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.
Having turned away from the Lesser Redoubt, our narrator & his dear Naani now begin their journey across the benighted earth back to the Last Redoubt, now truly the last bastion of humanity on the planet.
Right away Naani lays out a bit of the landscape for our narrator, specifically highlighting a poisonous gas-laden region & an area beyond referred to as The Shine, due to it’s cyan-hued burning light, where the dread Fixed Giants stalk. The narrator takes these to be somewhat equivalent to the Watchers that are about the Last Redoubt. So they plot a course to go around the Place of the Gas, staying clear of the Shine & set out.
They eventually make camp at one of the volcanic fire-holes that intermittently dot the landscape, kind of a cave, crevice area with heat erupting from the center. All the creatures of the Night Land tend to congregate at these fire-holes, so precautions are necessary. Then just when we think they are safe that astonishing sexism so prevalent in the last chapter rears it’s head with this gem:
“And we sat together, and eat and drank; and the Maid very sweet and quiet, as she did begin to eat her second tablet; and, truly, I had knowing that she did remember in all her body that I had whipt her. And, indeed, she did be utter mine.”
Wow. OK. Um… so it’s going to be like that? It is. I don’t know Hodgson’s reasoning on any of this approach. As I mentioned regarding the last chapter, 1912 aside, & this supposedly set at The End of Time, zero consideration for social progression has been taken. Outside of a Chivalric BDSM play, this all comes across in poor taste. The chapter does however march on.
They are woken from their eventual sleep by the cries of what sounds like other humans. “Yet might I do naught; but only wait that I learn more of the matter; for my duty was unto Mine Own, and I had no leave of rashness any more.” So our narrator plays it way safe, just seeing what’s going to go down. What goes down is giants: “men so big as houses that did run and shout in the night.” By the fire light, the narrator can see a flow of people, all in rags or naked, bruised & torn & terrified, run past. There are people outside the cave our couple have hidden in to sleep & they’re all being slaughtered. He can hear their screams stop as they are torn apart. His blood begins to boil, but he wont leave Naani on her own.
“And, surely, it did come to me with a fierce impatience of sorrow, that those people did be without spirit of courage; else had they turned them upon the giants, and slain them with their hands, even if that all had died to compass that slaying; for, truly, they should all die anywise by the giant-men; and they had died then with some-what to comfort their hate.”
This narrator is an ass.
Four of these giants – “big as houses”, remember – are eviscerating survivors of the Lesser Redoubt; these people are weaponless & naked – they have zero chance whatsoever. Our narrator, with his nigh-magical spinning saw-ax won’t leave the hidden cave to help them for fear that Naani may get hurt while she’s hidden in that hidden cave? And moreover, he thinks all these people should die for not turning around to face the giants & dying in the first place? Not to mention he beats the girl he traveled half the ruined world to be with because she tries to save food so there’s enough to survive on? Wow, buddy. Way to go.
Well, what happens next?
There is one last survivor. A naked maid who creeps over the ledge and tries to hide in the basin of the fire-hole. The brutish Squat Man that is following her has no trouble finding her & now – now – our brave narrator can’t take it any more & leaps to aid.
“And I paused not; but leaped all the great way unto the bottom of the hollow, which did be, mayhaps, twenty good feet and more; for mine anger was upon me, and I did meant that I save that one, though I did be powerless to give succour unto those others.”
Lets review the above quote. So our guy here leaps twenty plus feet down a chasm in full armor with a wondrous weapon, the Diskos, & he “did be powerless” to help all those others? At no point listening to all those death screams of defenseless people did he ever mention not feeling like he could take those giants, & he seemed pretty sure that they all should’ve been busy dying trying to save themselves. So now he’s going to be a hero? Let’s read along & see how this goes:
“And I fell strong upon my feet, and had no harm of my limbs, for all that the leap did be so high. And in that moment, before that I had time to save the maid, the Squat Man ript her; and she cried out once with a very dreadful scream, and was suddenly dead in the hands of the Brute-Man.”
The only thing I can say about the narrator right now is that he is at least properly pissed off when he lands. He lays into the Brute with the Diskos for a pretty brutal melee, during which the Brute throws him across the length of the hollow. The narrator does finally get the drop on the Brute & beheads him.
