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The Night Land (Prohyptikon Essential Classics) Paperback – 3 Apr 2009
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In literary terms he remains a criminally under-appreciated figure. Whereas contemporaries such as H.G. Wells are rightly lauded for their contributions to the genre of fantastic fiction, Hodgeson languishes in the kind of undeserved obscurity that could barely even be described as ‘cult’ status. It’s high time that situation changed.
His two most notable works are probably ‘The House on the Borderland’ and ‘The Night Land’. The former is a deliriously inventive cosmic horror and is generally well appreciated by those who read it; the latter is more divisive. Some consider it to be a visionary masterpiece, others criticise it for being overlong, ill-disciplined and self-indulgent. In truth, there’s probably merit to both viewpoints, yet for all its faults, there are few works in English literature quite like ‘The Night Land’.
The story begins in some indeterminate period of history that could be any time between the middle ages and the latter part of the nineteenth century. The narrator woos and wins the love of his life but, alas, their time together is short and she soon shuffles off this mortal coil, leaving him alone and grief-stricken. In his dreams he is able to travel to the far-flung future where he is reincarnated in the body of a young man and, to his delight, finds his one-true-love has also been reborn as the beautiful and feisty Naani.
Trouble is, the future, as envisioned here, is not a pleasant place. The sun is in its death throes, the world has been plunged into perpetual night and the last remnants of humanity have retreated into gigantic metal pyramids (or redoubts) to escape the numerous predatory horrors that stalk the darkness outside. To venture out into The Night Land is to face almost certain death and yet, undeterred, our hero does just that, determined to be reunited with his soul-mate and bring her to safety regardless of the dangers that await him.
‘The Night Land’ is certainly not the best place to start if you’re new to the works of William Hope Hodgeson. The often bizarre sentence structure and idiosyncratic use of grammar and punctuation require a certain amount of effort on the reader’s part (persevere, though, and you should get used to it). Hodgeson is often guilty of using twenty words when just one will do and his tendency to describe even the most trivial occurrence in eye-wateringly exhaustive detail can become wearing (although the constant descriptions of what the hero eats and how long he sleeps do become weirdly hypnotic after a while). Viewed from a modern perspective, the gender politics are both laughable and a little alarming. This is a book where the narrator decides to instil some ‘sense’ into his errant lover by putting her over his knee and repeatedly thrashing her with a tree branch – yes, really.
Yet, in terms of world building, ‘The Night Land’ is an extraordinary achievement. Hodgeson’s eerily vivid descriptions of the apocalyptic landscape and the creatures that inhabit it seem to draw inspiration from the kind of primal fears of both the natural and the supernatural that probably plagued primitive man as he huddled around his camp fire and still linger deep in the human psyche to this day. Imagine beings so impossibly vast that their slightest movements can only be recorded in aeons; gigantic carnivorous slugs that ooze from the bowels of the earth and spider/scorpion like creatures that tunnel through sand. The hapless survivors of a redoubt whose defences have failed are ruthlessly hunted, tortured and killed by a race of stunted semi-human savages. A strange house filled with hypnotic light lures unwary travellers to a mysterious yet undoubtedly hideous fate. And then there’s ‘The Silent Ones’, a group of tall, hooded figures whose exact purpose is never made clear but are nevertheless creepy as hell. The book is frequently gripping (especially so in its race-against-time, white-knuckle climax), occasionally terrifying and, in its closing pages, oddly, unexpectedly moving.
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility to imagine one day that a film-maker of singular vision could bring this to the big screen in truly spectacular fashion (fingers crossed for Guillermo del Toro). Until then, for anyone bored with the formulaic nature of most modern fantasy fiction ‘The Night Land’ is a must. Be warned, though, because it will haunt your dreams – and nightmares – for years to come.
Forty years later: a recent re-read, with the loss of my teen fanboy mentality and rose tinted spectacles, I realised that this is truly awful. The basic premise is imaginative, as is the bleak and horrific world. However the execution is dire.
The mock medieval prose is turgid and silly, and repeats itself with stock phrases, mundane tasks and events again and again. Characterisation is nil, with the romantic object of the quest being a simpering, swooning cipher. The entire text is virtually unreadable, and I suspect many readers just give up - only iron willpower and a pig headed determination to finish the damn thing kept me going till the end.
So my overall recommendation is to avoid this: focus on WHH's other fiction instead.
My advice...persevere with Hodgson's different way of writing and allow the sheer majesty and grandeur fill your imagination.
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