Walking the Night Land: The Trip Begins

Though the new posts have been sparse lately, I have not been idle. This is the beginning of a series on William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land and some of the works it inspired.

All the posts are written, so this isn’t one of those series I started and stopped.

Essay: The Night Land, William Hope Hodgson, 1912.514fE9sRptL

This is a novel perhaps more widely known and admired than read. As Samuel Johnson said about Paradise Lost, “No man ever wished it longer.” There are some other problems modern readers have with it too.

Still, it stands at the beginning of science fiction tradition that includes Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique stories, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series, and Gene Wolfe’s New Sun series.

Despite its problems, it is a stunning work of weird and far future science fiction. Where Wells, in his The Time Machine, set just a part of his novella in the far future, all but the first chapter of this approximately 200,000 word novel is set there.

Millions of years from now, under a dark sun and on an Earth cracked by its contracting crust (both notions from the then current theories of physicist William Thomsen aka Lord Rutherford), the last survivors of humanity huddle in a seven-mile high pyramid, the Last Redoubt.

Around them, the land is full of various monsters, strange places, degenerate humans, and entities from other dimensions. Some are strange, slow moving, almost mountains. Most of these as well as the places are given enigmatic names that serve as their sole description.

And round by the House of Silence, wound the Road Where The Silent Ones Walk. And concerning this Road, which passed out of the Unknown Lands, nigh by the Place of the Ab-humans, where was always the green, luminous mist, nothing was known; save that it was held that, of all the works about the Mighty Pyramid, it was, alone, the one that was bred, long ages past, of healthy human toil and labour. And on this point alone, had a thousand books, and more, been writ; and all contrary, and so to no end, as is ever the way in such matters.

And as it was with the Road Where The Silent Ones Walk, so it was with all those other monstrous things … whole libraries had there been made upon this and upon that; and many a thousand million mouldered into the forgotten dust of the earlier world.

I mind me now that presently I stepped upon the central travelling-roadway which spanned the one thousandth plateau of the Great Redoubt. And this lay six miles and thirty fathoms above the Plain of the Night Land, and was somewhat of a great mile or more across. And so, in a few minutes, I was at the South-Eastern wall, and looking out through The Great Embrasure towards the Three Silver-fire Holes, that shone before the Thing That Nods, away down, far in the South-East. Southward of this, but nearer, there rose the vast bulk of the South-East Watcher — The Watching Thing of the South-East. And to the right and to the left of the squat monster burned the Torches; maybe half-a-mile upon each side; yet sufficient light they threw to show the lumbered-forward head of the never-sleeping Brute.

To the East, as I stood there in the quietness of the Sleeping-Time on the One Thousandth Plateau, I heard a far, dreadful sound, down in the lightless East; and, presently, again — a strange, dreadful laughter, deep as a low thunder among the mountains. And because this sound came odd whiles from the Unknown Lands beyond the Valley of The Hounds, we had named that far and never-seen Place “The Country Whence Comes The Great Laughter.” And though I had heard the sound, many and oft a time, yet did I never hear it without a most strange thrilling of my heart, and a sense of my littleness, and of the utter terror which had beset the last millions of the world.

The plot is simple.

Our unnamed narrator, called “X” by some critics after “The Dream of X”, a much shortened version of this novel, receives, as one of the few telepaths in the Last Redoubt, a message from a woman, Naani, who lives in a smaller outpost of humanity that is under assault. He sets out across the Night Land to successfully rescue her and bring her back.

Hodgson describes the layout of the land, describes (sometimes tediously) almost every day of the journey out and back, and the world of the vast Last Redoubt and its subterranean farms and cemeteries and parks.

The tedium of the book partly comes from Hodgson’s deliberately archaic prose (which Lovecraft found unconvincing) which even I found obscure in a couple of points.

The prose’s cadence deliberately suggests the King James Bible. No doubt Hodgson, the son of a clergyman, heard many readings of the Bible in his life. Remarkably, that cadence is unbroken by dialogue. There is absolutely no dialogue in this entire book.

Modern readers may also have problems with the first chapter.

It is also narrated by X but starts out in contemporary Kent in England. It tells of X’s meeting with Midrath, the love of his life whom he marries and whom dies in childbirth.

