And, with this, our walk through Hodgson’s Night Land ends.
Essay: Radon Daughters, Iain Sinclair, 1994.
I hadn’t even heard of this novel much less that it had a connection to William Hope Hodgson until I came across the same blog post by Douglas A. Anderson’s that mentioned Avalon Brantley’s The House of Silence. So I decided to check it out.
I do not recommend that you do so.
Oh, if you want a mystically themed book of urban psychogeography with references to Emmanuel Swedenborg and plenty of obscure prose, I suppose you could check it out. Likewise if you’re hunting down re-uses of Hodgson’s work. Otherwise stay away.
What’s the book about? I’m not completely sure I know. And I’m not the only one.
One of the better reviews I came across was from Ben Watson who looks at Sinclair’s book from a Marxist or leftist perspective:
Radon Daughters is probably the least read of Sinclair’s books. It is long and demanding; it is also a masterpiece. Against the inevitable charge of ‘elitism’ brought against difficult modern art, it needs to be pointed out that Sinclair’s poetic prose is difficult for any reader: it does not rely on a stable set of high-cultural references, but includes slang and all the debris that hurtles towards us from radio, television, advertisement hoardings and cereal cartons. Faced with some bizarre verbal concoction or oblique reference, the reader needs to stop and think – and sometimes, it’s true, the point will evade you.
I’m unconvinced about it being a masterpiece. I do not subscribe to the obviously fallacious view that the more possible meanings of a text the better it is as art. Reductio ad absurdum: a text of nonsense would be the greatest art, and Lewis Carroll’s “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” would be among the greatest works of literature instead of a clever and fun piece of poetry.
The book’s plot involves a burnt-out writer, Sileen (author of exactly one published book and with no plans to write anything else), going on a quest for a purported sequel to William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. He seems to think it offers some mystical potential, that in Hodgson’s novel is a code to an actual place where he can be transformed. But then Sileen is the sort of guy who spends money bribing a hospital attendant to have his brain illegally x-rayed several times. (That’s the source of the title.)
Now the idea of a sequel to Hodgson’s novel is put into his head by one of the few interesting characters in the book, Drage-Bell. He’s a shadowy figure of the security state, a bibliophile who runs a network of informants, of which Sileen is one, and co-ordinates various acts of terrorism to keep the money flowing to his organization. He reminded me a bit of some of the policeman in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. He’s the one who comes across news that an unknown Hodgson manuscript has been found. It’s Drage-Bell’s money that keeps Sileen, barely, off the street. Sileen, if the manuscript is real, hopes to double cross Drage-Bell and use it for his own ends.
The non-exhaustive list of minor characters include a painter (mostly of self-portraits) whose also a terrorist, various mystics and underworld figures, and a Cambridge professor thought by some to be the leader of a shadowy underground occult order.
Unfortunately, because they are tedious and extend the plot in ways that bloat the book, we have three women characters too: Sileen’s girlfriend — a tv weather girl and obsessed with clouds, a guide for foreign tourists in London, and a photographer. The girlfriend gets involved in female boxing rings run by the underworld.
Now Sinclair throws in references to a lot of films and a lot of authors. The latter includes not only famous authors but several living and dead fantasy, science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors.
There’s also a mystical, triangular journey between significant hills and mounds at Cambridge, Whitechapel, and Oxford.
Now, there were some things I liked. Among the nonsensical metaphors, Sinclair does produce some startling lines and images. I also liked the mocking of a literary conclave of writers all looking for grants and the less pointed description of a science fiction convention on a cruise ship near the end of the novel. Also, Sinclair, in the sections of the novel related by one of his minor characters, shows he can definitely write distinctive voices.
So what does the book do with Hodgson’s The Night Land?
Sinclair actually does more with Hodgson the man and his reputation and The House on the Borderland than with The Night Land.
Besides some verbatim quotes from The House on the Borderland, Sinclair gives us some background on Hodgson the man, particularly his photography, and the scholarship around him. In 1994, those would have been known to even fewer people than today when there is a resurgence of scholarship on Hodgson.
Drage-Bell wants to collect Hodgson’s work to destroy it:
‘Arrest them all: the first editions, variants, proofs, revisions, reprints with new introductions. Bag them and seal them – before others are infected by these renegade fantasies; before the Borderland becomes a universal condition. The ruined house, the dog of ash, those ebullient creatures from the pit – Paddies in hair suits. Forget them, before they escape. Barricade the deepwater docks before all trading vessels are invaded by Hodgson’s phantasmagoric weather. Sharpen the horror. Leave no book at liberty.’
Drage-Bell also goes on a rant about Hodgson the “alternative Conrad” unrightly snubbed by the literati who create reputations.
When Sileen meets that Oxford professor, Hinton, whose health hasn’t been the best
since his unfortunate attempt to bring bibliographic order to the great Moorcock’s literary archive,
the man who discovered the sought after manuscript, he proposes an occult theory about Hodgson:
Undark [the Cambridge professor] sees Hodgson’s achievement as prophetic – like that of Ludwig Meidner in Germany. Anticipations of apocalypse. He tapped the shockwaves flowing back from the psychic carnage of the Great War. Wrote, in advance of event, in fear and trembling – describing the instant of his extinction, blown to pieces at the Forward Observation Post in Ploegsteert. Lights out, he became light. The ‘universal water’ that video cameras exploit. Hodgson’s courage would admit, in his biography, no diversion from the trajectory of written fate.
Later in the book, a letter of Hodgson’s from the western front is quoted. It was actually quoted in an obituary to Hodgson on June 3rd, 1918. I’ll quote more than Sinclair does:
What a sense of desolation, the heaved-up mud rimming ten thousand shell craters as far as the sight could reach, north and south and east and west. My God, what a Desolation! And here and there standing like mute, muddled rocks – somehow terrible in their significant grim bashed formlessness – an old concrete blockhouse, with the earth torn up around them in monstrous craters, surged in great waves of earth against the sides of the blockhouses. The sun was pretty low as I came back, and far off across that Desolation, here and there they showed – just formless, squarish, cornerless masses erected by man against the Infernal Storm that seeps for ever, night and day, day and night, across that most atrocious Plain of Destruction. My God! Talk about a lost World – talk about the END of the World; talk about the ’NightLand’ – it is here, not more than two hundred odd miles from where you sit infinitely remote. And the infinite, monstrous, dreadful pathos of the things one sees – the great shell-hole with over thirty crosses sticking in it; some just up out of the water – and the dead below them, submerged.
So Sinclair’s strange notion of The Night Land as being prophetic in its imagery—the dark and barren Night Land and its slowly moving monsters becoming the blasted land and formless masses of the western front – is an idea suggested by Hodgson himself in his years as a soldier when he had put fiction writing behind him, never to return.
That concludes our walk through permutations of William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land.
I won’t be reviewing any of the stories on the Night Land website that have not been collected, and I have not been able to get a copy of Bret Davidson’s Night Land novel Anima.