The narrator is heartbroken & wrecked about all the dead people & this maid he failed to save. As a reader I’m unsure what we are supposed to make of this guy. He really was in a position to do a lot more, and if I wasn’t then at least his viewpoint might be more sympathetic. He really becomes a more & more off putting character as we go. I feel bad for Naani.
So their journey continues. To steer around the Shine they pass into a deep valley instead. Hodgson’s descriptive powers really come to bear on this. From the cloudy dim of the landscape, they descend into a much darker, but clearer air. The gloom is of a different quality entirely. It’s here in this valley is one of the strangest encounters yet in the novel.
Navigating around a venomous blue gas that crawls across the valley floor, the two hear what sounds like naked footsteps running. They can’t see anything & the narrator debates calling out in case there are other survivors of the Lesser Redoubt. But they instead hear the sound manifest closer in a fashion the makes Naani very afraid. She knows this is one of those dread Evil Forces of the Land. Hodgson describes the sound as a spinning, which is moving closer. At the sound of it’s inevitable approach, Naani takes the knife the narrator carries & makes him hold it against her so that if the Evil Force does approach he should kill her before it has the chance. This is the same line of thinking we had way back in the earlier chapters where there was a great deal of making sure the things in the Night Land didn’t kill you for fear of your soul; that it was better to kill yourself than to fall prey to the Evil Forces.
“And in the moment that the Maid stood thus, as I have told, I perceived sudden that there did be a little glowing in the night, and the glowing was pale and horrid. And there was no more any sound of the Spinning; only there did be, as it were, the trunk of a great tree, that did show in the glowing; and the trunk of the tree came toward us across the darkness.”
Weird. Hodgson is really cagey about these Evil Forces, but I thought this was a really well done threat – very abstract & strange. But then, another element from the earlier chapters arrives as well. The tree stops advancing & the narrator spies above him & Naani a “clear burning Circle” & he knows that one of those rare Powers of Goodness stands between them & the Forces of Evil. We’ve only seen this Power of Goodness once before, back in chapter 3 or 4 when a army of warriors was saved by it. It was a Deus Ex Machina then, & it still feels like one here. The Evil Force, of course, retreats, & our narrator & Naani have this Power of Goodness’ blessing for the better part of a day as they travel out of the valley. (The trip through the dark valley only to be saved by the Power of Good does ring a little heavy handed in it’s references too)
Having left the valley behind & bathed in a hot spring the two are in good spirits. So good that the narrator moves ahead to Naani as they walk, so far that when he turns back he finds that she’s under attack by a four-armed yellow thing. I stop to detail this fight, so near the end of the chapter, because of it’s depth. It covers four pages & is a significant struggle, but also shows how Hodgson’s awkward prose in this book can really convey some brutal action.
“And I came unto the Man with quick leaping, and stopt not to pluck the Diskos from my hip; and surely I did be very strong, and mine anger and rage to make me monstrous; for I caught the two upper arms of the Man, and brought them backwards in an instant, so fierce and savage, and so wrencht upon them, that I brake them in the shoulders of the Man.”
That’s how you start a fight. Throughout what follows those broken arms flop about grotesquely, the creature Man continually trying use them. There is even a neat moment where the narrator realizes that the Man has only really used his second set of arms for holding enemies while the top, now broken set, strangled. But even with this advantage it’s a hell of a tussle. The narrator tries to strangle the Man to no avail. The Man crushes the narrator in his armor threatening to crack it. It’s only after roughly beating the Man with his armored fists that the narrator can get some distance to loose his Diskos from his hip & behead the thing.
And just in case you thought all this good atmosphere & violence was going to wash those ugly moments from earlier away, after the fight the narrator springs this one on us: “And I caught her up again; and kist her, and told her that I did be surely her Master, in verity, and she mine own Baby-Slave.”
He’s a charmer.
At long last the two find path to the Upward Gorge, & will leave the whole region behind them. At the end of the chapter here there a couple really good moments: Naani turns around to see the whole distance they have traveled, but it’s so dark she can’t even see where the Lesser Redoubt might be. The narrator points to where he thinks is the closest & she has a quiet moment to say goodbye to the place where she lived her whole life.
“And I was husht, and deeply sorrowful for the Maid, and did understand: for in verity, there should no other human look upon that Land of terror through all the quiet of eternity . . .”