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 narrator has arrived at a Country of Fire & Water. We are offered a description of a landscape of seas & volcanoes, many smaller ‘fire-hills’ burn across this land; great clouds rise up, underlit with the volcanic light. It’s a stark contrast to the utter darkness & loneliness of the last chapter. Here there is a sense of life, ‘a muttering thunder, low and constant, shaking the air … there was in that Country a constant Voice of the Energy of Life’.
Hodgson writes most of the chapter with much the same pattern as the past few: a detailed account of eating & sleeping couched in general observations about the landscape & the like. Here, oddly, there are trees. Forests even. We aren’t given any description of the trees themselves, (& recall, there is no sunlight at all) leaving me to draw parallels between this ‘Voice of the Energy of Life’ & the Earth-Current oft mentioned in earlier chapters. How else might these trees grow? In addition, a variety of small animals inhabit this chapter too: serpents, scorpions & the like – but most surprisingly, humpbacked men. This is pretty a major development in the book. Where are these people from? Hodgson gives us very little, they are described as savages for most intents, primitive hunters who wield only sharp rocks, & they are hostile to our narrator.
There is a stand out scene when the narrator has spotted this tall rock, some hundred feet tall or so, with what looks like another rock laying across the top of it. Curious, the narrator climbs part way up before finding a good ledge he can sleep on. He wakes to see two of the humpbacked men climbing easily up the rock towards him. A genuine tense fight scene ensues, with the narrator wielding his Diskos in defense of his life. Having dispatched his foes, our narrator continues his climb & discovers that the ‘rock’ laid across the top of the one he’s climbing is actually one of the old flying-ships from the ancient past. The hull of the craft is punctured by the rock & the whole ship covered by ‘the earth and dust of a monstrous age of years’. Right here is the seed of things like Planet of the Apes, Kamandi, Thundarr the Barbarian & any number of far-future, wasteland fantasies. This was a thrilling revelation, but Hodgson passes this opportunity by. Digging through all that earth to get to the ship is too much work for our narrator & he climbs back down leaving the ship to hang there unexplored.
Choices like that make the Night Land what it is a novel though. Throughout the book there are gaps, whether in plot ideas or world building or just trains of thought, that go unaddressed or only partially explored; while other notions are over-visited, redundantly mentioned even. When it was written (1912), few books had tackled whole worlds like this. The formula we all know now had not been entirely concocted yet. Even cornerstone texts like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars was still five years off. All of these rough hewn moments lend the book an air of awkward respectability – the books flaws are apparent, but it’s audacity can’t be ignored.
But I do wonder what was in that ship.
The remaining great swaths of the chapter are largely travelogue. Hodgson gives us a bevy of details to carry us through the hardships of this weird land: the humpbacked men return briefly, there is an extended sequence crawling through a beslimed Gorge of reeking air w/ gigantic slugs clinging to the walls, rivers are crossed, &c.
Along this journey, as he lays down to sleep, the narrator wonders:
‘And, in verity, as I did lie there so dreamful, it did come to me afresh how wondrous strange was mine adventure; and how that I did lie warm and alive in a Country of red light and smoking seas. And, truly, as I did remember and consider, there was a great and lost world above me, upward through the dark . . . maybe an hundred and fifty miles up in the grim night.
And this thing did strike me very solemn, as I did lie; and I do trust that you conceive how that there was, in truth, afar above in the eternal and unknown night, the stupendous desolation of the dead world, and the eternal snow and starless dark.’
Hodgson can conjure. At any point in The Night Land, we the brave reader, may be ambushed by a passage that reminds us how utterly empty the world is, how vast the dark. The recursive prose Hodgson uses means that when moments like that land, they startle & steal our breath.
At length our narrator reaches a sea bed & recognizing that his lost love, Naani, had described the surrounding lands of the Lesser Redoubt – his ultimate goal- as such, he renews his vigor. Casting all about he feels at a loss until from a tall vantage he finally, finally, catches sight of ‘a great pyramid afar off in the night.’ The Lesser Redoubt is found.