William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land is a brilliant, moving and weird book. Published in 1912 by a former sailor and health club entrepreneur turned writer, this book is a pinnacle of imagination and speculation – the world Hodgson creates is unique, awesome, terrible, fantastic and yet believable. While usually classified as Horror, it nonetheless fits well within the Speculative Fiction category under both Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is often called a flawed classic (by me, for example), yet the very real flaws are dwarfed by the magnificence of the Hodgson’s vision, which gave birth to an entire genre of ‘Dying Earth’ fiction.
First, let’s get something out of the way: there are several conceits Hodgson uses to tell his story that are features, not bugs, despite them rubbing some readers very much the wrong way (I did diligent research on this – I surfed the Web for maybe an hour or two). First is an opening chapter set somewhere in an idealized England of maybe 200-300 years ago, a chapter that seems at first to have little to do with the rest of the book. In it, Hodgson tells the tragic love story of our unnamed narrator and Mirdath the Beautiful. That chapter ends with the death of Mine Own, Mirdath, after but a few years of marriage.
It is often advised to skip this chapter – but don’t. In it, Hodgson establishes the personalities of the protagonists, and the epic nature of their love, and of the narrator’s sorrow.
Then there’s the stilted, contrived language, some sort of weird post Shakespearean pidgen, in which word forms are used that I doubt even existed in English. Further, very little dialogue is permitted, and constant addresses to the reader are made, and constant apologies for failure to properly describe something, or appeals to sympathy – the valid complaint is that he overdoes it. However, these devises in and of themselves serve to engage us constantly in the life and struggles of the protagonists while at the same time emphasizing the weirdness of the Night Land.
Finally, much is made of the relationship between the hyper-masculine narrator and the hyper-feminine Naani/Mirdath, and the supposed paleolithic nature of their sex roles. I’ll let the master, John C. Wright, correct this misunderstanding. (And do go read that essay – good stuff.)
These stylistic choices are all defensible and, what’s more important, effective. What is less effective, past the point of distraction, to the point of skimming paragraphs, is the level of detail Hodgson applies to the relationship of the Narrator and the Lady Naani. Wright, in the above linked essay, ably and convincingly explains how the needs of the story demand an explication of the archetypal relationship between the protagonists. (Did I just write that? And I’ve never taken a Comp Lit or Jungian Psych class in my life!)
No, the problem isn’t that their relationship is primitive or anti-feminist or whatever – it’s that Hodgson can’t ease up on it once he’s made it clear. Nearly half the book – something like 100,000 words – is devoted to the minutiae of the eating, sleeping and bathing practices of the heroes, or to Naani’s “naughtiness”, or to flirting, or to the narrator’s need to discipline her, or her refusing to follow his lead – on and on and on. Wright makes the case that the particular relationship is required to be established for the sake of the story. Yet I’m reminded of a scene in a Star Trek movie, where Picard shoots a Borg in the holodeck, but just keeps pumping rounds into the corpse as it falls, until Guinan stops him and says” “I think you got ‘im.” Really, was anything beyond what was established within a couple dozen pages of the narrator finding Naani established any further in the next several hundred pages? That couldn’t have been established in about 10 paragraphs? I don’t think so.
On to the story. The tale is told in the 1st person by an 18th (or so) century narrator to his contemporaries. Outside the introductory chapter mentioned above, the action all takes place millions of years in the future, where the sun has died and darkness fallen over the earth. The remaining millions of humans live, and have lived for hundreds of thousands of years, in a massive pyramid built in a great canyon many miles deep. The pyramid – the Last Redoubt – is almost 8 miles tall, and extends many miles deep into the earth. It is powered and protected by the “Earth Current” which seems to be something similar to electricity but with certain spiritual or psychic properties.
Outside the pyramid, all life has either died off or gone wild and evil. There are ‘abhumans’ which seem to have devolved from regular humans into giants and various other forms. (The Narrator devotes a few pages to speculating on the nature of evolution, where in he suggests that whatever it is that makes humans human can’t be really destroyed but might be corrupted, and might tend toward true humanity even in a corrupted form.) There are horse-sized wild hounds and other grim horrors populating the eternal night.
But these at least semi-natural horrors pale next to the evil Forces. It is vaguely suggested in the book that millions of years earlier, perhaps foolish humans trafficking with eldritch forces somehow opened a door through which these evil beings came to earth. However they got here, these Forces now encircle the Last Redoubt, trapping all but the most daring or foolish inside. They wait and watch uncessingly. All of humanity knows that, once the Earth Current fails at some distant future time, all who live will be killed in body and, if not brave, destroyed in soul.
Here Hodgson is brilliant: he describes an array of evil Forces, but in such a way that you understand the emotional effect of each even as the physical description is just a sketch – the reader’s imagination is invited to fill in the blanks. He reminds me here of Dante, who does the same thing throughout the Inferno – you get only a quick sketch of the physical evils of Hell, but are drawn in to the personal tragedies and horrors of the Damned. It’s the emotional environment that’s key.
Chief among the Forces are the five Watching Things – mountain-sized creatures that move so slowly that no man can see them move in his lifetime, that stare at the Pyramid they surround and approach; the Country From Which Comes the Great Laughter, from which terrifying laughter comes at intervals, sometimes punctuating other evil; and, most evil of all, the House of Silence. This house radiates spiritual destruction. It sits on a low hill within sight of the Pyramid. From it no sound ever comes and no man returns.
In the Night Land, a man can be killed by any number of monsters. But physical death can be face by the brave. What cannot be overcome is the spiritual Destruction caused by the evil Forces. Therefore, any man who ventures out into the Night Land is ‘Prepared’, which includes a capsule that causes instant death when bitten. Better to kill yourself than suffer spiritual Destruction by the Forces.
Our narrator, a physical and spiritual specimen of a man, is experiencing some sort of telepathy or vision or anachronistic reincarnation that enables him to recall a life lived in that distant future. He tells of life in the Last Redoubt, and about mysterious messages received from a long forgotten Lesser Redoubt via some combination of technology and telepathy. Ou narrator has a natural gift for receiving these messages beyond any who live. He discovers to his delight and ultimate horror that the sender, a young woman named Naani, is the reincarnation of the Lady Mirdath. The Earth Current used by the Lesser Pyramid is dying.
No one knows exactly where the Lesser Redoubt is, and nothing like a large-scale expedition has been mounted in thousands of millennia. The only way anyone has successfully explored the Night Land is by avoiding the notice of the Forces. So rescue seems out of the question, and the millions in the Great Pyramid are resigned to helplessness. The narrator suspects the Lesser Redoubt to be to the north, but whether it’s a hundred miles or 10,000 miles north he knows not.
500 young men foolishly decide to attempt a rescue, and are either killed or Destroyed, while the millions watch in horror from the pyramid. The messages dwindle and grow dark. Finally, the narrator can stand it no longer, and decides he is going to rescue Naani or die trying. His attempt to find the Lessor Pyramid occupies the first half – the first 100,000 words – of the book. It is full of wonder, danger and horror.
As mentioned above, once the narrator finds Naani and gets her out of immediate danger, the pace slows with interminable interludes during which they seem to forget for long stretches that they are surrounded by monsters that would like to eat them and evil things that would like to Destroy them. Nope, plenty of time for flirting, bathing, arguing over dinner, playing coy and otherwise being stupid. If any woman out there thinks I don’t appreciate all this stuff because I’m a guy, well, read it for yourself and let me know how you like it.
But the last couple chapters are excellent, heroic page-turners. So we end with a bang. All in all, it’s a wonderful book well worth the trouble.
Next up: Awake in the Night Lands by John C. Wright