William Hope Hodgson doesn’t always fare well when it comes to histories of weird literature. He’s either forgotten about completely or only gets a brief mention if at all. That’s why it’s so rewarding to see noted critic S. T. Joshi give WHH plenty of attention in his new, two volume history of weird literature; UNUTTERABLE HORROR.
This new history is nothing short of amazing. Spanning the entirety of weird literature from Gilgamesh to modern day, Joshi provides an awe-inspiring overview of the field. The amount of work that this book represents is truly mind-boggling. Not just the sheer number of texts which Joshi had to read in order to be so comprehensive but the ability to analyze and evaluate all of this information is a herculean task.
And, in volume two, Joshi turns his critical eye towards Hodgson.
The eleventh chapter, titled “Novelists, Satirists, and Poets”, begins with a section devoted entirely to Hodgson: “William Hope Hodgson: Things in the Weeds”. In seven pages, Joshi succinctly recaps the major points of Hodgson’s writings. “One of the most distinctive voices in early-twentieth-century supernatural fiction was the British writer William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918), whose promising career was cut short on a battlefield in Belgium toward the end of the Great War.” (UT, p 445)
Joshi’s attitude towards Hodgson’s short stories is a bit harsh: “Hodgson appears to have had a relatively small body of distinctive short story ideas, and he often wrote several tales on the same basic premise with only slight variations in tone, setting, and execution.” (UT, p 445) However, he devotes much space to Hodgson’s Sargasso Sea stories and “The Voice in the Night”. It is regarding the latter story that Joshi has an interesting theory to expound claiming that it possesses “an element of religious criticism that is rare in Hodgson’s work”. (UT, p 448) The unintentional parallel to Lovecraft’s later story, “The Colour Out of Space”, is also noted.
Later, Joshi discusses Hodgson’s use of the sea as a setting:
“That the great proportion of Hodgson’s tales, of whatever type, take place in a maritime setting suggests that Hodgson, himself a former seaman, saw in such a setting a convenient means for effecting that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ so critical to the success of a supernatural tale. Because the sea–especially in its more remote stretches, as in the immensities of the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean–is a relatively unknown quantity to most readers, and because of the known existence of unusual creatures lurking in the depths of the ocean, a sea setting can be the locus of horrors that, on land, might appear too incredible for belief. This technique is no different in kind from other weird writers’ use of remote locales, and Hodgson incorporates within his zone of mystery not only the inaccessible reaches of the sea but those hapless islands of humanity–ships–that dare to venture upon it.” (UT, p 446)
Of Hodgson’s novels, Joshi retains the most praise for The House on the Borderland calling it “Hodgson’s most substantial work” but claiming that is is also “marred by defects”. The crux of his argument being that the ‘super dimensional’ visions of the narrator as veering off from the main narrative and critizing Hodgson’s use of the manuscript structure as fragmentary and detracting from the novel as a whole. “Overall, The House on the Borderland succeeds as a series of horrific interludes but not as a unified novel.” (UT, 451)
Despite his admiration for The Night Land (“…this novel is Hodgson’s most sustained venture into pure imagination”), Joshi concludes that it is not within the scope of this study as it is “fantasy or perhaps even…proto-science fiction” but is “well worth the herculean effort of reading it.”
Summing up, Joshi declares that The Night Land, “as with Hodgson’s [work] as a whole, represents a substantial contribution to the literature of the weird, and no devotee can afford to overlook it.” (UT, 451)
On a personal level, I know that S. T. Joshi has a great fondness and respect for Hodgson’s work which, dispite some criticisms, comes through in this short essay. Hopefully, Joshi will write more about Hodgson in the future.
UNUTTERABLE HORROR: A HISTORY OF SUPERNATURAL FICTION is now available in a 2 volume, hardcover edition from PS Publishing. It can be ordered here.
PS Publishing is located in the UK so shipping can be expensive. Although Joshi mentions in his latest blog entry that copies will be available for US readers either through Mark Zeising or Subterrean Press, neither website currently lists it as available.
These two volumes are must reading for any fan or weird fiction with even a limited interest in the history of the field. Despite the higher price, it is worth every penny.
Joshi, S. T. UNUTTERABLE HORROR: A HISTORY OF SUPERNATURAL FICTION. PS Publishing: Hornsea, England. 2012. (Denoted in text as “UT”)