I ended last week’s post on William Hope Hodgson, alluding to his use in his fiction of the terrifying potential inherent in nineteenth-century spiritualist and occultist elaborations of the existence of other worlds. This time I’ll explore this theme a little further.
Victorian spiritualists were generally not believers in the supernatural. The spirit world with which their mediums communicated was held to be as natural as ours, the home of human personalities surviving after death. In part, this responded to the seeming threat posed by scientific materialism to religious doctrines of human souls and heaven, to the extent that spiritualism became a ‘potent weapon against the cold question mark deposited by science in the firmament’ (Oppenheim, 36). If science was to do away with such consolations, it could also be used to reconstruct them, by offering an afterlife that could be understood within the natural laws of the material universe.
Spiritualism’s popularity in Britain from the 1870s contributed to the later emergence of organisations such as the Society for Psychical Research, a group of scientists endeavouring to gather empirical proof of psychical phenomena; and the elite occult movement the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, around the turn of the century. Such movements, according to Alex Owen, reveal attempts to reconcile faith, whatever form that might take, with the modern world, showing that ‘belief… was capable of renegotiating the rationalism and even scientism of the period without sacrificing the ultimate claims to meaning that surely lie at the heart of religious experience’ (11). Through his fiction, William Hope Hodgson engages closely with this project of seeking meaning in modern conceptions of the world, combining strands of spiritualism, occultism, and psychical research to do so.
As we saw in The Ghost Pirates, Hodgson’s stories often hinge on movement across a portal, sometimes represented as a door. Lori Campbell points out that ‘[a] portal is conventionally understood in literary fantasy as a door or gateway between worlds’, but is also ‘the place where one world not only physically borders but also engages another’ (6). Hodgson’s use of doorways to engage one world with another is my focus here, particularly his transformation of this motif to express, like the other worlds of occultism and spiritualism, a conflicting sense of horror and consolation.
Hodgson wrote four novels, two of which, The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Night Land (1912), may be classed as early science fiction. Like The Ghost Pirates, they also deal with the instability of boundaries between our own world and others. The Night Land in particular offers a remarkable nightmareish vision of a future world, set on earth millions of years after solar heat-death. Not only has the sun died, plunging the world into night and driving the remains of humanity down into rifts of the earth’s crust still warmed by the planet’s core, but it is a future in which metaphysical boundaries have been weakened by the meddling of science; the ‘unmeasurable outward powers’ are no longer ‘cushioned’ from humankind (328). Some have passed into the world in material form; others linger mysteriously behind ‘secret and horrid Doorways In The Night’ (398).
In The Night Land’s future vision, the human race lives in a giant metal pyramid (as you do), known as the Great Redoubt, in which they are entirely protected from both physical monsters and hostile spiritual attacks. The anonymous narrator’s quest to rescue his beloved must take him out into the Night Land, to brave its various monsters, ab-humans, and immaterial forces. The Night Land is infamous for its epic length and its challenging archaic style; it is a book that seems to resist the act of reading, but the rewards of following X’s journey across the Night Land include some of the most peculiar and fascinating sequences to be found in weird horror fiction.
I limit my comments here to two of these: the House of Silence and the Doorways In The Night. The House of Silence is, well, exactly that. The Night Land is full of odd and unexplained structures and entities like this; this map might help. My favourite is probably The Headland From Which Strange Things Peer. If the novel’s somewhat functional approach to labelling achieves nothing else, it at least does exactly what it says on the tin 😉
The House of Silence has a particular sinister function in the novel, however; it emanates an evil attraction, at one point drawing in two hundred and fifty young men to their destruction. While security is found within the alien structure of the metal pyramid, the House of Silence, conversely, resembles the domestic haven of a home, complete with doors and windows; through its ‘great, uncased windows’ and vast open doorway shine ‘the cold steadfast light and the inscrutable silence of Evil’. Nevertheless, the youths are lured inside, not merely to their deaths, we are assured, but to the destruction of their souls (366).
