Today I’m reprinting a curious little article that I doubt many have read before. “Sexual Symbolism in W. H. Hodgson”, written by Sid Birchby, appeared in the November, 1964, issue of Riverside Quarterly.
Riverside Quarterly was a science fiction fanzine which actually began in 1953 under the title, Inside. In 1954, it merged with Science Fiction Advertiser to become Inside and Science Fiction Advertiser under which name it won a Hugo Award for Best Fanzine. Eventually, through a few other names, it rested on Riverside Quarterly in 1964 and was edited by Leland Sapiro. It would continue to be published until 1993.
The fanzine was a literate mix of articles, reviews, news and occasional poems and stories. I am unable to find any great detail about Sid Birchby, however, so perhaps one of the readers of this blog could enlighten us?
This is an interesting article as it was the first to really suggest that there may have been unconscious sexual elements to WHH’s fiction. This is an idea that would be taken up by other critics including Iain Sinclair (“An Aberrant Afterword: Blowing Dust in the House of Incest” in Grafton’s 1990 reprint of The House on the Borderland). Certainly Birchby’s points deserve consideration.
(PS–I have absolutely no idea if I have any legal right to post this. Suffice to say that it is posted purely with the intent upon increasing scholarship regarding Hodgson’s works and not for any financial gain. If someone does own the copyright to this article and would prefer I remove this, please contact me.–Sam Gafford)
Sexual Symbolism in W. H. Hodgson
By Sid Birchby
The House on the Borderland was first published in 1908, and shows certain affinities with H. G. Wells’s “Time Machine.” There is a time-travel episode, for instance, in which the hero notes the passage of day and night as “a sort of gigantic ponderous flicker,” a convention familiar to most readers of time-travel stories. “The Sun,” he notes, “made one clean, clear sweep through the sky . . . and the night came and went with a like haste.”
There are pseudo-scientific footnotes in the text, which in a plonking way mirror those found in Wells, e.g., “I can only suppose that the time of the Earth’s yearly journey had ceased to beat its present relative proportion to the period of the Sun’s rotation.” Such footnotes remained an accepted writer’s device in science-fiction until well into the 1930’s.
But behind the façade of straight science-fiction is a story told by Hodgson alone. It’s hero, identified only as “The Reculse,” lives in a lonely house in Western Ireland. This house, for no very clear reasons, is under siege by weird creatures which emerge from a nearby ravine. In mid-plot the Recluse finds himself making an apocalyptic trip into the future. From this he learns that the monsters have always existed underground, and always will until the remote age when the dead Earth falls into the Sun. He returns to the present and to his doom. The story ends as the creatures burst into his study.
The sense of nemesis brooding over the house is competently done, and looks backwards to Poe and forwards to Lovecraft. But where Poe’s necrophily would have coloured the narrative, or Lovecraft’s penchant for the degradation of Man, Hodgson lays on a wash of courtly romance. True to the idiom it is a Hopeless Romance; no more than two sketchy encounters with a Soul-mate while time-traveling, plus a certain amount of breast-beating and cries of “Shall we never meet again?” It could easily be discounted as standard literary practice at Hodgson’s level and in his day, and of no special importance in understanding the work. Yet in the light of certain sexual symbols appearing in the story it is indeed, like the impassive iceberg, the only visible fraction of a submerged giant.
The besieging creatures are pallid swine-like things prowling through the bushes like the transformed lovers of Circe, yet as savage as those other symbols of erotic lust, the Gadarene swine. They are linked with images of carnality, foulness, and female genitalia: their home is “in the bowels of the world” and they pour out through a pit which mysteriously enlarges itself: “The side of the Pit appeared to have collapsed, forming a deep V-shaped cleft. In the angle of the V was a great hole, not unlike an arched doorway.” We learn that through this hole the monsters emerge. Gradually the Pit fills with water and overflows into caverns under the House itself. The final end of the House is to collapse into the Pit.
Physical love is an animal thing, foul and all-engulfing. No good will come of sexual intercourse, only the savage lusts of the swine (whose speech is described as similar to human speech but “glutinous and sticky”). The True Love spurns physical contact:
She came over swiftly and touched me and it was a though Heaven had opened. Yet when I reached out my hands to her, she put me from her with tenderly stern hands, and I was abashed.
The Recluse meets her first as he stands upon the shore of an immense and silent sea, which she tells him is called “The Sea of Sleep.” It is in fact the womb-image, from which she emerges in “a bubble of white foam floating up out of the depths.” Overhead, reiterating the symbolism, was “a stupendous glove of pale fire, that swam a little above the far horizon, and shed a foam-line like light above the quiet waters.
The true love is virginal as a new-born babe, and is glimpsed only in sleep. Or she is as impregnable as a Sleeping Princess.
Only once again does he meet her. It is after the end of the Solar System, and he sees “a boundless river of softly shimmering globes.” He is impelled towards one of them: “Then I slid through into the interior without experiencing the least resistance.” Would that the return to the womb were always so easy! Once inside the glove, he recognizes his surroundings. He is again by the Sea of Sleep, and sure enough his loved one is there. With this wealth of imagery, can we any longer doubt her identity?
