The series on William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land continues.
Essay: Awake in the Night Land, John C. Wright, 2014.
After reading William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, I looked up some reviews and criticisms of the work. I was surprised to learn that a devoted group of writers still pay homage to the novel over a hundred years later and have extended Hodgson’s story.
The most extensive and highly regarded such work is this collection.
In his introduction, “On the Lure of the Night Land”, Wright describes himself, post-college, as a somewhat jaded lover of fantastic fiction who was pointed to this novel by a friend. Wright had been working on a piece called “Nigh-Forgotten Sun” which his friend thought was a takeoff on Hodgson’s novel. Wright, however, had not read the novel yet.
In those days, Hodgson’s novel was only available in two volumes from Ballantine Books. He was immediately captivated by the first volume. It was years, though, before he got to read the second volume. Still, Wright’s sense of wonder was rekindled with the heroic tale of Naani’s rescue, the eerie menaces and features of the Night Land that were full of awe and impenetrable mysteries. He loved Hodgson’s archaic “formal and gravid” language which captured the “dark, heavy, grim and gothic majesty” of the Night Land.
He loved Naani and her “quirks, her cleverness, her playful heedlessness, her unparalled bravery”, her sacrifice and fortitude, “braver than a man and yet still humble and demure”. He became infatuated with her. The love-story C. S. Lewis dismissed as fatuous he thinks “Promethean”. Wright loves Hodgson’s Victorian mores of
self-control, chastity, romance, marriage, family” dismissed by other readers as “psychopathologies of the Dark Ages.
For Wright, the values of the story are the values of stoic Rome and Greece. That’s not a bad observation. Some stoics believed in reincarnation, and their philosophy postulated a world, like the Night Land, “utterly hostile, utterly malevolent, incomprehensible, dark, brooding, malefic, and filled with dread”. A further element of stoicism is the rationality of suicide to save the soul at the price of the body.
The only comfort to be found in Hodgson’s “black and agnostic universe” is love. I’m not sure that’s a stoic value. Epicetus thought maintaining the soul’s integrity more important than even love. Wright starting writing his Night Land sequels in response to a call for stories from the late Andy Robertson, the most fervent modern champion of Hodgson’s novel who maintained a website devoted to it and edited two anthologies of sequels to Hodgson’s novel.
Wright’s tales are stunning and superb not only in their extension of Hodgson’s imagination but his finely controlled language. There is, in at least three of the four, a sense of doom and implacable fate, and all take place after The Night Land. The mountainous monstrosities of the Night Land have crept even closer to the Last Redoubt. New menaces have appeared as well. As Andros, the name Wright gives to the hero Hodgson never named, was able to foresee the future of humanity, so too has news of man’s final extinction come down to the dwellers of the Last Redoubt.
“Awake in the Night” is the first-person tale of a man. The year is 21 Million AD, and, as with all the book’s stories, there is another date by the title: seven million years before man’s extinction. That man is Telemachos. (In keeping with Wright’s contention that Hodgson’s novel is full of classical stoicism most of the characters in the stories have Greek or Roman names). He is a scholar and a dreamer who gains a knowledge of history by dreaming the lives of past humans.
The infrastructure of the Last Redoubt has decayed since Andros’ day. More importantly, though, human society has decayed. There is an intellectual trend, the New Learning, going through the Last Redoubt. Propounded by the South Bay Window scholars, it holds that men did not build the Last Redoubt or come from the Night Lands. They evolved inside the fortress. It’s called a theory of evolution which Telemachos says he’s heard of in ancient writings. But Telemachos says the Old Learning proclaimed the Night Land’s abhumans are descended from True Men altered by the House of Silence.
Knowledge has been lost. So has the respect for heroism. Where once the tale of Andros and Midrath was celebrated in song and statue, now it is seen as ill serving the Last Redoubt with hope.
Telemachos’s friend Perithoös, unlike Telemachos, is a popular athlete and lover of the beautiful dreamer Hellenore. He’s also a rare telepath. Like Andros, he has “Night Hearing”. Telemachos is attracted to Hellenore, but her love is for Perithoös and vice versa.
As with all the collection’s stories and Hodgson’s novel, love is the main theme here. But Wright doesn’t just extoll love. He shows its snares. In keeping with his conservative Catholicism, Wright shows reason must go with love.
And the story opens with just such a snare. Telemachos, years after the main events of the story, hears a voice out of the Night Land. It is Perithoös. He wants inside the Last Redoubt. But he doesn’t know the Master-Word, that proof that his voice isn’t the voice of an evil force trying to lure Telemachos into the Night Land or breach the Last Redoubt.
