My series on William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land and its literary children continues.
Essay: The House of Silence, Avalon Brantley, 2017.
I was completely unaware of this novel until I read a piece about it by Douglas A. Anderson at Wormwoodiana.
If I’ve convinced you that Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland and The Night Land are worth reading, go do so and then read this novel. (And, yes, Zagava is the only place you can get it.) I will certainly be spoiling Brantley’s tapestry in my following disentanglements.
It is a beautiful and moving novel full of the emotions of grief and ungrasped love, of erotic menace, and the beauty of Ireland.
Brantley’s work is not only dedicated to William Hope Hodgson but cleverly incorporates elements of his life and is sort of a sequel to not only The Night Land but also The House on the Borderland. Snippets of prose from those novels appear as do their central images and themes.
Brantley presents the story as a journal from her great-great uncle Ashley Acheson. He mysteriously vanished leaving only this account of his last days. It is, perhaps, the chronicle of a mental breakdown.
Though Brantley sets her novel in Ireland in the late 1940s or early 1950s (though a reference to a brand-new Morris Oxford sedan would set a date no earlier than the 1948), she gives Acheson a great deal of the background of Hodgson. Acheson’s father is also an Anglican minister in a Catholic Ireland though he seems to not have been moved around as much as Hodgson’s father was. Acheson, like Hodgson, ran away at age 13 to join the Merchant Navy and found it an unpleasant place where he was bullied and developed his physique though not in the scientific way Hodgson did. Acheson left the Mercantile Navy to unsuccessfully pursue a literary career as a poet. Hodgson also wrote poetry.
Acheson is called home to his father’s funeral. He has not seen his family since he left, at least 13 years ago given the age of a nephew, probably more like 20.
The emotional and plot center of the book is Acheson’s unrequited love for Amanda Pannington, a fellow schoolmate he adored from afar and even wrote poetry about. This private affection is made public when a poetry assignment is handed out and one of Acheson’s love poems to Amanda is read to the class. Acheson gets beaten up by Amanda’s older brother Patrick for the temerity of his interest in Amanda. She is, after all, Catholic and not Anglican.
Shortly, after the incident, Acheson left home, but he still thinks about Amanda, the one true – and seemingly sole — romantic love of his life.
Acheson is reunited with more than his loving siblings. He meets Loren, a former schoolmate in the area to pursue archaeological interests, and Shannon Pannington. Acheson’s spurned Shannon’s sexual advances once, before he left home, and she is now married to Patrick Pannington,
The one person Acheson hopes to see, or at least hear about, is not there: Amanda. He learns, to his sorrow, she vanished shortly after he left Ireland for the sea. She has not been heard from since. But he does seemingly see a reflection of the girl he knew in the water-filled grave dug for his father. It is the beginning of the haunting presence of Amanda and Acheson’s ache for her and what could have been that fills the novel. Love, as in The Night Land, is the great theme here.
In the rest of the novel Brantley melds Irish myth, Irish history, the history of the Celtic Church, what seems to be a made-up Gnostic legend about the Gaberdine Swine, Catholic notions of Paradise and Purgatory, the story of Dante and Beatrice, and many elements of Hodgson’s two novels.
Much of the novel takes place in the house of the O’Briens, the father of Shannon. It exists not only on political borders – O’Brien, the lord of the family, says he’s not even sure which of three counties it’s in – but on the borders between worlds.
It is, in fact, the house that Acheson’s sees being built or, perhaps just uncovered, by pig-like men arising from a pit in the opening section of his journal, a dream and memory of a night Acheson spent searching for his lost dog Psalter in the Irish wilds. That, of course, immediately brings to mind The House on the Borderland. But, also on that night, he sees giant hounds roaming the country, and wild wolves have long been gone in Ireland. These are, of course, Brantley’s versions of the Night Hounds from The Night Land. Right from the beginning, Brantley uses both novels for inspiration and splices Hodgson to Celtic myth and Christianity. Anderson thought that a weakness in the novel, but I don’t. It adds to its splendor and the multivalences of its plot.