The distant future is also the main locale of The Night Land, published in 1912. At last the Sun has gone out and the human race is embattled in the Last Redoubt against various nyctaloptic beasts: “The Thing that Nods,” “The Watcher in the South East,” “The Night Hounds,” and so on. The Redoubt is mostly underground; only a pyramid shows on the surface. Outside all is darkness and terror, but once within we descend to lands of warmth and light, complete with pseudo-sun and pseudo-sky. So might a mother’s breast offer a haven against the dangers of the world, and rouse yearnings for the lost Eden of the womb.
As in The House on the Borderland, the hero tells the story but is not named. It is as if Hodgson identified himself so fully with his heroes that to name them would have broken the spell. The first half of the book sets the scene and tells how the hero makes telepathic contact with Naani, a girl in a far-off Redoubt. They fall in love and he sets out across the Night Land to rescue her from the monsters which are besieging her Redoubt.
Spiritual love, then, is more important than physical attributes. First there must be a meeting of the minds. Having found the true love, the lover must at once rescue her from the temptations of the world.
He arrives at the Lesser Redoubt after an odyssey of superbly-written fantasy, only to find that it has fallen. Naani alone is saved, and the second half of the book describes their return to base. This is, on the surface, a simple Sir Galahad fantasy. He defends the girl against various monsters, he calls her “Mine Own Maid,” and he even wears armour. To ensure that we do not miss the point, the entire story is written in a pseudo-medieval, and quite irritating, style, full of “verily’s” and “Lo’s.” But from the very moment that he meets the girl, curious undertones become apparent. In the words of the old song, he seems to be fighting an impulse to use the traditional methods of protecting her from the foggy, foggy dew.
When they first meet, he has to strip off his cloak to cover her, for her clothes have been torn as she ran from the monsters. Later, while she sleeps, he does a far far better thing by taking off his underclothes and laying them beside her, “for truly she was nigh unclothed.” Egad!
Thenceforth the narrative abounds with instances of what I can only call sublimated stripping. She mends her torn garments, having first put on his underpants. She bathes in a pool, while he discreetly turns his back. She has her clothes ripped off by a savage. Naked fugitives from the sack of the Redoubt flit screaming through the night, hotly pursued by monsters. One of them, a girl, is ripped in half. And so forth.
Moreover, as the journey progressed, the hero develops foot-fetishism. It beings when she kisses him “thrice very passionate and warm upon the mouth.” His reaction: “I made her to stand upon the rock, and I set free her hair over her shoulders, and I took then the boots from her, so that her little feet did show bare and pretty.”
In another love-scene, he “kist her pretty toes,” and in a third he openly admits his obsession: “She now to slip her footgear, that her feet be bare unto me, as I did love.” It seems that Sir Galahad is sublimating madly.
But the fruits of sexual suppression continue to ripen into new perversions. We learn that he is, as the advertisements discreetly say, interested in Discipline and the Whip. Only thus, it appears, can he make her realize that he is “surely her Master, and she mine own Baby-Slave.” So, when food is short and she secretly gives him part of her rations, he whips her for being deceitful, “so hard that she had screamed if that she had been any coward.” Fortunately, she derives an erotic stimulus from it, for “presently I knew that she kist the whipt hand secretly in the dark.”
Perhaps for this reason, he is soon thinking of whipping her again for being fickle. In the middle of a love-scene, she suddenly tires of his advances! Two other whippings do take place, and each, although justified with talk of “impudence” and “rebellion,” is set in the context of a love-scene. The final episode begins with a new perversion—he ties a belt around her waist and leads her along by it. Soon she cuts herself free. He chases and catches her, “loosens her garment . . . and sets the belt thrice across her pretty shoulders.” This incident is followed by a love-scene. It is with some relief that we watch them gain the safety of the Great Redoubt and so call a halt to this Poor Man’s Kama Sutra.
Doubtless none of the above erotic nuances were intended to be displayed either by the characters or by the author. If the Galahad-theme constitutes the surface of the story, the eroticism is not the second, but the third layer, buried deep below the reach of all but our present post-Freudian generation. It is the middle layer of allegory that may have been meant to be excavated.
And now the meaning of the allegory is plain. In The House on the Borderland we are told to reject the bestial lust of physical passion—it is a pit dug under the human race from time immemorial. It will always be there until the world ends. The only love on which we can rely is that which demands nothing from us, and gives all; the unselfish love that only a mother can give. Nobody is more worthy of devotion. In a spiritual sense, of course.
Any fears lest such mother-fixation might arouse latent tendencies to homosexuality are dispelled as we interpret The Night Land’s message. With our mother’s strength to back us, and armoured by her against the evils of the world, we find a young virgin and save her from worldly peril. Although she is willful and disobedient at first, we force her, for her own good, to obey us in everything, because what we do is what our mother has taught us, and is Right. We take her home to mother, with whom we must live when we are married, for there is nowhere else left that is not over-run with evil things.
The last sentence of The Night Land reads; “For that which doth be truly Love doth mother Honour and Faithfulness; and they three to build the House of Joy.”
No need for me to name the key-word.