In a wandering narrative that starts in the middle and alternates between past and present, we learn that Hellenore disobeyed the command that “no woman, ever” should go outside of the Last Redoubt and Perithoös went to rescue her. And Telemachos has violated another law: that no man should venture into the Night Land before being prepared. A man of unsound mind has placed himself in spiritual and physical peril.
We learn that the lovers have been wrong when they said, “Love. Surely that emotion excuses us from all limits, all law.” Something monstrous was born in the Night Land, and Telemachos, unjustly, will venture into it to save his friend
whether he was a true friend . . . Men’s souls are crooked and unsound things, not good materials out of which to build friendships, families, households, cities, civilizations. But good or no, these things must be built, and we must craft them with the materials at hand, and make as strong and stubborn redoubt as we can make, lest the horrors of the Night should triumph over us, not in some distant age to come, but now.
And out of foolishness and tragedy the Last Redoubt will be renewed.
The date of “Cry of the Night-Hound” is Twenty-Two Million AD, one million years after “Awake in the Night” and six million years before man’s extinction. The narrator is a woman who ventures out into the Night Land to retrieve the body of her brother Polynices. She thinks, observing it from the Spy Glasses of the Last Redoubt, there are signs of life still in it. Polynices ventured outside the Last Redoubt before and claimed he was saved by the attentions of two Night-Hounds, Draego and Dracaina. He claims that “Love can even break the power of the Night”.
The two Night-Hounds deliberately helped Polynices, last survivor of an expedition into the Night Land, the first in over a 100 years, and favorably impressed him that they could be so domesticated, and he thinks they can be admitted inside the Last Redoubt and eventually learn that all important sign of true good, the all-important Master-Word.
Polynices says love can even break the power of the Night Land. His father tells him, “We will embrace suicide so willingly, when we die for love.” This is a time in the Last Redoubt when its people are concerned with racial degeneration. Polynices’ father talks about the misuses of love, about the young maid thinking nothing of her grandchildren’s genes when an unworthy suitor calls. A mob following a demagogue is love. Men will love their tasks. Polynice, he says, loves monsters and is becoming a monster. The good we do not naturally love; we instinctively love the bad. Towards the end, the narrator is told that even “love becomes an abomination” if it causes you to act heedlessly. As in Awake in the Night”, the folly of loving the new for its novelty is attacked.
Wright particularly addresses women’s place at this time in the Last Redoubt. The narrator’s request to go into the Night Land is met with “Wives have duties more pressing than to make their children orphans.” Young women need to stop thinking about being “more manly than young men”. When the narrator complains that the law treats women different than men she is told that is a strange complaint for an aristocrat to make for she is already treated better than some.
In this story, Wright also makes clear that the metal and the Earth Current energy of the Last Redoubt are just the outer garb of a “spiritual battle”. Wright adds to the significance of the Diskos, the one bit of futuristic weaponry that Hodgson created in The Night Land, by stating that some of its energies are not “native to this our three-dimensional universe.” The Night Land is described as having the “slow, crawling nightmarish sensation of despair, self-loathing, utter inhumanity”. We also learn of a new heretical theory that the Night Land is just a “projected manifestation of our gathered fears”. Women, who have greater spiritual strength than men, would provide more sustenance for the powers there.
Its 25 Million AD, “three million years before man’s final extinction, fifty thousand years before the Fall of the Last Redoubt” in “Silence of the Night”, another story narrated in the first person.
Our narrator is a retromancer, a researcher into the past using dream visions, and he’s gone further back in time than anyone else. At this point (in a rather Stapledonian naming) the “Seventeenth Man” inhabits the Last Redoubt. One day the narrator meets a man from the Eighteenth and last race of man. In the narrator’s day, machines and genetic engineering have smoothed out emotions and anxiety. Slavery and theft and coercion are gone and childhood sickness too. We learn that our race, Third Men, killed prophets from the future.
Heliogabalus, a man from the future, has come back to reveal that, while the lifespan of the Earth-Current has been calculated precisely, man will not live that long. Heliogabalus is here to destroy that future. We get sort of an inversion of Chesterton’s “parliament of the dead” which Heliogabalus says he consulted. [Update: The actual Chesterton phrase is “democracy of the dead”.] They told him that, if he kills his people, humanity will get an extra 5,000 years of life.
Space-time is decaying as “the Enemy reaches a final condition”. The promise, known to the narrator, that humanity will still exist in “a light beyond this darkness” in a time when lovers are reunited, is not going to be upheld. There will be silence, playing into the motif of the House of Silence), in the future.
We then get a look at that prophesized future.
In 50,000 years the Great Southern Watching thing will extinguish the Electric Circle that protects the Last Redoubt. The forces of darkness will enter it. The survivors in the Last Redoubt will diverge into two species. Multiple spirits will possess each man. The Last Child, the most perfect of beings, will be born, open Doors of Time and allow an escape into the past. The Hounds of Tindalos, Frank Belknap Long’s great addition to H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, will enter “through the angles of Time”.
