This essay, the seventh to appear in the June, 1944, issue of THE READER AND COLLECTOR is an insightful (although brief) examination of Hodgson’s supernatural novels by a celebrated author: Fritz Leiber, Jr.
Along with Robert E. Howard, Leiber is considered to be one of the founding fathers of ‘sword & sorcery’ fantasy. Like many writers of the period, Leiber also wrote extensively in other genres and won the Hugo Award for his novel, THE WANDERER, in 1964. He also earned several more Hugos and other awards for his short stories. A contemporary and correspondent of H. P. Lovecraft, Leiber also wrote several early scholarly articles on Lovecraft.
For those wishing to learn more about Fritz Leiber, Jr., check out these websites:
As before, the introductory paragraph to the essay was written by H. C. Koenig. I have retained the formatting used by Koenig.–Sam Gafford
William Hope Hodgson: Writer of Supernatural Horror
By Fritz Leiber, Jr.
Creator of those loveable rogues Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser whose adventures with wizards and sorcerers in the lands of black magic and necromancy make a welcome addition to the bibliography of the weird tale. Contributor to numerous magazines devoted to fantasy. A recent motion picture, Weird Woman, was adapted from one of his stories.
William Hope Hodgson achieved his greatest success in a literary form which most masters of supernatural horror have avoided because of its exceptional difficulty—the weird story of book length. He did this without recourse to the stereotyped plot-elements of the Gothic novel (except for the love story which mars rather than embellishes “The Night Land”) or to the adventure or detective settings that modern authors have used to provide sufficient action to space out an eerie concept over some 75,000 words.
Undoubtedly the chief reason for his success in this field is the extreme, even naïve, seriousness with which he went to work. He never succumbed to, perhaps never felt, the temptation to add facetious or whimsical touches in order to assure adult readers that he “did not really believe this stuff”. Nor did he, for similar reasons, provide alternate scientific explanations or sophisticated psychological analyses of the spectral events he narrated. His novels are presented in the guise of actual documents, “found by so-and-so” or “as told by so-and-so”, and are written, at a white heat of inspiration, in the directest possible way. Note, for example, the abrupt opening of “The Boats of the Glen Carrig”—“Now we had been five days in the boats, and in all this time made no discovery of land.”—or of “The Ghost Pirates”—“He began without any circumlocution. ‘I joined the Mortzestus in ‘Frisco.’” This outstanding ability of Hodgson, to plunge into a dream world and stay there for a book-length sojourne, fits with his seriousness and lends to his tales a straightforward, desperate convincingness. He is never apologetic, never inclined to provide cushioning explanations, no matter how bizarre the concepts he introduces. (Such as those magnificent black landscapes looming with mountain-beast-idols—the “Watchers” of “The Night Land” and “The House on the Borderland”. It would be interesting to know the imaginative antecedents of those landscapes—perhaps an early interest in Egyptian and Babylonian, or Mayan, or Indian, architecture.)
Hodgson shows as much freedom from traditional patterns and editorial demands in his choice of subject-matter as in his plot-structure. He wrote before science-fiction had become a separate and widely-explored field, and, for example, did not hesitate to introduce into “The House on the Borderland” that chilling vision of Earth’s future, made possible by time-acceleration, which anticipates the impressive vistas of Olaf Stapledon. To achieve the effects he desired, he combined supernatural terror, mystical speculation, and science-fiction, in a way peculiarly his own.
These various abilities enabled Hodgson to write such a novel as “The Ghost Pirates”, which to my mind fulfills at book length all the canons of the spectral tale laid down by Lovecraft, James, and others. It is painstakingly realistic—consider the earthy, pungent conversations of the sailors—except when touching on the central supernatural phenomenon. That phenomenon is unified and handled with adequate impressiveness. There is no “scientific” explanation to let you down. Nor is the story itself marred by romantic concessions—there is a steady progress toward doom, in which the suspense builds with an almost unparalleled uninterruptedness. (Incidently, Sime’s frontispiece for the book is magnificent and—oh, rare virtue!—magnificently faithful.)