John C. Wright’s Awake in the Night Land consists of 4 stories set in William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land universe. Short and sweet: I am awestruck. I have wept at the end of stories exactly twice in my life – I wept at the end of this book. Beautiful, wonderful stuff.
A few months ago, I read separately the third story in the set, Silence of the Night, and that was enough for me to track down Hodgson’s ponderous masterpiece, in order to better understand the universe in which Wright’s stories take place. I reviewed Night Land here. Briefly, millions of years from now, the sun has died and the earth has been plunged into darkness. Mankind has retreated into two (or more) gigantic fortress cities, surrounded by force fields called ‘air clogs’. The Great Redoubt is a pyramid over seven miles tall and extending miles down into the earth; in it live millions of people, with each floor of the pyramid its own city. There is a Lesser Redoubt somewhere to the north; in Wright’s stories, a third Redoubt far south is mentioned. Mankind has lived thus for millions of years. The Redoubts are powered by the Earth Current, which is like electricity in some respects, but has certain positive spiritual powers as well. The Earth Current is found by mining deep into the earth. Without it, the Redoubts are defenseless.
Outside the Redoubts is the Night Land, inhabited by many horrors, some flesh and blood but also other, far worse terrors. Few venture into the Night Land, and the ancient laws permit only those Prepared to do so. Preparation is both physical and spiritual, and includes the insertion of a Capsule under the skin of the arm, designed to be bitten when an adventurer encounters a Greater Power – no man can resist, and it is believed it is better to die pure than to have one’s soul Destroyed by the Power.
Chief among these Greater Powers is the House of Silence, sitting on a hill within view of the Great Redoubt. No sound ever comes from it; its open doors and windows are eerily lit, and those who fall under its influence walk in and are never seen again. But there are also Watching Things, mountain-sized Sphinx-like forms that watch the Great Redoubt and approach so slowly that no man can see movement in a human lifetime; The Country Whence Comes the Great Laughter, which mocks and torments man; and eldritch mists and flames which can consume and destroy men. These Powers are completely malevolent – they hate Man for no reason, and destroy him without remorse. They are not of this world. A caste of Monstrawacans watch these monsters from the highest spire of the Pyramid.
Men have developed Night Hearing, a sort of telepathy with which they can speak with people near and far. This talent varies in acuity. Wright expands on hints in Hodgson, and has some men with a talent for seeing the past and the future. This is tied in some sense to reincarnation, which occurs only among souls that have not been Destroyed. By it, the people of the Great Redoubt know that they are doomed, and when and how.
All people know the Master Word, which can only be spoken by the truly human. The evil Powers often interfere with the Night Hearing or otherwise attempt to trick humans – the Master Word is a defense against such trickery. Also, among all the horrors, there are sometimes Good Powers, who preserve some adventurer from an evil. These Good Powers are unpredictable, inscrutable and rare.
Those who venture forth are clad in grey armor and armed with a Diskos, a spinning disk on a shaft powered by the Earth Current. Against the flesh and blood enemies – the Night Hounds, the degenerate Abhumans and various reptilian and insect-like evils – it is fell; it is useless against the Greater Powers. Thus the strategy of all who enter the Night Land Prepared is to sneak from place to place, hoping to avoid the Powers and using the Diskos only when absolutely unavoidable.
Hodgson lays out layers of evil and horror, against which very noble humans must contend. First, we have the darkness, broken only by the red glow of volcanic fire pits, occasional lightning, the weird glow of a deadly blue fire and other tokens of the Great Powers. Next, in that darkness, the immediate horror of the Night Hounds, giant slugs, and murderous ape-like Abhumans who can rip a man apart; they are less horrible than the Silent Ones, who can kill a man with a glance, and these again are less horrible than the Greater Powers, who Destroy a man’s soul. All these are less horrible than Despair, a doom that must be fought off in each age, as all people know that, once the Earth Current fails, any human left will be destroyed.
No spoilers ahead. Read on.
Wright’s first 3 stories take place millions of years after Hodgson’s tale, but before the destruction of the Last Redoubt. Awake in the Night is set in A.D. 21 million, seven million years before the fall of the Last Redoubt and after the Earth Current has begun to fade. The narrator is driven to try to rescue his friend Perithoos, who went out years earlier with a troop of men to attempt to rescue the beautiful Hellenore. Against all law and tradition and common sense, she braved the Night Land, leading to the horrible deaths of many men.
