The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson is one of the strangest things I have read, I believe. Anyone interested in dreamscapes, fantasy, post-apocalypse fiction, or weird fiction should give it a try. This essay is "for magicians" simply in that this novel will enrich the imagination powerfully, something any magician should do every so often.
William Hope Hodgson
Hodgson was a fascinating character himself. He ran away to sea, was caught and sent home, and then talked his father into letting him go anyway. Of course, once he was out there he realized it wasn’t a very good job, especially when he found out what his advancement would look like. He opened a gym — one of the first gyms that we would recognize as one today — and quite famously made Harry Houdini mad. Hodgson attended one of Houdini’s exhibitions, and since Hodgson was the well-known local "strong man" they had him chain Houdini up. Hodgson was a little extra and "scientifically restrained" Houdini, making it even harder for him to escape.
Hodgson first turned to writing because the gym wasn’t making enough to keep him afloat, so he wrote articles on physical fitness. He once wrote a bicycle down a stairway as a publicity stunt. Ultimately writing became the source of most of his income. And of this we are glad, because most of his stuff is wild. Aside from The Night Land, he wrote The House on the Borderlands, a series of metaphysical thrillers about a psychic detective named Carnacki, and a wide variety of sea stories and romances.
Far Future Romance
The Night Land is weird. I mean that it’s an example of weird fiction. It’s impossible to classify. It’s science fiction, since it’s a far-future post-apocalypse. But there are spectral metaphysical presences, both good and bad, with no apparent scientific rationale. Hodsgon wasn’t particularly religious, but does appear to have had a kind of spiritual core to him. It’s not clear what to make of the burning lights and haloes that protect people sometimes, but not at other times.
And I use "romance" in both its modern and its traditional sense. The basic plot of this novel is this: the narrator, a 16th or 17th century gentleman, met the love of his life, and in a long first chapter he details their up and down relationship until they are finally married. She dies, sometime after giving birth to a child, and the narrator awakes in The Night Land, in the impossibly far distant future. It’s a reincarnation tale; one of his future lives remembers his 16-17th century life, and vice versa.
He details what the world is like, and that’s where a lot of the great stuff is. Things are, simply, insane. A giant demon with a single eye stares a the fortress. A light appeared, at some point in the past, glaring into that eye. No one knows if it’s to help the eye or to blind it. Other watchers have giant ears, like sails, that jiggle, telling the watching humans that it is transmitting information.
The narrator, through his sensitivity to psychic matters, hears a cry — there is another fortress, heretofor unknown, Naturally, his long-lost love has reincarnated there. After a while communicating, something goes wrong, and the narrator adventures across the surface of the shattered earth to rescue her.
Most of the novel is a careful telling of the narrator’s journey out and back.
Good and Bad Stuff
This isn’t the best-written novel you’ll ever read. Hodgson puts on a pastiche of old-fashioned language that I actually like, but it leads him to also repeat these odd filler phrases, things like "as you do know" and "as I wot," just reminders that things are as he said they were 50 pages ago. These little filler phrases appear constantly, and eat up a lot of space.
He’s also painstaking with the description of practical matters. This serves him well in places, because he always built in, early on, anything he would need in the narrative later. You can see the same kind of mechanical skill in House on the Borderland, which veers back and forth between pragmatism and strange visions. Here, the narrator will have told us, chapters in advance, that there are straps attached to his scrip, so that when he needs rope to lash a raft together, he has it to hand and we don’t feel like he’s cheating.
But it also means there are lengthly passages that amount to "walked 18 hours, stopped to eat 2 times, ate again before sleeping, found a cave to sleep in." Over and over — and over — Hodgson reminds us that he is paying attention to how long this takes. That’s fine, but it eats up ever more room. It’s a thing with Hodgson: he often contrasts the mundane with the fantastic. In other works, with better pacing, it’s great. Here it’s actually a bit irritating. It’s worth pointing out here that some scholars think this is his first work, or at least his first long work. It was the last to be published, but some evidence indicates he sat on it for a while.
There’s also, well, some good old fashioned misogyny, but we’ll get to that.
What’s a Perfect City?
