A heart of darkness

Felt a bit bummed out yesterday, so that inevitably made me think of William Hope Hodgson’s ‘The Night Land’, the book that nearly gave me a nervous breakdown over New Year 1999 / 2000.

Normally, I love William Hope Hodgson. His berserk imagery, unhinged sense of space and time, and deep nautical experience (at times he comes across like the bad acid Joseph Conrad) combine every so often to produce utter pulp magnificence.

‘The House on the Borderland’ is an acknowledged classic, helped kickstart H. P. Lovecraft, and more recently has been namechecked by Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore and China Mieville, amongst others. ‘The Ghost Pirates’ is a genuinely haunted tale of subtle nautical mayhem, stuffed to the gills with memorable imagery and authentic sea-lore. The ‘Carnacki the Ghost Finder’ stories are just plain strange (and newly reprinted by Wordsworth Classics) – and so on.

But ‘The Night Land’ is in a different league. It’s set in the far future; and the sun has died. The remnants of humanity inhabit a giant, illuminated pyramid, the Last Redoubt. Everywhere else is darkness. Terrible creatures surround the pyramid, watching and waiting… And then, a signal from the last survivor of another, previously unknown redoubt is received. The narrator sets out to find her.

That’s really it for plot. You don’t read ‘The Night Land’ for seat of the pants narrative thrills; you read it for its crushing, strange, intense atmosphere, battling through its bizarrely contorted prose to do so. The conviction with which WHH images his dark, possessed future world, and the claustrophobic grimness of the creatures that hide in it, are remarkable.

I couldn’t finish it; it was too much for me. So I don’t know how it ends, and I haven’t formed a deep critical view of it, beyond awe at its atmospheric potency. So, here’s a quote from it, to give you a sense of its unique qualities:

‘And so, in a few minutes, I was at the South-Eastern wall, and looking out through The Great Embrasure towards the Three Silver-fire Holes, that shone before the Thing That Nods, away down, far in the South-East. Southward of this, but nearer, there rose the vast bulk of the South-East Watcher – The Watching Thing of the South-East. And to the right and to the left of the squat monster burned the Torches; maybe half-a-mile upon each side; yet sufficient light they threw to show the lumbered-forward head of the never-sleeping Brute.

To the East, as I stood there in the quietness of the Sleeping-Time on the One Thousandth Plateau, I heard a far, dreadful sound, down in the lightless East; and, presently, again – a strange, dreadful laughter, deep as a low thunder among the mountains. And because this sound came odd whiles from the Unknown Lands beyond the Valley of The Hounds, we had named that far and never-seen Place “The Country Whence Comes The Great Laughter.” And though I had heard the sound, many and oft a time, yet did I never hear it without a most strange thrilling of my heart, and a sense of my littleness, and of the utter terror which had beset the last millions of the world.’

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