The critical study of the works of William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) is still in its infancy. Despite the fact that we are swiftly approaching the 100th anniversary of WHH’s death, there is still a great deal of work to be done. Part of the reason for the scarcity of critical WHH study is due to the lack of primary sources. It is difficult to do proper criticism when we have little to no letters or written documents with which to work. In the end, we have only the work WHH left behind which is exactly what many authors would prefer anyway.
Still, some work has been done and it is important to recognize what has come before so we can build on what is yet to come. For the sake of this article, I will focus on those items after WHH’s death that are noteworthy or actual criticism instead of the many entries that exist in encyclopedias. I also must, unfortunately, focus on items written in English due to my inability to read foreign languages.
Shortly after WHH’s death in 1918, his widow arranged for publication of some of his poetry through the publisher Selwyn & Blount. In the first of these two books, The Calling of the Sea (published in 1920), a short essay by WHH’s friend, Arthur St. John Adcock, introduced the volume. This was a brief memoir that covered Hodgson’s life and his poetry. Although not long in critical value, it stands as the first item published after WHH’s death that attempted to study the man and his work.
Another curious item also appeared in 1920. It was an unsigned article in Bookman’s Journal & Print Collector titled, “William Hope Hodgson: Master of the Weird and Terrible”. This brief survey presented an overview of Hodgson’s life and writings. I have heard speculation that this item was written by St. John Adcock but there has been no definitive evidence either way.
It would be another 17 years before another critical article appeared.
In 1937, both H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith would write brief appreciations of WHH. Lovecraft’s essay, “The Weird Work of William Hope Hodgson”, appeared in the February issue of The Phantagraph. Originally slated for part of Lovecraft’s ground-breaking study, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, the series was halted before this portion could appear when the original amateur magazine ceased publication. Although published separately here, Lovecraft kept this essay included in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” where it was eventually published in full in Arkham House’s The Outsider and Others in 1939. This essay covered all four novels and the Carnacki collection which H.C. Koenig had loaned Lovecraft years earlier.
Clark Ashton Smith’s article, “In Appreciation of William Hope Hodgson”, also appeared in The Phantagraph but in the March-April issue. Although brief, Smith praises Hodgson’s imaginative vision and professes a hope that WHH will achieve a wider readership. It is significant that two of the major writers of horror and fantasy of that period both proclaimed Hodgson’s value.
In 1944, a very curious issue of Reader and Collector appeared. This amateur magazine was produced by H.C. Koenig (himself a legendary Hodgson enthusiast) and featured not one but SIX articles about Hodgson! These articles were:
“William Hope Hodgson” by August Derleth
“The Poetry of William Hope Hodgson” by E. A. Edkins
“William Hope Hodgson: Master of the Weird and Fantastic” by H. C. Koenig
“William Hope Hodgson: Writer of Supernatural Horror” by Fritz Leiber, Jr.
“William Hope Hodgson and the Detective Story” by Ellery Queen
“In Appreciation of William Hope Hodgson” by C. A. Smith
These six articles cover virtually all of Hodgson’s work even if their assessments were less than encouraging. Edkins, for example, declares WHH to be “technically unskilled in poetic forms”. Queen’s essay attempts, for the first time, to place WHH’s Carnacki stories importance in the history of detective fiction.
After that explosion, another 20 years would pass before a piece of Hodgson criticism would appear and that was Sid Birchby’s “Sexual Symbolism in W. H. Hodgson” which appeared in the November, 1964, issue of Riverside Quarterly. This unique article expounds on the sexual imagery that Birchby finds in The House on the Borderland and The Night Land. It is possible that this article may have influenced Iain Sinclair’s eccentric introductions to House and Carnacki years later.
In 1966, a printed version of a lecture that C. S. Lewis gave to the Cambridge English Club in 1955 was finally published as “On Science Fiction”. It would contain a brief analysis of The Night Land that praised its vision while criticizing its sentimentality.
As the 1970’s rolled in, Hodgson was finding new popularity in paperback reprints, many of which contained introductions of various merit. One of the best was Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series which was edited by Lin Carter. In reprints of The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” and a two volume edition of The Night Land, Carter attempted to bring a new audience to Hodgson while providing some criticism of the works themselves.
It would be in the 1970’s that critical work on WHH would begin in earnest.
In 1973, both R. Alain Everts and Sam Moskowitz published work that is still ground-breaking today and forms the foundation of much further study. In his amateur magazine, Shadow, Everts published a two part article called, “Some Facts in the Case of William Hope Hodgson”. This important study provided much biographical data that had been unknown up to that point. Everts would republish the article in its entirety in 1974 as Some Facts in the Case of William Hope Hodgson: Master of Phantasy.
The legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales was revived in 1973 for a four issue run with Sam Moskowitz as the editor. During the first three issues, Moskowitz serialized the article “William Hope Hodgson” which would later serve as the introduction to Out of the Storm (Grant, 1975) and presented the longest examination of WHH’s life and writing. Moskowitz’s article provided a wealth of information that had never been disclosed before. Despite some instances of incorrect assumptions and possible typos, it remains one of the most significant and important essays yet written on Hodgson. (Important note—Moskowitz’s introduction was not included in the later Centaur paperback edition of Out of the Storm.)
