Essay: “Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani”, William Hope Hodgson, 1919.
This is a strange story. Hodgson himself, when he finished it on January 26, 1912, said, “I wonder whether it will prove clear and interesting. Anyway, it is a striking notion.”
This is the closest to an anti-Christian story Hodgson the clergyman’s son ever wrote.
One can find traces of that stance in other Hodgson stories. The heaven the ship’s crew sail towards in “The Shamraken Homeward-Bounder” is not what they expect. God, at least for a while, seems to have left the universe to a hostile deity in “Out of the Storm”. One could, perhaps, see a slight criticism of the trouble religious vows cause the lovers in “The Captain of the Onion Boat”.
The story is sometimes known as “The Baumoff Explosion” which is a very slightly different version – mostly changes in capitalization. (I did my blogger due diligence and ran a compare on the two versions.) The Delphi Complete Works of William Hope Hodgson annoyingly lists that version as non-fiction.
The main part of the story is told by John Stafford who works in British Intelligence though a medical man. He was a one-time friend of the German Baumoff, a chemist who was medically trained (indeed, he has several degrees).
When some people at a club are talking about “The Baumoff Explosion” and linking Baumoff’s name to “war inventions and such horrors”, Stafford indignantly tells them the man he knew was an extremely earnest Christian. He was a member of a group dedicated to proving the divinity of Christ and the miracles of the New Testament. In particular, he was interested in the “Darkness of the Cross” which descends on Golgotha as Christ is dying on the Cross. To prove that that event was a true miracle and not some natural occurrence and to shut up an atheist professor at Baumoff’s college, he has concocted a chemical which, when burned, creates an unusual and persistent darkness even in a room lit by a lamp. Stafford observes the chemical’s effects.
But Baumoff intends to follow that up with an even more startling proof. Baumoff has a theory that the vibration of light can be broken up or interrupted by a disturbance in the Aether caused by “unusual emotional activity”. Usually this is too insignificant to notice. But the “Enormous Personality of Christ” would produce a noticeable example of such an event, hence the Darkness of the Cross.
Baumoff has created a chemical that can be ingested so a regular person can produce a noticeable darkness via their emotional state. He takes the drug, and, to heighten the effect, he performs a sort of simulated crucifixion on himself by piercing his wrists and ankles and hanging in an awkward position. The room gets darker.
This rather freaks Stafford out, and he begs Baumoff to stop, but Baumoff won’t.
Baumoff explains what’s going on throughout all this even though he is in great distress. He sort of meditates to increase the effect.
At one point, he even says “My God! . . . how did Christ bear the nails!” Being a medical man, Stafford can see Baumoff is in a bad way: increased respiration and heartbeat, blood pressure askew. Baumoff persists and, to an entreaty of Stafford’s to stop, just says “Hush! I am carrying the Cross.”
The room gets darker.
Stafford realizes Baumoff has simulated the “Agony of the Cross” and its darkness. And Baumoff still won’t stop.
The room even begins to shake as the ground did at Christ’s death. Baumoff still won’t stop.
He says, “My God!” and then “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani”. Those are Baumoff’s final words, and he dies. (They translate as the famous “My God! My God! Why hast Thou forsaken me?”)
But then Stafford hears a “horrible mocking voice” echoing that last remark. Stafford passes out or hits his head, tripping in the now completely dark room.
Telling the story in his club, Stafford says he will never foolishly suggest Baumoff was “’entered’ by some Christ-apeing Monster of the Void” – though that seems to be what he believes. He has tried to rationalize the experience by remembering insane people can have very changed voices.
So the story is ambiguous. Perhaps Baumoff proved Christ’s divinity. Or, perhaps, he accessed an unearthly realm not of God but monsters. Or, perhaps, both are true and Baumoff was mocked at the end by something demonic.
When he reprinted the story in Out of the Storm: Uncollected Fantasies by William Hope Hodgson (1975), Sam Moskowitz – always concerned with genre firsts – asserts that this is the first genre story where, in the words of Sam Gafford, “the religious aspects of Christ’s death are [accepted] as fact instead of faith”. Writers following this trail blazed by Hodgson include C. S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Michael Moorcock.
Moskowitz thinks this theme explains why the story would not be published in Hodgson’s lifetime and not be reprinted for 54 years.