Tuesday, October 9, 2012

William Hope Hodgson - The House on the Borderland

I read, and, in reading, lifted the Curtains of the Impossible, that blind the mind, and looked out into the unknown (p. 3).

First published in 1908, The House on the Borderland has influenced a century of Weird writers. The volume in which I read the classic, The House on the Borderlands and Other Mysterious Places from Night Shade Books, opens with praising quotations from China Miéville and Fritz Leiber, and Lovecraft, too, held Hodgson in high, if not perfect, esteem. The novel's influence is unmistakable, and its place in Weird fiction's nearly definable realm is as well. It is, essentially, composed of four reality-defying events that befall the occupant of its titular dwelling, the fellow that Hodgson, supposedly the found manuscript's editor, calls the Recluse. For all the power these events hold, though, I wish that Hodgson's storytelling was a tad less aimless, his characterization a tad less nonexistent.

The first of the novel's impossible happenings is a dream, vision, or transportation that lifts the Recluse from his study and drags him beyond the Earth, beyond the Solar System, and even outside the boundaries of our universe. More than anything else, the journey reminded me of that in Dostoevsky's "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man." Like in that story, the journey's end comes when the narrator reaches a strange and almost pristine realm rife with religious and metaphysical meaning. The narrator sees a house exactly like his own save its massive size amidst a series of momentous mountains, a horrific Swine-thing attempting to break into the house, and, up by those peaks, he spies figures: Several, I recognized, almost immediately, as mythological deities; others were strange to me, utterly strange, beyond the power of a human mind to conceive (p. 23). Though several interesting things are seen, the dream is rather devoid of tension, the narrator and the reader both being simple observers quite literally dragged along from one sight to the next.

The Recluse is not a spectator for long, however, because he has only just returned to his home when he finds it under attack by a horde of these Swine-things. So commences one of the strangest siege narratives I have ever read, as the Recluse secures entrance after entrance from the beasts, snipes them from the upper stories, and prevents them from scaling the walls. The Recluse's stoic refusal to consider the situation's absurdity soon drags the reader along and into the simple task of survival. Afterwards, the Swine-things recede, and we have a moderately sized lull in which the narrator tries and fails to shed any light on their arrival.

Before long we are off again, for what follows is one of the most fantastic (in every sense of that word) sequences I've read, comparable only to that near the end of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. Hodgson's narrator observes that the sun is going faster in the sky. Days turn to minutes and then to seconds. Years pass. Decades, centuries. His beloved dog turns to dust beside him. The solar system shoots out, going along the path the narrator himself once traveled  Life ceases. The sun fails. Through each successive event, Hodgson brings to the reader the immutable, awful quiet of a dying world (p. 95), and Hodgson succeeds in drowning mundane life in these incredible stretches of time: Yesterday! There was no yesterday. The yesterday of which I spoke, had been swallowed up in the abyss of years, ages gone (p. 88). Though this sequence is as tensionless as the first of the novel's extraterrestrial travelogues, and though it is perhaps a bit overlong, it more than makes up for those flaws with the sheer bludgeoning awe that Hodgson evokes.

The novel does not quite end there – there is a final sequence, in which a ghostly Swine-thing corrupts and destroys the narrator – but I hope that my microcosm of the novel's plot and structure is sufficient to begin to get across two points. First: Hodgson excels at crashing wonder down upon the reader. Second: Hodgson's plotting is quite literally one thing and then another, and at no point does the novel ever cohere into a single story rather than a series of impossible happenings. Nothing ever becomes clear nor adds up to anything greater than itself; the events of the story could easily be shuffled into a different order altogether, or the tale could have started near the end, and nothing of what passes for causality would be lost.

