Monday, June 1, 2009

Old-School Xenophobia

[Before I get started on this I'd like to point your attention to an article of mine that Strange Horizons published this week. In complete contrast to this review, it does some theorizing about contemporary literature that features superheroes.]

House on the Borderland is the sort of thing that people called 'fantasy' before Tolkein came along; i.e., it’s supernatural horror. It's really rather shocking by today's standards: xenophobic only just begins to describe it. I'd heard some things about William Hope Hogson being quite influential over the years, but now I'm hoping that applies more to his story The Night Land, which is currently being mentioned in the context of Greg Bear's City at the End of Time. So I wouldn't necessarily recommend Borderland, but I am planning to continue on to Night Land before too long.

Value judgements aside, what is this book? In the framing narrative, two gents go out fishing to a remote and mysterious (i.e., they haven't been able to find it on any map since) part of Ireland. One day they follow a stream down until they find a massive crater. Sitting on a precipice jutting into the crater are the ruins of a large stone house. The gentlemen investigate the ruins and find the remains of a hand-written book there. They return to their camp and start to read.

The narrative is from the POV of the last owner of that house. He had moved there for the solitude, and had no companions other than his sister and dog. The dog, BTW, is much more interesting and has much more agency than the sister, to give you some feel for the pre-feminist times. Then lots of odd things start to happen. First, the guy has a vivid nightmare. Then a chasm opens up next to the house. Then the house comes under attack for a few nights by pig-men from that nightmare. There's some very vivid writing as the (unnamed) narrator sets up defences against the pig-men siege. After the pig-men seem to permanently retreat (for no adequately explained reason), he goes to investigate the chasm. It begins to flood while he's down there, and he's saved only by his dog. He also manages to save the dog in return, which made me happy.

In an odd choice, there is next some kind of romance with some kind of supernatural female described, but only from 'damaged' portions of the book, so we only get snippets of the narrative. These make no sense at all. Then, the guy is flung forward in time, forced to watch as the world decays, freezes, and falls into the sun. He then goes on an interstellar journey of sorts (ala Stapledon later), possibly sees some things that connect to his first dream, and meets the woman referenced in the romance segments. Unfortunately they can't stay together, and he is flung back to the present day. Then the book more or less trails off.

So what you've got is a lot of plot segments that don't dovetail particularly neatly, and some absolutely shocking xenophobia. Take the pig-men: they're portrayed as 100% menacing and violent. The man doesn't seek to communicate with them or to understand anything about them. They just set about trying to kill one another. Likewise, contrast the time-travel bits with Stapledon: when Stapledonian narrators undertake such a journey, they learn all about humanity, and aliens, and the fate of the universe. Here no such enlightenment comes to the narrator. Here, nothing is ever explained: the chasm, the dreams, the things that are physically real and those that aren’t. Basically, everything that is unknown is scary, with the sole exception of the exotic love-affair that is only sketchily described. And there’s no attempt to make it less scary by seeking to figure it out. At the end, when we return to the framing narrative, even the readers of the man's tale don't quite seem to know what to make of it. I suspect that I’m applying the wrong reading protocols to this book, but I can’t think of any protocol that would make it good from a modern perspective. Probably the horror readers of the day enjoyed it rather more.

There is some strong writing here when Hogson hits his stride, but honestly I wouldn't recommend it to today’s readers. I'll be interested to see if his other two major titles (Night Land and Ghost Pirates) hold up better over time. But that's me! Sorting through the influential classics of the field so you don't have to!

{In a note of contrast, consider my review of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which is about 20 years older. It really drew me in, and seems to hold up much better, especially in terms of style. Although it has its own feminist issues to deal with.}


OTB said...

If you couldn't tell from my username, I'm rather fond of this book, but I enjoyed reading your review. I think HOTB is somewhat of a flawed masterpiece...I've heard it described as an amazing horror story with a bizarre and unnecessary digression in the middle or a visionary masterpiece burdened with the elements of a horror story couched around it. For me, it is such a unique work that it rather defies description, it's hard to believe it was written 100 years ago.

Also of minor interest is the status of the main character as an unreliable narrator. His sister doesn't seem to see the creatures, is he merely in the throes of insanity? I have also heard of an interpretation where the "pig-men" represent the peasantry which the aristocracy (the narrator) is out of touch with, i.e. ignoring their troubles, taking shots at them, seeing them as inhuman. Just a couple thoughts from my end!

Karen Burnham said...

Thanks for reading the review! I have to admit that the unreliable narrator angle hadn't occurred to me, although the class-war aspect had.

I think that the word "unique" is certainly necessary for this one. How do you feel about the rest of Hogson's oeuvre?

OTB said...

Well, Night Land is again, pretty much unlike anything else out there but I have heard it criticized for its somewhat overly sentimental language. The other two novels Hodgson wrote, The Ghost Pirates and The Boats of the Glen Carrig are about horrors at sea, which is kind of a neat genre, you can see how Lovecraft would have been influenced by that.

Unknown said...

I've always loved House on the Borderland for its sheer epic weirdness. Also for the sense of scale to its horror. Battles with semi-human creatures abound in WHH (there are weed-men in Boats of the Glen Carrig) - he's quite unusual in combining the kind of no-nonsense physicality associated with muscular Christianity and Edwardian physical culture with visionary strangeness.
He's a writer who is hugely flawed and often doesn't seem that good at writing, but has something so unusual to say that he's compelling (except the Night Land, which I find unreadable).
I won't try defend his treatment of female characters (either inept or misogynistic) or romance / sexuality (he clearly thought it was important, but was utterly unable to write it).
If you haven't read his biography on Wikipedia, it's well worth a look.

Unknown said...

Sorry - my last comment on reading Hope Hodgeson's biog was not intended to be patronising, especially to Karen, and it clearly reads that way.
What I should have said (wish I could edit it) was that WHH was an unusual character who led an interesting life.

Karen Burnham said...


Don't worry, I didn't find it condescending! He did have a heck of a life.

I just finished reading "Ghost Pirates." I found it much more coherent than "Borderland," and knowing that he spent so much time ship-board explains his confident use of nautical jargon.

I suspect I'll be giving "Night Land" a try before the end of the Summer.