The House on the Borderland – William Hope Hodgson

The House on the BorderlandWilliam Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland is often cited as a major progenitor (if not the major progenitor) of Weird Fiction, and for this reason it’s been on my radar for ages and ages. It’s one of those books whose name just seems to pop-up all over the place, and, now that I’ve read it, I can definitely see where people are coming from re: its literary significance.  Aspects of its plot, style, imagery and characterology are strikingly apparent in works by writers as diverse H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Aickman, Thomas Ligotti, Michael Cisco, Caitlin R. Kiernan, China Miéville… in fact, almost any Weird (or “New Weird”) writer you’d care to mention.

It’s unfortunate, then, that my experience of actually reading The House on the Borderland was sullied by the book’s baffling use of punctuation.  There are commas absolutely everywhere! I’m not sure if this is an editorial peculiarity of my particular edition (“Penguin Red Classic”), or if the text is always set in this ungrammatical way: but my God it’s exasperating. The frustration lies with both unnecessary commas (ones which, while not breaking any rules of punctuation, aren’t really needed), and grammatically misapplied ones, too. For someone who reads as slowly as I do (at about the speed you’d read a book aloud, I guess), and who takes note of grammatical caesura, these commas pose an infuriating distraction. Here’s a typical passage:

I came across the piece of piping, I had torn from the wall, lying among the long grass, underneath the broken window.

Then, I returned to the house, and, having re-bolted the back door, went up, to the tower. Here, I spent the afternoon, reading, and occasionally glancing down into the gardens. I had determined, if the night passed quietly, to go as far as, the Pit, on the morrow. Perhaps I should be able to learn, then, something of what happened.

And another:

No! it must have been the noise of the falling rock and earth, I had heard, of course, the dust would fly, naturally. Still, in spite of my reasoning, I had an uneasy feeling, that this theory did not satisfy my sense of the probable, and yet, was any other, that I could suggest, likely, to be half so plausible? Pepper had been sitting on the grass, while I conducted my examination.

WHY ARE THERE COMMAS IN THESE PLACES? If this was some grammatical idiosyncrasy applied to only one character or one narrator in an attempt to present a kinda stilted, affected and laboured or stammering voice, then I could maybe get behind it (it would be a bad idea, but one I could understand); but it’s obvious that this isn’t what the writer’s trying to do. The comma-abundance is ubiquitous; it pervades the direct speech of every character, the narration, excerpts from diaries and all other types of textual representation. I gave up trying to make sense of this punctuation at about mid-way through the book, and instead attempted to just read through all of the redundant commas. It didn’t really work.

These problems are compounded by the constant use of strange adverbs (“seeingly”, “anguishly” etc.), that often lend an unintentionally comedic tone to what’re meant to be more serious or horrific moments of dramatic action, undermining any sense of tension the book might be attempting to generate. Likewise everything happens “presently”, a word that is so over-used as to become jarring and clunky every time it appears: a problem unfortunately augmented by the fact that it’s now a rarely-used archaism.

Various contradictory and inconsistent descriptions also pepper the narrative (“There, lay a great length of coping stone, identical – save in size and colour – with the piece I had dislodged”). I suppose you could excuse such phrasings as being deliberate stylistic choices used to reinforce some of the book’s subtextual concerns for insanity and the unknowable-ness of the world, but to do so would, I feel, be generous in the extreme.

***

Despite all of these problems, however; despite the sloppy grammar and weird use of surely-made-up adverbs and the frustrating, naive style of the prose, there’s something undeniably… brilliant about The House on the Borderland.  It may be badly written, but it’s exceptionally well conceived.

It begins in what is now the classic mode of weird fiction:  two young intellectuals stumble across a diary/manuscript that contains a deeply disturbing confessional. The writer of said confessional (which takes up about 90% of the book) is your archetypical Weird recluse who tells a harrowing story about his experiences at the hands of unknowable demonic and cosmic forces.  The Recluse [my caps] lives in big a house overlooking a precipice in a recognisably Bronte-esque wilderness that acts as an early visual signifier for the gothic tone of the novel. He dreams about a journey to a strange otherland in which he encounters a mirror image of his own house, along with various religious representations of death.

Upon waking, the Recluse finds his house is being assailed by hordes of naked, pig-headed creatures emerging from the chasm beneath.  What follows is an over-long and over-violent sequence that reads like an extrapolated horror version of a tower defence videogame. In a lot of ways it’s model gothic: demons, wilderness, grotesques, a house on the border of some hell place etc.

