From Out of the Depths: The Weird Tales of William Hope Hodgson

Note: This essay avoids plot spoilers.

“The Voice in the Night” is a story no one ever forgets.

On a black and starless night in the Pacific, a becalmed sailing ship is unexpectedly hailed by a “queer” voice from the darkness. Identifying himself, after a bit of hesitation, as “an old — man,” an unseen figure in a small boat asks for some food, but refuses to approach the vessel or to allow any light to shine upon him. Eventually, the voice relates the story of what happened after he and his fiancée were shipwrecked and only saved from death when their makeshift raft drifted into the lagoon of a deserted island. There, they discovered an abandoned ship, covered with a “grey, lichenous fungus.” The couple industriously “scraped away the odd patches of growth that studded the floors and walls of the cabin and saloon” and settled on board. But not for long. “By the end of the week the growth had returned in full strength and, in addition, it had spread to other places.” They soon moved to the beach itself where they set up camp on a smooth white patch of what looked to be sand, but wasn’t sand.

By closing on an unexpectedly quiet, gentle note, “The Voice in the Night” perfectly balances sickening horror and immense pathos. Remarkably, it is one of the very first stories that William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) ever wrote. Yet its distinctive amalgam of pity and terror runs throughout his fiction, especially in those stories he located in the dank graveyard of the Atlantic, the weed-choked, monster-breeding Sargasso Sea.

In “A Tropical Horror,” the two-part “From the Tideless Sea,” “The Mystery of the Derelict,” “The Finding of the Graiken,” “The Thing in the Weeds,” and “The Derelict,” doomed sailors and unlucky passengers battle gigantic snake-like creatures, mutant rats, preternaturally intelligent octopi and crabs the size of minivans, animate ships with predatory instincts, and various other bloodthirsty denizens of what Hodgson called “my weed-world.” Such marine horrors are obviously the stuff of 1950s B-movies, but Hodgson’s breathless, awed prose sweeps the reader along, even as his nautical expertise and photographer’s eye for detail lend the stories a you-are-there verisimilitude. Just don’t read too many at once, for they do tend to follow a common narrative arc. Nearly all are tales of beleaguerment in which slavering creatures out of nightmare or the Freudian subconscious suddenly, inexplicably lay siege to hapless men and women.

Yet no matter how frightening these voyages into unknown waters, Hodgson always grounds them in the hard tack, workaday world of the 19th-century merchant marine. After all, he spent eight years before the mast. The son of an impoverished British clergyman, young “Hope,” as his family called him, ran away to sea just before his 14th birthday. He was fetched back home but managed to convince his father to sign him on as a ship’s apprentice. Throughout the 1890s Hodgson sailed in various barques and packets, circling the world three times. He never again attended school but did eventually earn a second mate’s license at the age of 21.

He must have been a remarkable young man. Being short, slender, and very good-looking, the teenage Hodgson soon realized that to survive among often brutal sailors he would need to be tough. So he started to train using the exercises developed by Eugene Sandow, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the day and the leading proponent of “physical culture.” He also practiced boxing and judo. Even more surprisingly, the young mariner took up shipboard photography, becoming probably the first person to shoot pictures of a cyclone at sea.

When he finally sickened of the seafaring life, Hodgson opened a gym in 1899 in Blackburn, England, near Liverpool. It is said that the proprietor of W. H. Hodgson’s School of Physical Culture could lift a grown man high into the air with just one arm. Because of his study of muscle movement, in 1902 Hodgson was even able to manacle the touring Houdini so efficiently that the escapologist nearly accepted defeat and, it is suspected, was only able to release himself after some covert aid from his brother.

In the early 1900s, Hodgson began to publish articles about physical culture — one from Cassell’s Magazine in 1903 is called “Health from Scientific Exercise” — and to present lectures about his sea-going years. As “The Man at the Wheel” — with a suitable advertising photograph of himself on a ship’s bridge — he presented “Through the Vortex of a Cyclone” and other thrilling slide shows. At about the same time he also began to write fiction, publishing his first short story, “The Goddess of Death,” in 1904.