Since The Republic people have wondered what the perfect city might be. With Bacon’s New Atlantis and More’s Utopia, "the perfect city" became a genre of its own, the utopia. The Night Land is a dystopia, but with a perfect city in its midst. The Great Redoubt is an enormous self-sufficient, hermetically-sealed fortress. It stands seven miles high and delves deeper still underground. It taps "the earth current" to power everything from the lights to the spinning disk weapon the narrator carries with him. It even goes into the food, explaining why those in the Great Redoubt are hardy and powerful, while those in the newly-discovered, far-distant fortress are weak: they lose access to their earth-current. What is the earth current? Who knows!? It’s not important.
Hodgson has a very good grasp of what matters and what doesn’t in weird fiction. And this does not actually matter. But it is a joy to speculate.
The city, though, is perfect, and that means it’s run like a military installation. If anyone wants to go outide they have to receive training first. Everyone gets trained in how to fight. If anyone leaves, they have a poison capsule inserted in the skin of their wrist, in case they are overcome by the demonaic forces outside, which do not simply kill, but destroy. This refers to a kind of death of the soul.
There is always one question we have to ask when we come across a perfect city: what is it criticizing? All utopias, and all dystopias too of course, are in some way responding to the culture from which they emerge. I don’t have a firm answer to this. If I did, I’d probably be publishing this in a journal, not on my blog. But Hodgson imagines a city that runs every aspect of the lives of its citizens, down to where they live: everyone has to rotate through all the cities. There are so many that each person only spends a day in each, but the task takes years. After they’re done, they are sent to the city which is best for their health, considering things like the tasks performed there and the air (there’s some indication that, like a mountain, the air quality is different at different levels).
Love and Naughtiness
I mentioned the misogyny. At first it seems like it won’t be that tough: the narrator says both men and women are trained to fight. However, three times throughout the course of the book we see an army assemble and only men are in it.
But oh it gets worse, and it gets weird. The narrator calls her by her name, Naani, sometimes, and by her past-life name, Mirdath, sometimes, but mostly he calls her "Mine Own." And he talks a lot about how he is "the master" to "the maid," and how she loves him for that because he is able to recognize it. This feels, on its own, at a kind of half-hearted attempt to complain about women’s suffrage or something similar.
CW: stuff that looks a lot like domestic abuse
But then he beats the shit out of her a few times. For her own good, you see.
Specifically, he whips her hand once and her shoulders once, with a belt. He tries to whip her with a branch once but things get out of hand and he can’t.
If you’re wondering why the fuck I would suggest a novel that has this in it, just give me a minute.
This whole narrative is, to some degree, about the nature of control. The city controls itself like a military installation, and the people should do the same. The narrator does, and he often laments the way the millions in the Redoubt don’t control their emotions: every time they get worried about him, or excited for his successes, en masse,[^1], their combined emotional reaction alerts the evil powers that he’s out there.
Naani was not raised in the Greater Redoubt, and so is even less in control of herself than a woman who did grow up there. And yes, that is good old fashioned misogyny.
The thing is that Naani gets increasingly erratic. This is, again misogynistic, because the combined effects of her intense love for the narrator and the trauma she has undergone basically makes her "naughty," like playing love tricks that gets increasingly out of hand. She nearly gets them killed twice, and leaves her shoes behind. The narrator has to notice on his own and turn around, taking about half a day all told — all in a situation where they are surrounded by monsters and carrying finite supplies.
It all comes together in a climax where she is assaulted by forces from the House of Silence and the narrator must carry her the last miles, fighting all the way.
As I’m writing in part to say you should read the book, I won’t spoil the ending, but it does in some ways hinge on the narrator’s sense of self control, and that after the punishing fights and carrying and so on.
"talk about the Night Land"
I think one of the poignant things is that the book posits than even though the Night Land is a far future apocalypse, it is also just a dream away.
More specifically, it’s a loss away. Hodgson has been accused of being "sentimental," and that’s in the late Victorian technical sense. He is, honestly, but that’s not always bad. Like House on the Borderland, his masterwork, The Night Land shows us the dreadful place that loss and pain can send us.
Hodgson died in WW1, and in a letter he posted from the front, he described the hellscape as "the night land" and remarked on how close it was to peaceful England.
talk about a Lost World–talk about the end of the World; talk about the ‘Night Land’–it is all here, not more than two hundred odd miles from where you sit infinitely remote
And indeed we are all infinitely remote from the Night Land, even as it hovers just behind us.
[^1]: they have very good telescope technology basically
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