Of course, many readers are no doubt now crying blasphemy, for, surely, the Weird Tale does not depend on facile things like answers to its mysteries. To that notion, that unsolved and unsolvable mystery is the genre's foundation, I must say that I agree. But that is not to say that a solid Weird Tale is just a group of unconnected events, for then it is scarcely a tale at all. Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows" (which I treat here), is agreed by almost all to be a masterpiece of suggestion and an exemplary Weird Tale, yet its various impossible occurrences are all closely linked, it builds tension steadily, and its every instance of the supernatural hints at an inconceivably vast but nonetheless unified beyond. The House on the Borderlands, by contrast, is Weird by scattershot.

Furthermore, while Hodgson may move us far beyond our conception of metaphysics, his treatment of morality and our place in the universe is not nearly so complex. For all its scale, The House on the Borderlands ends with simply conventional thoughts on good, evil, and purpose writ large. We go far beyond the Bible's remit in space and time, yet the Recluse never doubts that the universe is teleological, that the sun, hurtling through space, is not only moving but travelling (p. 92) and has a preordained destination. The Swine-things are certainly, as Hodgson puts it, something beyond human, but Hodgson soon drags them back to the familiar by adding: something foul and hostile to the great and good in humanity. In a word, as something intelligent, and yet inhuman (p. 37). This is a novel that goes far beyond us and yet still has God (p. 6) and evil (p. 75); it is narrated by a man that lives through man's last hour and yet still unquestioningly refers to suicide as unholy (p. 74).

When it comes to character, I suppose some weakness is just about par for the Weird course, but Hodgson goes well beyond even Lovecraft here. Just about all we know about the Recluse is that he considers solitude one of the two things that alone make […] life bearable (p. 74). That's about as deep as we get into many of Lovecraft's narrators, and, the Recluse is, here, a genuine paragon of depth when compared with the rest of the cast.

First, we have the second thing that makes the narrator's life bearable, his lover. When I say that the lover's character is an abyss of missing pages, you must understand that I am in no way speaking figuratively; there is a section of the found manuscript that Hodgson and the stars of the framing device claim is too damaged to read. That section contains the meeting between the Recluse and his lover. It contains just about everything we will ever learn about her. After that, all we are left with are overwrought declarations of loss, the supernatural, and melodramatic love, but we never get the faintest hint of the character of the lover that might have given the emotions substance.

Finally, we come to Mary, the Recluse's sister, a woman who, were she but a servant of the Recluse, I would still think neglected by the narrative. In times of crisis and climax, she fades entirely from view. In the good times, she has the grace to presumably prepare the Recluse's meals and yet be neither seen nor heard. The first and only time she plays a role in the narrative is when, in the aftermath of the Swine-things' attack, she goes mad and forces the Recluse to restrain her.

When time accelerates and leaves the Recluse's dog dust, he thinks the following of his sister: Was she dead, as well as Pepper? […] It occurred to me, to go look for her; but I felt too weary. And then, she had been so queer about these happenings, of late (p. 85). From the word late, the Recluse segues into a contemplation of the stupendous distance in time he has covered: Of Late! I repeated the words, and laughed feebly – mirthlessly, as the realization was borne in upon me that I spoke of a time, half a century gone (ibid). Of course, the time covered is stupendous, as I have previously discussed. But that doesn't change the fact that the Recluse not only does not think once more of his sibling in his essential eternity spent watching the sun fail, he doesn't even bother to check if she is, in fact, deceased.

With a plot that can charitably be described as loose and characters so weak that they vanish if looked at head on, The House on the Borderland is not a very successful novel. But its power cannot be denied. Perhaps, as Hodgson says in his introduction to the found manuscript he claims to be republishing for the world's attention, these events work better as an account than as a story (p. 3). Whatever the case, The House on the Borderland is a work of genre history but also a work of significant if imperfect literary merit.


  1. I rather wish this had been less an examination of the almost infinite, and more of a prolonged punch-up between the recluse and a bunch of pig-men. I'm kinda shallow.

    I think the missing portion of the found document was a literary in-joke.

  2. The swine-things aren't real at all; the recluse has gone nuts. His sister never sees them, his injuries are self-inflicted, and the subtext is that she's more afraid of her brother's erratic behaviour than anything else.