case.

With The Night Land there's the schtick that it's a manuscript thrown back through time and transcribed by a 17th Century gentleman and so is presented through that filter - but when Lovecraft himself (who liked writing like a cranky old Regency gent for fun) thinks you've gone too far with the archaic writing style schtick you know you've gone way overboard.
John at 19:20 on 2018-09-04
Oh, agreed. I showed The Night Land to a friend. He gave up after the introduction, which was probably the smartest move. Boats has a similar conceit, except this time it's a 17th century gentleman writing to his son, trying to be as precise and clear as possible on all points. I can't say if it's accurate to the time (Lovecraft didn't think so), but it's legible, and flows rather well. Which makes one wonder about what the hell Night Land was all about.
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