The last tribe of men will become corrupt and abominable in all kinds of ways, their “children’s minds and bodies thinking it was wise and right”. The greatest servants of Darkness will feast on the lesser ones. The abhumans in the Night Land will be consumed.
In that future, technology exists to “preserve and revive ghosts”, magnetic echoes of human personalities. For 500,000 thousand years after all of humanity has died bodily, the Great Redoubt will hold those echoes. At that point, a voice will come from the House of Silence, the “opposite of the Master-Word”. At that point, those ghosts will wish they had been annihilated.
All this, Heliogabalus tells the narrator, is bound to happen sooner or later. He has been charged by the future to delay the day. The ghosts of people born in those aborted 50,000 years have agreed to sacrifice themselves so others may have clean deaths.
The narrator he must venture into the Night Land to get the soul of his father who was killed by the Silent Ones.
Thus, this is the third story in the collection whose plot centers on the narrator leaving the pyramid on a rescue mission of sorts though here for just a soul.
In this story, Wright begins to work in material from other stories besides just The Night Land. Besides the Hounds of Tindalos, we hear how “Carnacki the Artificer” killed the Hog with the first Diskos.
This is a also another story of stoicism and on the simple malevolence of the Night Land’s evil forces and their cunning lies.
The narrator meets an abhuman who asks him why he hates the people of the Last Redoubt. “Malice needs no justification,” he is told. The abhuman claims that the Last Redoubt could have been smashed long ago.
The narrator finds his father’s entrapped soul. His father maintains the narrator was sent to destroy his soul not save it as the entity from the future possessing Heliogabalus claims. His father tells the narrator that the great truth is that even souls can’t be preserved. “There is no life past the universal night.” The process of reincarnation is made possible by the Earth Current. The “aurenetic” fields surrounding the sun and our galaxy have been disturbed by the enemies of man; therefore, the Earth Current will fail.
Once, men could be reincarnated on other worlds or future Earths and at the Third Redoubt around the South Pole. The soul bottles were, ultimately, a bad idea, and the narrator is urged to make that argument in the Last Redoubt, “There are some things it is better to die than endure.” There is no hope for man to escape entropy.
The narrator argues maybe the Good Powers will save them. His father questions that. In Catholic terms, this is a story of despair.
The last tale, “The Last of All Suns”, is so complex and combines elements from so many writers – H. P. Lovecraft, Olaf Stapledon, G. K. Chesterton, Frank Tipler’s theories of immorality and resurrection at the end of the universe (used in Frederik Pohl’s Eschaton books) and, in the end, William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland — as well as modern cosmological theories, that I’m not sure I understand it completely after only one reading. Yet it also logically builds on the previous stories in the book.
It is “Ten Decillion Vigintillion (The End of Eternity)”, and the story takes us to the final singularity and black hole at the end of the universe. We are not in the Night Land but aboard a spaceship seemingly managed by some of the same evil powers that were in the Night Land (and, possibly, human technology).
The narrator and several other men have been resurrected. They come from different historical and mythological times. There is an Enochian from the biblical pre-Deluge era, an Atlantean, a Neanderthal, our narrator from the early twentieth century, and various representatives of the various stages of earthly and extraterrestrial man.
However, it turns out this is all an elaborate ploy. All those other characters are simply elements of the narrator’s mind and there to fight and manipulate him (in the service of dark powers) to somehow bring the dark powers into the next universe that is aborning, to allow original sin into the world.
The narrator stops this in final scenes involving a conversation with a wife he knows is long dead. This is an example of what really is the main theme of Hodgson’s novel: the power, beauty, and necessity of romantic love. The titular dwelling of The House on the Borderland shows up too. (Andy Robertson, a great admirer of Wright’s Night Land work, thought the characterization of the narrator’s wife flawed.)
The narrator ultimately succeeds in birthing a new universe without the dark powers where he and all those humans who have lived will be reborn.
The story’s final line is Genesis-like, an allusion to light: “It was so bright”. And, of course, with it we have left the dark oppressive evil of Hodgson’s Night Land.
The next post will look at an attempt to make Hodgson’s novel more palatable to modern readers.
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I just discovered this series of posts. Fun, fascinating reading! One question, tho: you mention Chesterton’s “parliament of the dead” but a search for that phrase doesn’t turn up anything related to Chesterton. Where might I find it in his writings?
You couldn’t find it because it doesn’t seem to exist. That’s what I get for relying on my memory.
Chesterton did use the phrase “democracy of the dead”, but that’s not exactly the same thing. I found a reference to that in a 2012 book called Orthodoxy which seems to be, presumably, a collection of Chesterton’s essays.