Peter Tremayne would write “High Priest of Horror: W. Hope Hodgson” for Lanchaster Life in 1977. The same essay would appear as a revised edition in Masters of Terror, Volume 1—William Hope Hodgson (Corgi, 1977) and William Hope Hodgson: A Centenary Tribute (British Fantasy Society, 1977).
Three years later, Lee Weinstein penned “The First Literary Copernicus” in the January, 1980, issue of Nyctalops. This interesting article posits that Hodgson actually predated Lovecraft in the use of cosmicism as the basis for terror, possibly explaining HPL’s own fondness for Hodgson’s work.
By 1982, Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone Magazine” (edited by T.E.D. Klein) had already been running a series that reintroduced classic writers to a new audience. In the April issue, Mike Ashley would contribute “The Essential Writers: William Hope Hodgson”. This article presented an overview of Hodgson’s life and work as well as reprinting WHH’s classic “The Voice in the Night”.
Brian Stableford contributed the essay, “William Hope Hodgson”, to Scientific Romance in Britian 1890-1950 which was published in 1985. This essay presents a substantial discussion of WHH’s work and places Hodgson within the history of English writers.
1987 found the publication of a very unique book, William Hope Hodgson: Voyages and Visions. Self-published by Ian Bell, it brought together a wide selection of writers who covered an even wider selection of WHH topics. The contents included:
“Introduction,” by Ian Bell
“WHH and Blackburn,” by Ian Bell
“WHH in Sandow’s Magazine,” by Richard Dalby
“WHH and Borth,” by Mark Valentine
“Child of All the Sea: The Sea-Horror Fiction,” by Peter Tremayne
“Alone on a Wide Wide Sea: The Ghost Pirates,” by Michael Goss
“Against the Abyss: Carnacki the Ghost-Finder,” by Mark Valentine
“The Composition of The Night Land,” by Brian Stableford
“The Restoration of The Night Land,” by Ian Bell
“A Writer on the Borderland,” by Andy Sawyer
“Tales of Remote Futures,” by Roger Dobson
“WHH: In the Wake of Disaster,” introduced by Mike Ashley
“WNH: Another Hodgson,” introduced by Ian Bell
“Bibliography” by Ian Bell
Due to the range of material covered here, as well as the quality of the authors, Voyages and Visions is a volume anyone seriously considering writing Hodgson criticism should read.
Iain Sinclair contributed an odd piece of criticism with “An Aberrant Afterword: Blowing Dust in the House of Incest” which appeared as an afterword in the 1990 edition of The House on the Borderland published by Grafton. Sinclair’s analysis is eccentric and rests on a unique reading of the novel. His introduction to Grafton’s edition of Carnacki in 1991 (“Vibrations in a Vacuum: Carnacki: An Afterword”) is equally idiosyncratic.
By the time that 1991 rolled around, Sam Moskowitz appeared again with “The Posthumous Acceptance of William Hope Hodgson, 1918-1943” which served as the introduction to The Haunted Pampero (Grant, 1991). This article covered the period from Hodgson’s death up to the death of his widow in 1943. Upon WHH’s death, his wife ran Hodgson’s literary estate and was responsible for keeping much of his memory alive until his work was rediscovered by H. C. Koenig.
1992 saw my own article, “Writing Backwards: The Novels of William Hope Hodgson” appear in Studies in Weird Fiction. In this article, I presented the theory that WHH had actually written his novels in the reverse order of their publication. This meant that WHH wrote The Night Land first and The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” last which represented a drastic change in his style and scope.
Studies in Weird Ficiton would include another WHH article in their Summer, 1993, issue with Steve Behrend’s “Spinning in the Night Land: A Footnote to William Hope Hodgson”. This article relates an image in The Night Land to the watersprouts that Hodgson witnessed during his years at sea.
Not to be outdone by Birchby or Sinclair, Amanda Boulter published “The House on the Borderland: The Sexual Politics of Fear” in Creepers: British Horror and Fantasy in the Twentieth Century. Boulter’s reading of the novel finds sexual overtones in many of the features and incidents.
1995 saw the final edition of Hodgson released by Donald M. Grant, Terrors of the Sea. In it, Moskowitz publishes his last essay on matters Hodgsonian: “William Hope Hodgson’s Sister: Roadblock to Recognition”. This introduction traces the difficulty that August Derleth and H.C. Koenig faced from Hodgson’s own sister in their efforts to publish WHH’s work.
The next 10 years sees little in the way of Hodgson criticism. Although many reprints occur, the introductions are often reiterations of the work that has gone before.
One of the exceptions is the introduction to Adrift on the Haunted Seas: The Best Short Stories of William Hope Hodgson by Douglas Anderson (Cold Spring Press, 2005). Not only does Anderson provide context for the stories included in the anthology but provides an excellent overview of Hodgson’s life and work.
The last significant work of Hodgson criticism occurred in 2005 with the publishing of the Jane Frank edited volume, The Wandering Soul. Frank had bought Sam Moskowitz’s extensive Hodgson file after the noted critic’s death and compiled this book which publishes many unknown or forgotten items of interest. Frank’s introduction provides much new information about Hodgson’s life (including many never before seen photos) as well as the first significant examination of Hodgson’s poetry. This book stands tall in the history of Hodgson criticism.
As we move forward, there is much work yet to be done in the field of Hodgson studies. I look forward to reading many more articles as more and more critics discover the fertile field of Hodgson’s work. My hope is that we will see WHH restored to the status that he and his writing so richly deserve.