An early devotee of the typewriter, Hodgson would typically work through the night and between 1903 and 1909 was able to produce not just his finest horror stories but also the quartet of novels for which he is best known: The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” (published in 1907), The House on the Borderland (1908), The Ghost Pirates (1909), and the gargantuan cosmic vision The Night Land (finally issued in 1912). Oddly enough, the four novels were originally composed in the reverse order of their publication, as Sam Gafford has impressively deduced. (His essay can be found on the invaluable William Hope Hodgson website.) Perhaps because these highly imaginative books sold poorly (despite favorable reviews), Hodgson devoted the bulk of his later writing career mainly to commercial short fiction of all sorts, though seldom venturing too far from the weird or the nautical, as is shown by his popular tales of the psychic detective Thomas Carnacki and the likeable rogue and smuggler Captain Gault.

Notwithstanding his great industry, Hodgson barely managed to eke out a living as a magazine writer. At 35, though, he finally married a woman of his own age, and the couple moved in 1913 to Sanary, near Marseille, where they could live and work cheaply. The outbreak of World War I put a stop to that idyll. Hodgson enlisted and in 1918, at the age of 40, was blown to bits while manning a dangerous lookout post.

The poet and critic Randall Jarrell once defined the novel as “a prose narrative of some length that has with something wrong with it.” This universal truth is worth remembering when starting Hodgson’s longer fiction. None of his four novels is perfect; in fact, they are all a bit sloppy and overwritten. And yet, these books possess real grandeur of imagination and an almost cinematic power.

The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”  — about a group of shipwrecked sailors — opens in medias res, with stark immediacy:

Now we had been five days in the boats, and in all this time made no discovering of land. Then upon the morning of the sixth day came there a cry from the bo’sun, who had the command of the lifeboat, that there was something which might be land afar upon our larboard bow; but it was very low lying, and none could tell whether it was land or but a morning cloud. Yet, because there was the beginning of hope within our breasts, we pulled wearily towards it, and thus, in about an hour, discovered it to be indeed the coast of some flat country.

Note the slightly archaic style. Hodgson sometimes experimented with diction and linguistic register, and The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” adopts a pseudo-18th-century English. The narrator and his shipmates soon discover that their misfortunes have only just begun, for they have rowed into a silent twilight realm where they must defend themselves against vegetable, animal and humanoid monstrosities as they desperately try to stay alive and find their way home.

The Ghost Pirates, by contrast, is written in a punchy, contemporary English, though its sailor-men still use plenty of technical terms, which may confuse the lubber but should be familiar to fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin swashbucklers. Yet while The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” is a nightmarish odyssey, a penny-dreadful version of Homer’s epic and the tales of Sinbad the Sailor, The Ghost Pirates unfolds as an ever-accelerating descent into absolute nightmare.

It begins when Jessop the narrator signs onto the Mortzestus, even though he knows it bears an evil reputation. The entire crew, including the officers, quit in San Francisco except for one Cockney named Williams, who explains that he’s not going to be frightened out of his rightful pay. When Jessopp asks for an explanation, Williams will only murmur something about there being too many shadows on the ship.

The first few weeks at sea are, literally, smooth-sailing, but then one night on watch Jessop half-sees “the form of a man stepping inboard over the starboard rail, a little abaft of the main rigging.” In other words, this shadowy figure has climbed onto the ship from out of the sea. Other inexplicable events soon follow: the sails flap when there is no wind, old hands fall screaming from the rigging, a perplexing haze or mist envelops the ship. Jessopp eventually concludes that somehow the Mortzestus has become accessible to forces from beyond the world we know: “I should say it’s reasonable to think that all the things of the material world are barred, as it were, from the immaterial; but that in some cases the barrier may be broken down. That’s what may have have happened to this ship. And if it has, she may be naked to the attacks of beings belonging to some other state of existence.”

This notion of an Other or Outer World inhabited by alien monstrosities recurs in the loosely connected tales about Carnacki, the ghost finder, and especially in the posthumous long story, “The Hog.” Like Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, Seabury Quinn’s Jules De Grandin, and Sax Rohmer’s Morris Klaw, Carnacki is a psychic or occult detective. People consult with him about mysteries and occurrences that appear to be supernatural in origin. Yet Carnacki is always inherently skeptical: “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. But the hundredth!”