Those swine-creatures from the pit may be cast out demons. Loren relates a tale about how one of the Gaberdine swine survived and was sold by a Palestinian local to a merchant who took it to an island in the west. Loren also relates the uneasy legends surrounding a Irish monk and a local and mysteriously deviant monastery which may have existed on the grounds as evidenced by the ancient tower attached to the O’Brien house.
Brantley actually uses texts verbatim from the two Hodgson novels at times as well as presenting lots of Acheson’s poetry – he finds himself unexpectedly inspired to write lots during the events of the novel. The novel is full of Acheson’s visions, in dream, when awake, and when drunk. As the bizarreness of things mounts up, he begins to wonder how much is real. Why do the servants of the O’Briens remind him so much, at times, of bears, hogs, and bulls? Did he really see someone sacrificed at a local festival? Are Shannon’s children just blithely selfish or malevolent in their actions towards him and Loren?
But of one thing he is sure. The house somehow connects him with Amanda’s spirit even though she warns him away.
In the house, Acheson has a vision similar to the account of the sped up cosmos the narrator relates in The House on the Borderland. We even hear a reference to the dog Pepper, from that novel, and what seems to be the voice of the almost totally unseen sister of Hodgson’s story.
Most important is how Brantley treats the great theme of love from Hodgson’s The Night Land. In a sense, the novel is about the quest to be re-unified with a great love like X wants to rescue Naani. Acheson even mistook one of his pet names for Amanda, derived from Celtic myth, as being pronounced like Naani.
But Acheson does not rescue Amanda in this tale.
The title of Brantley’s novel, of course, refers to the House of Silence from Hodgson’s The Night Land, and Brantley links that sinister house to a group of monks practicing degenerate rites and killing travelers centuries in the past on the site of the O’Brien house. It is also a House of Silence because Amanda’s spirit cannot leave though Acheson eventually learns of Amanda’s murder there. Brantley compares Amanda’s imprisonment to Beatrice in Purgatory, and O’Brien mockingly implies the house is a form of purgatory. Acheson’s father, in his dying words relayed to Acheson, warns him that the House of Silence is not the only house that can resurrect. The Christian heaven is a place of many mansions where the dead can be found.
Acheson also sees, while in the O’Brien house, Amanda in the Sea of Sleep which directly ties, as does his later vision of a sped-up universe, into The House of the Borderland.
The novel ends with a vision taken not verbatim from The Night Land but still a clear allusion. It is the voice of X heading toward the Lesser Redoubt to retrieve his “Treasure” and bring her back to the Last Redoubt of the Night Land. The ancient shield Acheson wields in the concluding chapter to defeat O’Brien and his daughter and what seem to be their incestuous children becomes X’s Discos. There is an implication in the conclusion that Amanda and Acheson are the latest reincarnation of a pair of lovers, their story to be found in Irish myth too.
It is implied, of course, that Acheson will be reunited with Amanda as X and Naani are reunited. But, of course, in The Night Land souls do not return from the House of Silence. Still, hope is implied by Brantley.
My one minor criticism of the novel – which I don’t think I fully appreciate despite one complete reading and one skimming – is the penultimate chapter sort of breaks the mood of enchantment Brantley has spun with its revelations by O’Brien. Generally, in weird fiction, I like more explanations than not but sometimes things can be too explicit, and I think there is a tinge too much explanation in that chapter.
As I’ve mentioned previously, there is a thematic relationship between those two novels of Hodgson’s, but I did not expect to see such a brilliant way to merge their stories and images.
I’ve read too many old reviews of books that were declared masterpieces only to be now forgotten to confidently declare this book will be thought a masterpiece in years to come. But for me, now, this book certainly seems a masterpiece.
Next up is the start of a detour into more Greg Bear with, I hope, a payoff at the end.