William Hope Hodgson‘s epic novel The Night Land was chosen for inclusion in James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock‘s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, and yet in this overview volume’s sister collection, Horror: 100 Best Books, Stephen Jones and Kim Newman surprisingly declare the novel to be “unreadable.” No less a critic than H.P. Lovecraft pronounced The Night Land to be “one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written,” and yet still insists that “the last quarter of the book drags woefully.” With critics seemingly split down the middle regarding this novel, I manfully plunged into this book’s 400+-page story, having greatly enjoyed four previous Hodgson titles: The Boats of the Glen Carrig (1907), The House on the Borderland (1908),The Ghost Pirates (1909) and the short-story collection Carnacki The Ghost-Finder (1913). Although The Night Land was initially published in 1912, it may very well have been Hodgson’s first novel, if we can believe Sam Gafford‘s scholarly Internet essay entitled “Writing Backwards: The Novels of William Hope Hodgson.” Be it the author’s first novel or last, however, the book is extraordinary in many ways, and depicts a milieu not easily forgotten.
Our nameless narrator, who apparently lives in the 18th century, tells us of his visions of the very far distant future. His reincarnated self, he reveals, lives in a time when the Earth’s sun has burnt itself out, and the remnants of humanity reside in a seven-mile-high, 1,320-story pyramid, The Last Redoubt, around 150 miles below the planet’s frozen surface. Our narrator, using a pseudo-archaic form of English that doubles as the language of the far future, goes on to tell of the epic journey he takes through the uncharted bowels of the Earth in search of a woman named Naani, with whom he is in telepathic communication and who also seems to be the reincarnation of our narrator’s 18th century wife.
The travails that our young hero undergoes to find his lost love and bring her safely back to the Redoubt are no less insurmountable than those that Homer’s hero experienced in his classical odyssey. This young man is forced to encounter monstrous beastmen, enormous slugs and spiders, giants, feral hounds, volcanoes and other menaces during his months-long journey, and his plight is only made more worrisome when he ultimately does find Naani and has to turn around and bring her home. But a mere plot summary can in no way convey the atmosphere of eeriness that Hodgson manages to sustain for the entire duration of his book. The Night Land is indeed a world of dark wonders, most of which go unexplained. The angelic powers of good that repeatedly come to our hero’s salvation, the dreadful Watchers, the inhabitants of the House of Silence, the Laugher of the East, the invisible Evil Powers: all these mysterious inhabitants of the underground realm are fleetingly referred to, leaving the reader hoping to learn more. Despite the novel’s length, The Night Land could easily have served as a mere introduction to an epic fantasy series. Sadly, with Hodgson’s death in World War I action in April 1918, that continuing series was never to be, leaving us with this tantalizing glimpse of Earth’s future.
I mentioned that archaic language before, the major stumbling block, seemingly, for most readers, the one responsible for the charge of the book being “unreadable.” Here are some examples of this supposedly “unreadable” language: “And presently, when eighteen hours did have passed since that my sudden awakening to the peril of the Grey Men, I did search about for a place to slumber.” “But I to know how that she did be like to be all gone of her strength thiswise….” “And there to be yet one thing upon which, mayhap, I not to have thought sufficient….” Although this diction is initially off-putting, I found that I quickly adapted to the book’s unusual grammar, syntax and punctuation (Hodgson’s other works, especially Glen Carrig, were a good prep for this), and soon felt that the narrator’s manner of speech is almost charming.
The book is far from unreadable; indeed, I think it is actually quite gripping. The final quarter that Lovecraft complained about is, for me, anything but a drag. Yes, the action does slow down a bit, as Hodgson details the “Taming of the Shrew”-like relationship that develops between our hero and his Naani; but this only sets us up for a final 50 pages or so that are really very thrilling. The relationship referred to, by the way, is quite a sweet one. Has a couple in all of fantasy literature ever been more manifestly in love than this couple here? Have you ever seen two people so enamored of each other that they actually kiss each other’s food? Though some modern feminists might have a problem with our narrator’s pet name for Naani (“Baby Slave”), the two are as perfect a couple as one could hope to find, and the reader’s sympathies are wholly with them during their harrowing journey. Indeed, the more sentimental reader may find him/herself getting quite a bit misty-eyed by the book’s conclusion. In any event, the bottom line is that this novel is some kind of brilliant work, and one that should greatly appeal to all fantasy, sci-fi and horror fans. It is well worth seeking out.