The second half of the novel, by comparison, entails a dramatic shift in both tone and narrative action. Time begins to accelerate, the Recluse looking out of his window to discover that night and day are passing so quickly as to have blurred into a perpetual half-light gloaming. As millions of years pass, his surroundings crumble, the sun expands and goes out, and the Recluse, now floating in space, witnesses the end of the world.  The lexical focus in this second half is markedly different from the book’s opening: visceral, bodily descriptions of violence, gore, iron and dirt are replaced like-for-like with much more abstract, large-scale and ephemeral discussions of time, planets and space. There’s also a new emotional undercurrent, too: the Recluse is called to the ‘Sea of Sleep’, on the shores of which he is briefly reunited with the long-dead lover from his youth. It’s a desperately sad sequence that provides the reader’s only glimpse into the narrator’s personal tragedy and reason behind his self-imposed reclusion. The entire sequence is highly reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic weirds, and obviously influenced such short stories as Hypnos and even At the Mountains of Madness.

The mid-point of the novel, then, is the literal moment that horror fiction pulls away from a traditional gothic grotesque, and moves towards the cosmic weird and existential panic that dominated the genre in the early Twentieth Century. It’s popular to describe The House on the Borderland as a convergence of gothic and cosmic horrors, but this is an incorrect post-factum exegetic. The House on the Borderland isn’t a convergence; it’s a cleaving. It lays the foundations for what would become the significant tropes of Weird Fiction: the privileging of the recluse, the unknowable nature of the universe, teratological  fear of deformed bodies, and the horror inherent in the revelation of human smallness.

It may be twee to say this, but it’s nonetheless true: The House on the Borderland, much like the titular dwelling, sits on the boundary between two worlds; it encapsulates the decline in demon-pre-occupied Nineteenth-Century gothic, and the emergence of horror fiction into the era of space science and the cosmic unknown. For this reason alone the book is significant, and worth reading. It’s just a shame it isn’t better written.

Tomcat

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4 responses to “The House on the Borderland – William Hope Hodgson

  1. Identical, save in size and colour, brilliant.

    And speaking of brilliant, you’re right of course that Hodgson is brilliant somehow despite the fact he’s a fairly terrible writer. I reviewed his Carnacki stories at mine, and someone commented that the bad writing somehow made it feel truer, that if someone were struggling to describe something beyond their comprehension such inarticulacy might well be the result.

    It’s an interesting thought. I don’t quite know if it’s true or not. What is true though is that as you say, he’s an important writer and his work is memorable (I still remember the atmosphere of this one, and the disquieting pig-men) and it’s only a shame it’s not better written.

  2. I suppose when your father is an Anglican priest, you gain some love of language and sense of the apocalyptic, but when you are one of a dozen children and run away to sea at 13, you probably aren’t as well-prepared to carry out your literary dreams as you might be.

    His father died while he was still young, too. Poverty never helps…

    It would be interesting to look at the lives of the not-quite-educated writers of this era and after. There are a number of them whose dreams are more powerful than their tools.

    Also a comparison with other sailor-writers like Melville might be interesting. I expect Melville was a more passionate reader, though I believe that came to him in his early 20′s rather than earlier.

    What a romantic figure he cuts–so beautiful physically, and a sailor and soldier.

  3. I shouldn’t be surprised at the high level of head-spinning Intelligence in a post by a co-founder of the “Could They Beat Up China Miéville?” website. Intelligence, with a capital I not only because it starts the sentence is a essential feature of China Miéville readers. Same here, and I remember at his Visions of London talk him saying the same thing as marlyyoumans about visionary writers whose dreams are more powerful than their tools. Specific book by rap-writers with names like “Two Fingers” and “James T. Kirk”, forgotten title and not sure of authors.

    Pioneering in any genre tends to use whatever tools – or commas – come to hand. There’s no-one else in sight, you’re out there alone, and that might be why this is an unwieldy book. Most of us as writers try to smooth out the tarmacadam to encourage people to follow us, but he probably didn’t think anyone was following him. But he was the real pioneer and agree he’s well worth the read.

    • Junglist Terror, Ferdinand! Mad book – I bought it post talk.

      I’ve had Hodgson on my bookshelf for a while. After reading those sample paragraphs, he may well stay on them for a while more.

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