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 heroes, now free from the oppressive gloom of slime slick caverns & giant slugs have emerged into the effulgent glow of burbling volcanoes, lava beds & the open airs of mysterious forests. They are, however, not free from the suspect behavior & odd motives that have so plagued these past chapters. Naani remains something of a cypher & our narrator, the chivalric chauvinist.
As the chapter opens all is sweet enough. The two travel & love & play at each other with a courtly sort of structure, but not a courtly sort of content. Our narrator will fawn over Naani’s hair & toes, making her stand tall on a rock, for example, so that he may admire her. She blushes over the attention, which only makes the narrator love her more & so we go with our stomachs reaching sickness rather swiftly. It really seems like most of the brutish garbage our narrator submits Naani to may have passed by until – horror! He discovers that she’s has become bruised by his armor because he’s been carrying her for miles, & she’s said nothing about it. Naani attempts to tempt him form his anger, but he’s not having it, wants to slap her even.
The core of what’s going on between these two really seems to be that the narrator believes his manliness spurs her to behave dainty & mannered, but otherwise, left to her own womanly ways, her nature is one of pure “naughtiness”. (& as a brief aside, I have never read the word “naughty” so often as I have in the pages of the Night Land.) You can easily see the issues here.
Naani is hard to get a read on. It’s a bit like reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, in that the main female presence in the novel is so heavily filtered through the narrator’s view that it’s very difficult to get a feel for how she feels or thinks independently. With Naani, reading between the lines as it were, we can eek out the nature of a willful, fearless young girl. This nature clashes harshly with what must assume are the world views of the narrator. He sets none of those views out per se, but his interactions with Naani make it pretty clear that she’s does not fit in the precious box he has conceived for her.
The Night Land itself, by which I mean the actual presence of the atmosphere of this dying planet that these two are crossing does make it’s presence known much better than in the last chapter. Here we have sumptuous passages detailing the fire-holes, the ghostly forests & the like. There is a strange, potent moment where both the narrator & Naani are overtaken by a reverie of the past. For a quivering few paragraphs they pass through the dream of the lives they lives so many millennia ago. This is really the first real occasion where we’ve had the two of them truly thrum with the past as the narrator has hinted that they do. It serves also, I thought, as a good reminder that poor, doomed Mirdath from the far reaches of chapter one, was just as vivacious, just as willful as Naani is here so far in the empty future.
Sadly the reverie passes too swiftly & we’re back to petty squabbles about shoes being left behind at a bathing pool & the like, for which the narrator feels obliged to whip Naani about the shoulders. That’ll teach her, surely.
Landscape details pass by. The crashed air-ship of chapters past is reached & passed, then into a turbulent area rife with the “signs of inward life and forces.” Volcanic rumbles rock the land. Strong geysers gush. Naani goes too near one & is almost ravaged by the force of the geyser before our stalwart narrator saves her in a rush & a huff. He’s furious she wouldn’t pay attention to the danger, but Naani is all a-giggle with the joy of it. She’s enlivened even, singing as they go. The narrator is indignant. He’s genuinely angry that she hasn’t crashed into his arms in thankfulness at being saved. You can really begin to see how utterly small minded the narrator is. Survival is of course important. Or really, is it? Naani is no less aware of the state of mankind, no less aware of the state of the planet; I really had the sense that she was more attune the doomed world, understanding the tenuous existence that each led, & simply took more pleasure in it all. The narrator is easily filed under “grumpy”, though not without some poetry to his soul.
Naani runs ahead as they walk, straying off among the spectral trees. Our narrator is concerned about the reappearance of the Humpt Men that had attacked him on his first pass through this area. He’s so concerned about the danger that he puts Naani on a leash. Yes. He leashes his lady so that she doesn’t get into trouble. Naani will have none of this & quickly cuts the leash with the knife that the narrator had given her for last resort protection. She runs off, newly freed. The narrator gives chase, catches, & Naani asks if he is going to flog his “chattel” – so she refers to herself. Why yes, of course he’s going to flog her. To further it all, after she’s been whipped, Naani plays all coy & cuddly with the narrator, but is hiding a saucy smile the whole while. This is too much for our dullard of a narrator. This guy is deeply sensitive to the weird environment of the Night Land, but has absolutely no idea how to read the girl he’s traveled so far to save. So here he whips her again, more harshly.
He tries to express how torn he is about having to do all this, but it really falls on deaf ears by this point.
Here though, the chapter hits a fever pitch almost out of nowhere. Our two heroes are ambushed by the Humpt Men, who have been trailing them secretly among the trees. These “lumpish and mighty” men bare down with serious ferocity. The narrator shows his worth & puts a pole straight through the first guy, & as the Humpt Man pulls the shaft of the pole out of his chest, he’s cleaved straight in two, the narrator has “ript him from the head downward, so that he did be nigh in two halves.” The savagery of this fight is brutal. The Diskos “did glow and roar” as the narrator basically butchers a score of these Humpt Men. But he takes his licks too. His armor is cracked. He’s bleeding. Swiftly the tone turns & it becomes very clear that our narrator is in real danger.
Naani dive’s into the fray, fearless, stabbing one of the Humpt Men in the arm. She is struck at, & the blow tears her garments from her, because, of course; but then she withdraws, dodging their attacks, to lead them away from the narrator.
The narrator at this point is in a really bad way. It’s really interesting how Hodgson’s prose style in this book can knuckle down & deliver a really vicious, tangible fight scene. I was really impressed by how cinematic the whole melee was. The narrator is falling on his face, trying to rise to his knees. He staggers trying to give chase, falling down all the while, the land seeming to pitch beneath him. He’s sure all is lost, all is “Emptiness and great Horror”.
But emerging from the woods, leading one Humpt Man behind her (which means she has killed at least one herself) Naani emerges. She’s out of breath, bruised & the like. Our narrator drags his ruined body towards her, scrapes himself off his knees & smites that last Humpt Man, who then blunders past falls & dies on his face.
It really is a spectacular battle. It’s vividly told, easy to follow the action & makes the violence of it all that much more visceral.
There then, at the end, our narrator collapses against Naani as all fades to black.