This  week I’m recommending a short novel that inhabits the shadowy region where Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction meet. `The House on the Borderland’ by  William Hope Hodgson was first published in 1908. Hodgson was a visionary writer who deserves to be better known. After all, this is a man whose stories H.P.Lovecraft found scary. You can download `The House on the Borderland’ for free or there are plenty of paperback editions available. I’d suggest getting ` The House on the Borderland and Other Novels’ in the Orion `Fantasy Masterworks’ series, as this has a provocative introduction to Hodgson’s work by China Miéville. Since no-one reads Hodgson for the beauty of his prose, you could even try the graphic novel version adapted by Simon Revelstoke and illustrated by Richard Corben.

A summary of the story won’t take up too much space because Hodgson rarely went in for complicated, or even coherent, plots. An introduction to `The House on the Borderland’ claims that the author is merely editing a diary found in 1877 in the ruins of an old house in a remote part of Ireland. Most of the book consists of  entries in this diary, kept by an un-named man referred to by the editor as `the recluse’.  This recluse bought the old house, even though the locals claim it was built by the devil, and lived there with his sister, and his dog Pepper for some years before odd things started to happen. He relates how one night he seemed to be snatched from his body and taken as `a fragile flake of soul-dust’ on a long journey to a desolate place where the ancient deities of myth exist in `eternal watchfulness’. At the centre of a vast arena stands a replica of his own house and a huge pig-faced monster lopes around it, trying to find a way in.

Some months after this strange episode, the recluse hears a `half-human, half-pig-like squeal’ coming from the ravine known as the Pit which adjoins his house.  He glimpses hideous white `Swine-Things’ and terrifies his sister by shooting at them. When the Swine-Things attack the house at night, the recluse manages to keep them out. Perilous explorations reveal that the great Pit extends under the house, but he will not leave because of a comforting vision of the woman whose death turned him into a recluse. The next vision he has seems to take him forward in time to the death of our galaxy and shows him a terrifying secret at the centre of the universe. Can the recluse return to his own time and will he escape the evil forces which perpetually threaten the House on the Borderland?

Novels and stories which purport to be based on long-lost manuscripts are common in the genres of Fantasy and Horror, but even during the brief `Introduction to the Manuscript’ Hodgson makes the recluse’s diary seem very real as he describes `the queer, faint pit-water smell of it’ and `the soft “cloggy” feel of the long-damp pages’. As he tells his own story, the recluse doesn’t try to ingratiate himself with his potential readers. He is a bitter man who has selfishly condemned his sister, Mary, to share his solitude and claims that his only friend is his old dog, Pepper. This loyal dog is a major character in the novel. Pepper behaves with courage and good sense throughout, unlike his master. In his role as `editor’ Hodgson describes the diary as a `simple, stiffly given account of weird and extraordinary matters’ but in fact the narrative is far from simple. Right at the beginning, the recluse declares that the locals think him mad. The novel is written ambivalently enough to make madness a strong possibility, especially as Mary doesn’t seem to see the Swine-Things so feared by her brother. Or, and this is a much nastier thought, it could be that the mass of humanity is blind to the horrible truth that the recluse perceives.

The recluse’s narrative consists of two different strands; the first being a relatively standard `peril in a haunted house’ tale, and the second a sequence of spirit-voyages or cosmic visions depending on how you interpret them. The `haunted house’ tale is still one of the best of its kind. I find Hodgson’s pallid and malignant pig creatures far creepier than Lovecraft’s giant luminous penguins (see `To the Mountains of Madness’). At first, the recluse only hears sinister noises in the ominous landscape surrounding the old house. No-one does sinister noises and unbearable silences like Hodgson (one of his Carnacki the Ghost-Finder tales, `The Whistling Room’, may well be the most frightening ghost story ever written). In `The House on the Borderland’ there is the `stealthy pad, pad,pad’ of the monster in the arena, and the Swine-Things’  `half-human grunts’, and `bestial shrieks’ which still  resemble a `glutinous and sticky’ form of human speech. These nightmare creatures can think and plan. The emergence of the Swine-Things from the Pit is horrific but the episode in which they try every possible way of getting into the recluse’s house after nightfall is even more chilling, though we only see them peering in through windows and hear them scratching at doors. It was a big mistake to re-read this novel while I was alone in a dark old house myself. I made very sure that the doors were locked and bolted before I went to bed.

Hodgson was a real-life hero who wrote brilliantly about fear, possibly because he had plenty of opportunities to experience fear during his adventurous life. He intrepidly ran away to sea at the age of 13, won a medal for saving a fellow sailor from drowning, and later taught martial arts. He continued to fight during World War One even after being seriously wounded and  was killed in battle in 1918. The states of terror Hodgson describes so convincingly aren’t just caused by things that go bump in the night. His recluse suffers from a kind of metaphysical horror about the nature of existence. There is a real grandeur in his apocalyptic visions of the road to dusty death. Some critics have complained that the recluse’s passion for his dead beloved is the least original part of the story but Hodgson’s depiction of the afterlife, in which souls float in luminous spheres in the `Sea of Sleep,’ is far from conventional. The ambiguous ending of the novel doesn’t suggest that a happy reunion is in prospect. The recluse’s soul seems to be headed for a darker destination as he feels compelled to let in `the Terror that is on the other side of the door’. Hodgson hints that in turning his back on humanity, the recluse has created his own grim version of reality but, as the introduction says, `The inner story must be uncovered, personally, by each reader, according to ability and desire.’ Be careful what you desire. Until next week….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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