The Carnacki cases initially appeared in Idler magazine, over five successive months in 1912. A sixth was published by another magazine and three more printed for the first time after Hodgson’s death in the Mycroft and Moran collection Carnacki, The Ghost-Finder (1947) Each case is framed as a club story: Carnacki invites four friends to dinner and afterward, over whiskey and cigars, he relates his latest encounter with the unknown. Just the titles given to his adventures are properly eerie: “The Gateway of the Monster,” “The Whistling Room,” “The Horse of the Invisible,” “The Haunted Jarvee.” This last is the tale of a ship set upon by supernatural forces and is, in some ways, a close cousin to The Ghost Pirates. At one point Carnacki describes the eerie glass-like ocean, an “emblem of desolation,” in which the Jarvee is becalmed:

There was by day a silence so profound as to give a sense of unrealness, for never a sea-bird hove in sight. . . . It seemed to me at last that there was no more any known world, but just one great ocean going on forever into the far distances in every direction. At night the strange squalls assumed a far greater violence . . .

The up-to-date Carnacki regularly employs a camera in his investigations, as well as an “electric pentacle” as a protective field. He refers frequently to the Sigsand manuscript, speaks glibly of matters such as “the False Re-Materialisation of the Animate Force through the Inanimate-Inert,” and relates that he was once saved from spiritual destruction only because some guardian entity whispered the Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual.

Hodgson overdoes this occult patter, which has led a few critics to wonder if he might actually be spoofing the psychic sleuth subgenre. Still, Carnacki’s cases are pleasingly spooky, even when several turn out to be ingenious human crimes, rather than intrusions of the supernatural into the ordinary world. “The Hog,” though, returns us to Hodgson’s persistent theme of “a gap or flaw in a man’s protection barrier.” When a man named Bains sleeps he is assailed by horribly vivid dreams in which he finds himself “in some deep, vague place with some inexplicable and frightful horror all about me.” As he tells Carnacki, “Down there in that great pit my very soul seems to shrink back from the call of some brooding horror that impels it silently a little further, always a little further round a visible corner, which if I once pass I know I shall never return again to this world.” During these nightmares, Bains can also make out hideous sounds, “the noise of pigs. . . . A sort of swinish, clamoring melody that grunts and roars and shrieks in chunks of grunting sounds, all tied together with squealings and shot through with pig howls.”

As Carnacki quickly realizes, Bains has become a portal, a means by which Outer Monstrosities are seeking to enter our world. To close this door, Carnacki risks his own life by actually summoning up the swinish, spectral entity he calls the Hog. This demon, he explains, actually belongs to a “huge psychic world, bred out of the physical, lying far outside this world and completely encompassing it, except for the doorways. . . . This enormous psychic world of the Outer Circle ‘breeds,’ if I may use the term, its own psychic forces and intelligences, monstrous and otherwise. . . . The monstrosities of the Outer Circle are malignant . . . and the desire of these monsters is chiefly, if not always, for the psychic entity of the human.”

Sounds a bit like H. P. Lovecraft, doesn’t it? In Supernatural Horror in Literature Lovecraft describes cosmic horror as “the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” While our 20th-century Poe never saw this particular passage — “The Hog” wasn’t published in his lifetime — he did find comparable ideas in Hodgson’s novel The House on the Borderland. After reading it, he concluded that few writers could equal its author “in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and significant details, or in conveying feelings of the spectral and the abnormal in connection with regions or buildings.”

In The House on the Borderland two Englishman on holiday in a remote corner of Ireland stumble upon some unsettling ruins near a strange lake. There, they discover an old manuscript notebook, the journal or testament of an unnamed elderly “Recluse” who long ago withdrew to an ancient, isolated house with only his sister Mary for companionship. Life went along peacefully for several years, the Recluse writes, until one night, while seated in his study, he suddenly found himself undergoing an out-of-body experience. Floating above a dark and desolate plain, he quickly notices that the surrounding mountains are guarded by statues representing the death gods of various religions, among them Kali and Set. These figures — are they just statues? — gaze down on a gigantic replica of the narrator’s own dwelling place. As the Recluse floats closer for a better look at the house, he glimpses a swinelike Morlockian creature trying all the windows and doors, desperately seeking to get in.

