Journey across . . . Is my continuing series of reading through William Hope Hodgson’s 1912 infamous novel of the weird, The Night Land, summarizing & commenting on the text as I go.
Our unnamed narrator has just lost the love of his life. Chapter 1 ended with a fatal childbirth & the what was to be (we are encouraged to imagine) a romance for the ages…& yet…
Chapter 2 does indeed open with the heavy grief of our narrator. But only just. Mirdath the Beautiful is lost. We are allowed a scant paragraph of sorrow over her death before a new hope rises. In dreams a far future world has been revealed to our narrator. He has awoken to a time so very, deeply, bogglingly far ahead into time that the sun itself has burnt out & all of surviving humanity has rallied itself in a massive eight mile tall pyramid called The Last Redoubt. Great pains are taken to describe the relationship between the previous incarnation of the narrator & the new; the new being a seventeen-year old youth fully aware, in the way of any who may have been raised in that far-flung era, of all the traits & idiosyncrasies of life in that age. But still our narrator is also, at the same time, the fellow we’ve read of in the first chapter. Knowledge, we are exhaustively told, swims between the two incarnations, independent but shared in symbiotic relationship of separations. Hodgson lays this element on very thick. At any point we might think he’s going to move along ahead with the plot, he digresses, tells you he has or will digress, then rallies his prose & marches ahead into the next digression.
Throughout all of the reading of this novel, I suspect the prose style will be a constant source of comment. It is at times bafflingly archaic. Here, while he tangles with the timelines & what is known & how, Hodgson pushes the form of this style. It is, to be sure, successful; lesser prose would create a decidedly different feel. But observe:
“And so full am I of the knowledge of that Place, that scarce can I believe that none here know; and because I have such difficulty, it may be that is speak over familiarly of those things of which I know; and heed not to explain much that is needful that I should explain to those who must read here, in this our present day. For there, as I stood and looked out, I was less the man of years of this age, that the youth of that, with the natural knowledge of that life which I had gathered by living all my seventeen years of life there; though, until that my first vision, I (of this Age) knew not of that other and Future Existence; yet woke to it so naturally as may a man wake here in his bed t the shining of the morning sun, and know it by name, and the meaning of aught else. And yet, as I stood there in the vast embrasure, I had also a knowledge, or memory, of this present life of ours, deep down within me; but touched with a halo of dreams , and yet with a conscious longing for One, known even there in a half memory as Mirdath.”
The gentle reader will have, by this point, given way beneath the voluptuary of our story. How many of you began to skim after the first few lines? You begin to see . . .
The real standout elements of this chapter have nothing to do with the plot, but are instead all the feverishly imagined details of this far-future world, The Night Land. Standing at various vantages along The Last Redoubt, our narrator narrates the very weird landscape & it’s deeply strange features. Here, like being dropped of a cliff, Hodgson manifests a sprawling scenario of strangeness that leaves us readers’ heads spinning with vertigo. The Last Redoubt, being a pyramid, has it’s four points aligned with the cardinal directions of the compass; in between these, occupying the North West, South East &c, points on the horizons are The Watchers. We are offered limited descriptions of each, but the looming impression is that of titanic creatures, squatting, waiting, agelessly gazing on. The structures of time we are offered are tremendous. The Watcher Of The South, for example, “had grown out of the blackness of the South Unknown Lands a million years gone; and the steady growing nearness of it had been noted and set out at length by the men they called Monstruwacans; so that it was possible to search in our libraries, and learn of the very coming of this Beast in the olden-time.”
These Cyclopean Watchers are only a part of the landscape. Hodgson also offers a geography of weirdness: The Vale of Red Fire, the Three Silver-fire Holes, “The Country Whence Comes The Great Laughter”, & the like sprawl out in all directions. Each is in it’s own way laced with menace. Out across the benighted lands of the Night Land stalk Silent Ones, Ab-humans, Night-Hounds & “eyes in all that dark”.
The power in how Hodgson lays all of this out is in his esoteric manner. Our imaginations lean in to wander around The Road By The Quiet City or The Place Where The Silent Ones Are Never due to the blatantly evocative names & the lurid, ominous phrases each place is couched in. When Hodgson casts volcanic luminance up from the Giant’s Kiln across The Headland From Which Strange Things Peer, there is little hope but to wonder at the nictating gaze of unknown Slayers. & on thusly until the richness of these threats clots our imaginations.
Our last hope against the Power of the Slayers, as we wind down the chapter, is given to us in an electric circle that surrounds the Pyramid rising to a half-mile, powered by what we are told is the Earth-Current. No sooner than the mysterious Earth-Current mentioned than we’re told all fear it’s immanent failing on a Day of Doom, when “all will be helpless to the Watchers and the Abundant Terror”.
The is little hope in The Night Land.
One of the oddest things is that absolutely no heed is given to the child that was born, dooming Mirdath to her death, at the end of the last chapter. None. Did the child die as well? Did it perhaps live? We are given nothing.