The narrator hears Perithoos with his Night Hearing, yet Perithoos does not give the Master Word. But he is still convinced Perithoos is human, and, due to a debt of friendship, is compelled to attempt rescue. The plot thickens as it runs, and explores honesty, bravery, civic duty and love, all in unusual ways, to say the least.
This opening story serves as a good introduction to the Night Land, so that reading the 200,000 word original by Hodgson is not strictly needed to understand it. Also introduced is a recurring theme of all 4 stories – that evil lies, and uses lies to entrap us.
The next story takes place a million years later. In Cry of the Night Hound, Antigone, the daughter of the Castellan, the mayor or tyrant of the Redoubt. She, too, is driven to attempt a rescue, of her brother Polynices. He believed, against all wisdom and experience, that perhaps the Night Hounds could be domesticated, and violated all law by bringing two pups – huge and deadly nonetheless – past the Air Clog and into the Redoubt. It did not go well.
More exploration of love, law, duty and deceit, with the sort of surprise ending that Wright is a master of, where, after the fact, everything makes sense – but not before.
The third story, Silence of the Night, takes place 3 million years later, when the Earth Current has grown quite weak, and most of the levels – the cities – of the Pyramid have been abandoned. Aeneas is born with the gift of seeing both future and past, more so than any man of his age. He is visited by a man from the future, who, using some form of the same gift Aeneas has, possesses the body of a friend in order to speak with Aeneas. This visitor claims that he has come, at the cost of disrupting time and thus preventing his and his entire civilization’s birth, to give Aeneas information that will allow mankind another 5,000 years of health and sanity. Aeneas must go into the Night Land to find the remains of his father, dead many years in The Place Where the Silent Ones Kill.
These are three very good stories, very inventive and well-written, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. However, it is the last story that was the occasion of me being late for work this morning and of getting all sorts of choked up.
I wake up a little before 6 on weekdays. This morning, I felt ill (been fighting something off for days now) so I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. After a few minutes, realized I was not going to sleep, and began thinking of the last 25 or so pages of The Last of All Suns I had yet to read, which I had almost finished the night before (I’m weakening with age, alas!). So, I turned on the light and began. Couldn’t stop until finished, 3 minutes before I was supposed to be at work.
This story is set “Circa AD Ten Decillion Vigintillion (The End of Eternity)” – a long time from now. It begins: “We are lost in endless and titanic halls of windowless metal.” A million men are resurrected from the Archive, and wander those halls, and encounter the beasts and Powers of the Night Lands until only 8 remain. Powell, the narrator, and his 7 companions flee through a hatch and into an amphitheater, the seats looking down upon a glassy floor, and hash out what is going on. Classic Wright “Science and Philosophy Meet” scene, and wonderfully done.
In the third story, Aeneas is told by the time traveler that there is no hope, the future is known and has been known for millions of years: humanity is to be destroyed, annihilated, hunted down and killed in unspeakably horrible ways by the monsters and Powers that have besieged them for countless millennia. Aeneas eventually answers:
“We were promised that there would be a light beyond this darkness, a time when all true lovers would be reunited!”
The time traveler replies that they have sent their thoughts as far as time goes, that there is nothing but silence beyond, and that those who turn their thoughts to it are lost and do not return.
I lied a little about no spoilers – this here is a bit of a spoiler, so stop, go read the stories!
(space – go read the stories)
In the first story, we are presented with the true love of friends; in the second, the true love of brother and sister, in the third, the true love of father and son. In this fourth story, we get, finally, to the true love of man and wife. Using the horrors of the Night Land, and the honor and humanity of the people of the Last Redoubt, Wright explores love – and everything that can go wrong with it, even among those who love truly.
At last, he touches, like Dante in the last cantos of the Paradiso, upon the love of God for Man. Like Dante, Wright knows God’s love is beyond words, so saying less is more – he ends with a single, short sentence. I was blown away, choked up, amazed. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.
One caveat, and this is the same caveat that was mentioned to us students back as freshmen at St. John’s College: Great Books are not children’s books. They are meant for mature minds. This great story could only be written by a man who is in love, and has been for a long time, and who has beloved children. One has to know love that is not infatuation, not primarily a feeling, not something that passes. To understand these stories, especially the last, very deeply on an emotional level, it will take some mature experience of love. Someone who has not loved long and true, or at least tried to truly love someone for a long time, will, I fear, not get the full emotional impact. I’m not talking about perfect love, which is not possible for us here, but rather the love that makes one want to be perfect.
So, go get this book and read it. Read The Night Lands first, if you can, but it’s not absolutely necessary.