William Hope Hodgson‘s first published novel, The Boats of the Glen Carrig (1907), is a tale of survival after a foundering at sea, replete with carnivorous trees, crab monsters, bipedal slugmen and giant octopi. In his now-classic second novel, The House on the Borderland, which was released the following year, Hodgson, remarkably, upped the ante, and the result is one of the first instances of “cosmic horror” in literature, and a stunning amalgam of science fiction and macabre fantasy. An inspiration for no less a practitioner than H.P. Lovecraft, the book really is a parcel of malign wonders. Once read, it will not be easily forgotten. I myself read the book for the first time some 20-odd years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since; a recent repeat reading has served to remind me of just why.
The House on the Borderland takes the form of a found manuscript that had been written by “an old man” (we never learn his name, although he is one of the spunkiest, toughest, bravest old men imaginable) living in a very mysterious house in a desolate area of western Ireland. A recluse, living only with his elderly sister and his dog, Pepper (an animal who proves to be one of the gutsiest, loyalist pets you’ve ever encountered), he writes of the increasingly outré experiences he has recently undergone in this strange abode. We learn of his bizarre vision of a larger but identical house on some distant planet, watched over by the hideous gods and goddesses of Earth’s past. In the manuscript’s most exciting section, he tells of his battle with the “Swine Things” that besieged his home, and of his subsequent exploration of the great Pit from which they had emerged. In a segment that takes up almost half of his history, the recluse tells of his incredible voyage through time, space and dimensions, a journey that almost makes me wish that I had read this book in college, while under the influence of some psychotropic substance. This mind-expanding section boasts a sequence in which time super-accelerates, and Hodgson’s descriptions here will surely bring to mind (and manage to outdo) the forward-traveling segment of the 1960 film “The Time Machine,” with its rapid-fire sun/moon transitions. Hodgson’s description of the last days of our planet and solar system, with a dead sun hanging ponderously in the sky over a frozen Earth, are almost as effective as H.G. Wells in 1895’s The Time Machine, with that author’s dead, oily sea and (come to think of it) some crab monsters of his own. The recluse’s cosmic journey after Earth’s demise, and his visit to the Green Star and the “celestial orbs” (Hodgson’s conception of heaven and hell?), are as mind-blowing, surely, as the “star gate” sequence in 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and perhaps more meaningful. And any book that manages to rival Wells and top George Pal and Stanley Kubrick in the cosmic spectacle department can’t be all bad, right?
I used the expression “perhaps more meaningful” just now, and that “perhaps” might represent, for many readers, a significant drawback of The House on the Borderland. For although we are shown glimpses of many mystifying wonders in the recluse’s tale, Hodgson does not deign to explain any of them. The origin of the Swine Things, the meaning of the counterpart House on another planet, the cause of the hermit’s cosmic journey, the reason for the destruction of the House and many other conundrums remain mysteries by the book’s end; not just open to interpretation, but practically demanding some sort of explication on the part of the reader. I’m not usually a fan of such open-ended stories, but here, it works somehow, only adding an aura of cosmic inscrutability to an already awe-inspiring affair. Hodgson writes simply in this novel, forgoing the pseudo-archaic 18th century English of “Boats” and the hyper-adjectival, baroque language of 1912’s The Night Land, but still seemingly can’t resist the urge to play with the language a bit. For example, I’ve never read a book with so many unnecessary commas, as in this sentence: “For, a time, I mused, absently.” But again, this affectation works, only increasing the strangeness quotient of the book. Not for nothing was The House on the Borderland chosen for inclusion in Kim Newman and Stephen Jones‘s excellent overview volume Horror: 100 Best Books. Read it today for the awe and the shudders, and then tell me in the year 2030 how well you remember it!