There is an element of reincarnation in the story because the narrator is purporting to tell us about his life reincarnated far in the future. This is time travel as a dream vision along the spiritual or astral projection lines writers used before Wells mechanized the journey. The problems of causality are not addressed. X goes into the future and somehow gets an account back to us.

Because of that first chapter, the late Andy Robertson, such an advocate for the novel he created a website in its honor and commissioned two anthologies of fiction set in the novel’s world, suggested that first time readers of the novel just skip the first chapter. He has also suggested a possible interpretation where the whole book can be seen as an extended delusion of X.

Naani is the reincarnation of Midrath.

A significant element of tedium in the novel is the relationship between Naani and X on their way back after her rescue. The core of it is not bad. Naani is described as a proud maiden battling conflicted by her desire to be submissive and to be independent. She provokes and tests X in various ways to test his love and dominance of her. This puts their lives in danger when they are attacked by a group of Ab-Humans. After X almost dies from heroically saving Naani, she stops being “naughty” (a frequent description of her).

The relationship is realistically primal. She admires a man who can defend her. Hodgson, the bodybuilder and one-time professional advocate of physical fitness, constantly emphasizes X’s strength and that he takes regular exercise. However, this all plays out, along with references to tending to Naani’s feet, as too long. There is also a scene where X flogs Nanni to make her mind.

John C. Wright has defended these things on three grounds. First, tending to the care of feet is a matter of practical concern in journey X and Naani take. Second, how else is X supposed to make Naani mind as they travel across a land whose dangers he knows, a land where Naani keeps insisting on wandering off on her own? He can’t bind her or carry her all the time Third, is that Naani may be foolishly willful at times, but she is also brave and competent. She did, after all, survive many days in the Night Land after the Lesser Redoubt fell.

Additional Thoughts with Spoilers

An interesting element to the story (which, along with the almost symbolic names for the various menaces, reminded me of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress) is that the Night Land’s dangers are more spiritual, more deadly to the soul than body. Each man that ventures into the Night Land gets a suicide capsule if threatened by dark spiritual forces. Those menaces, in this pre-Lovecraft tale, are often said to be from other dimensions, eerie in their form and motives.

And there was afterwards writ a proper and careful treatise, and did set out that there did be ruptures of the Aether, the which did constitute doorways, as those more fanciful ones did name them; and through these shatterings, which might be likened unto openings — there being no better word to their naming — there did come into this Particular Condition Of Life, those Monstrous Forces Of Evil, that did dominate the Night, and which many did hold surely to have been given this improper entrance through the foolish and unwise wisdom of those olden men of learning, that did meddle overfar with matters that did reach in the end beyond their understanding.

The House of Silence exerts a mental influence that can lure souls to doom as it does in the early part of the novel when thousands venture outside the Last Redoubt with many going into the always open doors of the always lit House of Silence.

At the climax of the novel, when X makes a dash to the Last Redoubt with Naani dead in his arms, he is saved a by a spiritual force operating in his favor, a circle of light above him.

Another point of interest is that X and Midrath/Naani are dual entities. Naani is less in touch with her past incarnation than X, but she eventually comes to access those memories of her past love for X.

Besides the element of good and evil, this story is what Brian Stableford calls an Orphean fantasy, a rescue from the underworld. There is also a Christian element with Naani coming back to life from the Earth Current that powers the Last Redoubt.

In the next post, we will look at John C. Wright’s ambitious sequels to Hodgson’s novel.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

47 thoughts on “Walking the Night Land: The Trip Begins

  1. jameswharris December 10, 2019 / 9:44 am

    I’ve been following this series about The Night Land and it’s fascinating. I love literary histories like this. Normally, I would never read this kind of story, but last night I started listening to it on Scribd. It’s 18 hours long. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, but I wanted to get the feel of it.

    I usually avoid fantasy, but I find literary histories about Clark Ashton Smith, Lovecraft, and Howard to be interesting. I love how they shared ideas and myths and fake history.

    • marzaat December 10, 2019 / 10:26 am

      Glad you like the series so far.

      I’m not a big audio book guy (though I’ve done more of them in the past year than ever before). I’m curious how well it’s done. You’d need a good reader to deal with Hodgson’s odd style. On the other hand, your attention could lapse in a lot of places, and you could still follow this novel.

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