“Pioneering Essays”

Review: “Pioneering Essays”.

Voices from the Borderland
Cover by Daniele Serra

This is a collection of the earliest essays on William Hope Hodgson, mostly by writers.

H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Weird Work of William Hope Hodgson” says Hodgson is one of the few writers that can capture “the inmost illusive essence of the weird” and puts Hodgson just below Algernon Blackwood in his skill even if his conception of the universe and man’s place in it is “conventionally sentimental”. I’m not sure exactly what Lovecraft meant. Hodgson’s stories don’t appeal to God or any higher power save man. Perhaps he was noting Hodgson’s characters often have love interests whereas Lovecraft’s (with the exception of “The Thing on the Doorstep”) never do. Lovecraft uses variations on the word “siege” in describing every Hodgson novel except The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”. He finds the prose of that novel inaccurate and “pseudo-romantic”. Of The Night Land, Lovecraft says that, despite all its faults, it is one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever conceived. Generally, Lovecraft is not fond of Hodgson’s Carnacki stories but concedes that some have “undeniable power” and show Hodgson’s peculiar genius.

Clark Ashton Smith said that Hodgson’s work had the quality of the “realism of the unreal”. He thinks Hodgson at least the equal of Algernon Blackwood and perhaps exceeded him in The House on the Borderland. Of The Night Land, Smith said “there are few works so sheerly remarkable”. Smith thought those two novels were Hodgson’s masterpieces though he liked the beginning scenes on the island in The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”. He thought The Ghost Pirates was “one of the few successful long stories dealing with the phantasmal”.

The essay by H. C. Koenig is less interesting for what he says about Hodgson and more about where he first came across Hodgson: “The Voice in the Night” reprinted in 1931’s They Walk Again ed. by Colin de la Mare. He talks about hard it was to find reprints of Hodgson’s stories and novels. He mentions Dennis Wheatley and a London bookstore owner as helpful in tracking down copies of Hodgson’s work. Koenig can be said (not by him) to be the one man most responsible for resurrecting Hodgson and publicizing his work after Hodgson died. That process culminated in a reprint of Hodgson’s “The Derelict” in the December 1943 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries.

August Derleth’s short essay seems to be written after that republication of “The Derelict” but before his Arkham House reprinted Hodgson. He laments how hard it is to get Hodgson’s novels.

Fritz Leiber’s essay is short but quite insightful. He says Hodgson excelled at the most difficult form for horror, the novel. He wrote his long novels without conventional plots like a love stories (except in The Night Land and Leiber says it mars the novel) or “adventure or detective settings”. Leiber admires the serious way Hodgson wrote his stories. There are no “facetious or whimsical touches” to show readers he didn’t really take his ideas seriously. Hodgson didn’t bother with “scientific explanations or sophisticated psychological analyses of the spectral events he narrated”. He jumps straight into his stories and relates them with a “desperate convincingness” and “no cushioning explanations”. Leiber thinks The House on the Borderland combined

supernatural terror, mystical speculations, and science fiction, in a way peculiarly his own.

It seems Leiber may have liked The Ghost Pirates the best of all Hodgson’s novels. He says it fulfills, at novel length, all the requirements others, including Lovecraft and M. R. James, laid out for the “spectral tale”.

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