When the Recluse awakens from this dream — and what else could it be? — he gradually starts to notice anomalies and oddities in the area surrounding his house. Rock slides transform a nearby pit into a lake; he hears grunting and rustling in the garden; there’s something noxious about the house’s labyrinthine cellar.

The House on the Borderland is an episodic work, mixing together several storylines and raising questions about the narrator’s reliability. Is he psychotic? Or are the events described “real”? What of the Recluse’s fragmentary allusions to a transcendent love with an ethereal woman he meets on the Sea of Sleep? Might this be some kind of subconscious incest fantasy about Mary? (Sisters in the horror tradition are always sexually charged.) Several late chapters — tracking the ultimate fate of the earth — are almost psychedelic, reminiscent of cosmic passages in Wells’s The Time Machine, Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

In The Night Land, Hodgson further explores, and at enormous length (200,000 words), the last days of humankind. Given that we now know this to be Hodgson’s first novel, or at least a version of that first novel, it seems obvious that he was aiming, with an outsized, Thomas Wolfe–like ambition, to produce a gargantuan masterpiece of visionary literature.

The setting of the book, as Hodgson scholar Sam Moscowitz tells us, “is uncounted millions of years in the future. The place in that future is The Last Redoubt, a metal pyramid nearly eight miles high, but built in a valley one thousand miles long and 100 miles deep. About the valley the rest of the world is dark and cold. . . . The sun is dead and night is eternal.”

Four Watchers, titanic slug-like creatures, peer unwaveringly at the Redoubt. Nearby are the Vale of Red Fire, the Plain of Blue Fire, the House of Silence, the Valley of the Hounds, and other ominous regions. Further away are “the Unknown Lands, a range of low volcanoes which light up the black hills where ‘Shine the Seven Lights Which Neither Move Nor Falter Through Eternity,’ and of which not even the great spy-glass could bring into focus, nor had any adventurer come back to tell what they are.”

Some of these odd, poetic names resemble coinages by Lord Dunsany, who was beginning to write about Pegana and its fantastic gods in 1905. Hodgson, however, actually composes this visionary “love tale” in a fustian 17th-century English that has been described as “gibberish” and “maundering gush.” I myself read the book years ago when I was about 19 — probably the right age for such an ambitious project — and found that one gradually adapts to its prose rhythms and sentimental excesses. As for the plot: It is essentially a quest. A young man, armored and armed with a weapon called the Diskos, sets forth from the Last Redoubt to rescue the woman he loves who is under siege at a distant lesser fortress. In the course of his journey across this global waste land, he encounters dangers and horrors right out of medieval allegories and apocalyptic science fiction movies, recording it all in a prose that never was on sea or land but somewhat reminiscent of the Book of Revelation combined with Victorian translations of ancient epic. Alongside the sickly-sweet mawkishness, however, an unexpected sadomasochistic current runs through the novel. Our hero may regard Naani as Dante does Beatrice and he may honor their love as being immortal and timeless like that depicted in Rider Haggard’s She, but when the couple are actually together he occasionally inflicts corrective punishment on the impudent girl — for her own good, of course. What’s that all about? As with other demanding texts, there’s an entire website devoted to explicating The Night Land.

Readers new to Hodgson should have little trouble finding his major stories and novels. Just this summer Centipede Press published a 700- page volume of his selected works — including The House on the Borderland and The Ghost Pirates — in its new Library of Weird Fiction, edited by S. T. Joshi. It is an exceptionally handsome and handy volume. A more compact collection of Hodgson’s short prose (which also includes some of his nonfiction and poetry) is Douglas A. Anderson’s Adrift on the Haunted Seas (Cold Spring Press). More serious Hodgsonians will want to acquire the complete works issued by Night Shade Press (in five volumes) and Jane Frank’s The Wandering Soul (Tartarus/PS Press), a compendium of the writer’s uncollected nonfiction, lectures, photographs and stories; a matching volume gathers Hodgson’s poetry.

Making due allowance for youthful excesses and reserving The Night Land for advanced students only, William Hope Hodgson’s fiction will always be sought out and enjoyed by anyone who likes a viscerally scary story, but especially by readers interested in classic horror and early science fiction. Give him a try. Even at his pulpiest Hodgson is great fun — at his most visionary, he is stupendous.

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