Wednesday, August 5, 2009

THE NIGHT LAND: A Fantasy by William Hope Hodgson

Millions of years in Earth's future, Night has finally defeated Day, and in the darkness are monsters--physical, psychological, and spiritual--waiting for the day they can destroy The Last Redoubt, the last haven for humanity.

William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) was only 40 when he was killed in an artillery barrage at Ypres during WWI. Yet, he has an extensive bibliography that includes five novels and somewhere between 90 and 100 short stories. Most of his tales occupy the literary domain of the supernatural, of horror, of bizarre events and creatures, and of some that can be either SF or Fantasy or both. I find it difficult to classify The Night Land except to say it combines features of SF, Fantasy, and horror.

I see the novel as comprising three parts, even though the novel consists of seventeen chapters and is not divided beyond that.

Part One: The Beginning
The first part consists of Chapter I. It takes place in a contemporary setting, apparently the late 19th or early 20th century. The Night Land was first published in 1912. Chapter 1 tells the story of two people: the beautiful Lady Mirdath and her nameless lover, who is also the narrator throughout the novel. We learn of their meeting, courtship, marriage, and her early death in childbirth.

Part Two: The Quest for the Fair One
Her death does not end the tale. Chapter II begins some millions of years in the future, when there is only darkness over the land and the remaining humans, many millions of them apparently, have retreated to the Last Redoubt, a huge pyramidal structure that spreads over miles and soars many miles upward, so much so that those wishing to live at the top must become acclimated to the reduced oxygen in the air.

Humans have retreated into this great fortress to protect themselves from the monsters, both physical and immaterial, that now roam the land. The humans have devised a protective shield that is powered in some fashion by energy drawn from the earth itself. The energy source is not limitless, so all know that some time in the future the defensive shield will go down and humanity will then cease to exist.

In Chapter II, the narrator tells us that he has strange dreams in which he becomes a young man who lives in this night land, millions of years in the future. These remains dreams until at one point, he actually moves into his dream and becomes the young man in his dream. As such, he has both sets of memories, of the one who loved Lady Mirdath, and of the young man who has lived all of his life in the Last Redoubt. He doesn't understand this; he simply accepts it.

There are stories of a second Refuge, somewhere out there, but nothing has been heard from them in centuries, until a faint telepathic message is received from them. They are doomed, for their source of energy is almost exhausted and soon the energy shield will go down. The nameless narrator discovers that one of the inhabitants is Naani, a young woman. He immediately recognizes her as Mirdath, and she believes she also knows him, but not how and very vaguely, as if in a fading dream. In their brief conversations, it becomes clear that she has at least partial memories of Mirdath. Their souls had once again been reunited, some millions of years in the future.

He of course can not leave her to this fate, not after having come millions of years into the future, only to be separated by death once again. The following chapters tell of his journey to the second Refuge, the monsters he encounters and mostly avoids through stealth and cunning. In Chapter IX, he reaches the Refuge, only to discover that it is too late. Their shield has failed, and the horrors outside have attacked. The Refuge was no longer a refuge but a death trap. Thus ends what I call Part Two.

Part Three: The Journey Back

The third part begins with Chapter X and the discovery that Naani and some others had escaped from the Refuge. As they are able to communicate with a rudimentary form of telepathy, he is able to find her. Typically, the story would, at this point, progress rapidly to the safety of his home, The Last Redoubt. Another option would be to continue the adventure, only having them encounter other and more horrible monsters than he met on his way here.

Hodgson found a third way: an extensive delving into the ways of a man and a maid in this culture. The road to true love is not always a smooth one, as our narrator and the reader soon learn. There is, of course, much billing and cooing during the first part of the trip. However, this soon changes. In his eyes, she becomes willful and disobedient. It begins when near the end of each travel period, he decides she is getting tired and picks her up to carry her in order to make better time. She objects that she isn't tired, etc. He ignores her, and she becomes angry. She then begins to disobey him in various ways, and on at least one occasion acts almost to cause her death and his as he rescues her.

As the Wyf of Bath would have it, the problem is maistrie--who is to be the Master in the house. The narrator sees no problem here; the man is naturally the master. And, what is more, a real woman wants it that way. For how could she really love a man who is not the master, one whom she can control. He believes the problem is that Naani is not yet fully matured, that she is part girl-child and part woman. The woman part recognizes that he is to be the master, while the other still resists the idea, thus the disobedience and willfulness.

The situation deteriorates until it reaches the point where he feels he must discipline her--first he strikes her hand several times, then hits her shoulders with a branch with its branches and leaves removed (as he tells us, much as a parent would an unruly child), and finally strikes her bare shoulders several times on one occasion, again with the branch.

At this point, she now begins to be "obedient," much as a slave would be to her master, she tells him. This, of course, is not what he wants. This interaction between the two is the most significant part of the return journey, even though they still encounter serious, life-threatening dangers.

In the most serious attack on the journey, he is seriously wounded during an melee with a large number of the humpt men (neanderthals?) and would have been killed if she had not distracted them by jumping into the fray, stabbing one, and then getting them to go after her. She leads them a merry chase through the woods and returns when she sees that he is up and now able to defend himself. They barely make it to an island in the center of the lake they had been circling when they were attacked. She then nurses him back to health.

While nursing him, she takes full advantage of the situation, ordering him about 'for his own good." Being weakened, he can't struggle with her; beside, he likes being mothered at times. The problem of maistrie never arises again, except for some mild teasing.

However, the monsters are still about, and the dangers are many. Near the end he thinks he has lost her again.

It is probably the most unique horror/fantasy/supernatural tale of terror I have ever read. Just as the anonymous narrator has his obstacles to overcome, the reader of The Night Land also has a few obstacles while reading. The first is the archaic language (one commentator called it a pseudo-archaic style). There is a certain amount of repetition of phrases; for example, when he attempts to explain something, he frequently ends by saying this is only his guess and the reader shouldn't take it as fact. On his journey outward, he repeats very frequently how much he longs to be with his fair maid and his own true love, and how he constantly thinks about her.

I suspect some? many? will be disturbed by the narrator's unquestioned beliefs regarding the relationship between a man and a maid. I don't think that will go well in the 21st century, and I'm not that certain it went well in the mid and late 20th century. And, I have my doubts that it ever went well with a significant part of the population at any time.

Overall: an unique work that is worth the time and effort spent reading it. I read it many years ago, and it's always remained with me. It was for this reason that I searched for a copy and reread it after many years. It's an experience.


  1. Thank you for posting your thorough, thoughtful, and nicely written consideration of Hodgson's novel, a book I knew nothing about but must now seek out and savor. If I am lucky, which happens occasionally, my university library will have a copy; if not luck, which also happens occasionally, I will have to rely upon the library's interlibrary loan service.

  2. R. T.

    Thank you for your encouraging words. I found the post on _The Night Land_ to be the hardest one to write so far.

    I wish you good luck on finding the book in the library. Based on my past experience with the book, I decided that I wanted a personal copy so I went online and searched for it.

    A friend had loaned/given? it to me decades ago, saying he had started it, but couldn't get far into it. After I read it and talked to him about it, he decided to try again. I never did find out if he tried again.

  3. R,T.,

    If you don't mind reading it online, or on your computer, you can read it for free here:

    On the left, you can click on the picture of the book to read online. Otherwise, you can pull down the right hand download menu to download the pdf file to your computer. (There are other files to
    download, and you can read it on a Kindle, iPhone, PDA, etc.) I
    just love, and have found alot of forgotten gems