The Silence of the House is thus paradoxically communicative. The very soundlessness of the young men’s fate ‘spoke horror to the souls of all’, even as ‘a sudden utter quiet’ fills the Land. Their silencing is not the absence of sound, but the cancellation of communication between souls; they have ‘passed into a Silence of which the heart cannot think’ (366).
The silence of the House’s passive, inscrutable mode of destruction renders the Doorways In The Night even more terrifying. These Doorways are audible; these Doorways have agency. X hears a sound ‘no more than a score feet above my head… yet was also from a great and monstrous distance’ with ‘a different sounding from all noises of the earth’ (397). Close by, yet remote, the alien sound grows more distinct, as though ‘a door were opened slowly above, and did let out that Sound ever more loud…. I could not doubt that a door were opened upwards there’ (400). Usually, X’s sixth sense forewarns him of the approach of immaterial threats, but in this case ‘the spirit had no power to hear that thing’ until the Doorway starts to open (399). Proximity and communication are signalled by the metaphor of the door and the physically audible sound; while at the same time, the Doorway’s capacity to open and close on ‘a Foreign Place’ (397) indicates the alien distance and total separation of whatever seeks to come through.
Andy Robertson adroitly names these formless threatening things ‘pneumavores’, soul-eaters, arguing that they are attracted like sharks to some spiritual component of human consciousness. For X’s language indicates not only a ‘place’ but also an occupant; he concludes that ‘my quiet passing did disturb an Evil Power, so that it did even come to listen, or to make search’ (400). The unidentified entity, lurking on the threshold, listens at the Doorway, and attempts to reach through.
In this sequence, Hodgson transforms the benign communication of the séance, under the control of a professional medium, or the occultist’s magical manipulation of unseen forces, into the near-discovery of unspeakable destructive horrors. Hodgson’s Doorways are not passive fissures, but sites of action; their opening is a process beyond human control. Instead, humans are exposed as existing on the brink of ‘a far lost and foreign Eternity’ and helpless in its grip: confronted by the alien terror beyond the Doorway, even the muscular, heroic X ‘crept, shaking, on my hands and knees… so weak gone was I in that moment of terror’ (400). Taken out of human hands, the other world becomes a source of ultimate terror, of a sort perhaps more familiar to us from Lovecraft’s fiction years later. Yet although at pains to establish the existence of incomprehensible other worldly terrors, Hodgson’s goal in The Night Land is far more optimistic. X, after all, is on his way to rescue his beloved, and they are both reincarnations of much earlier selves. Against the awful backdrop of the invisible evils beyond the Doorways, the eternal love of X and Naani shines out the brighter.
In both his unspeakable evils and eternal souls, Hodgson draws on occultist and spiritualist arguments for the naturalisation of the supernatural. As Robertson points out, the narrative makes no distinction between science and spirituality; the spiritual warnings and messages X receives are also detectable by technology in the Great Redoubt, instruments sensitive to ‘vibrations’ in the ‘aether’. The Night Land acknowledges a vast, indifferent material universe, bound by physical laws like thermodynamics, as well as the potential, as occultists saw it, for multiple astral planes. At the same time, Hodgson adopts psychical researchers’ contemporary scientific theories of mental communication, and spiritualist accounts of the survival of human souls, to seek meaning in individual lives and achievements, to set against the terrors of his gloomy entropic future.
Campbell, Lori. Portals of Power. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010.
Hodgson, William Hope. The House on the Borderland and other novels. London: Gollancz, 2002.
Hurley, Kelly. ‘The Modernist Abominations of William Hope Hodgson.’ Gothic Modernisms. Eds. Andrew Smith and Jeff Wallace. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. 129-49
Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Owen, Alex. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Robertson, Andy. ‘Sharks of the Ether: Immortality, Reincarnation, and Psychic Predation within a Science-Fictional Framework in Hodgson’s Fiction’. 2007. (Last updated 10 July 2007). <http://www.thenightland.co.uk/nightsoul.html> Accessed 22 October 2008.
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