Sam Moskowitz on WHH

I told you I wasn’t done with William Hope Hodgson, so this one got pushed to the front of the review queue.

Review: “William Hope Hodgson”, Sam Moskowitz, 1973. 

Cover by Stephen Fabian

So did I learn anything new about Hodgson from reading Moskowitz’s 108 page critical biography of Hodgson? (The book is small, the print is large, so it didn’t take that long.)


Do I accept Moskowitz version of events? Mostly. We know, from Jane Frank, that Moskowitz had an archive of Hodgson material, and it appears that he talked to some of Hodgson’s family, two of his brothers.

But there is Moskowitz’s sloppiness. There are at least two occasions when a date has an obviously wrong year —  obvious even if you never heard of Hodgson before reading the essay. (Of course, these could have been the fault of Donald M. Grant, Publisher.)

And I’d like to know all the places where Moskowitz got his material. There’s not a footnote in the whole essay; however, it’s unfair for me to expect one in an introduction to a collection f Hodgson fiction.

Still, the essay has a couple of strengths. First, Moskowitz covers, apart from starting with a brief look at his The Night Land, Hodgson’s life in chronological order. For those who didn’t read Hodgson’s fiction in order of publication, that reinforces our memory of the context each was written and published in. Second, Moskowitz has a lot of knowledge about the magazines published Hodgson’s work appeared in.

So, following Moskowitz’s lead, let me point out what I learned.

He regards The Night Land as Hodgson’s tour de force. The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” may be more technically accomplished, but The Night Land is by far more imaginative, and Hodgson thought it his masterpiece.  C. S. Lewis mentioned The Night Land in his lecture “On Science Fiction” on Nov. 24, 1955. Moskowitz suspects Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, Last Men in London, and Star Maker show Hodgson’s influence. He may be right, especially for the Last Men in London with its projection through time of consciousness, but I’d argue that Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland would be an equal influence on Last and First Men. He also thinks S. Fowler Wright’s The World Below also influenced by it. 

Hodgson’s father was a small man who disagreed with some matters of doctrine in the Church of England. He was evidently a very good speaker, especially extemporaneously, and a kind man.  Supposedly, Hodgson’s mother wanted her son to be a clergyman too. 

As a child, Hodgson was fascinated by stories of the supernatural and mystical and liked to play at being a ghost. The whole family was “off-beat and eccentric, a non-conformist group” whose “dark complexion” also was supposedly a source of suspicion from the locals. (I don’t know what locals Moskowitz is talking about given how often the Hodgsons moved.)

Hodgson was an advanced student of judo. His School of Physical culture occupied about 1,200 square feet.

Hodgson did not smoke or drink and didn’t, even though interested in them, pursue women much. But Moskowitz mentions a broken engagement. Hodgson also seems to have been in love once before marriage. She was a woman of Indian Dutch extraction who lived in London as a member of the household of the Rajah Gwek Baroda. However, the romance wasn’t going anywhere due to the differences in social position and Hodgson’s lack of money. 

Hodgson’s favorite authors were Edgar Allan Poe (the influence of his poetry on Hodgson is obvious), H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Lord Bulwer-Lytton, Rudyard Kipling, and Arthur Conan Doyle. 

Hodgson had a deep voice and sang well though declined to pursue it as an activity and didn’t like his voice.

Yes, he seems to have been a hypochondriac. His father died of throat cancer, so Hodgson frequently gargled. He would wash his hands after opening letters and reading them. When asked by his younger brother Chris for advice as he left for Canada, Hodgson said, “Advice? Well, yes, never sit on a public toilet seat.” 

Hodgson joined the Society of Authors after he had published some articles on physical fitness but before his fiction was published. It was there he met Wells several times. The society usefully provided him tips on being a professional writer: manuscript preparation, copyright protection including the importance of American copyrights, and selling only first serial rights for first publication. Using the last tip, he sold some stories three times and got paid each time. 

Hodgson’s first sale was for $28. (Yes, Moskowitz gives all the money figures in dollars. No, I don’t know if he did his currency conversions correctly.) That may seem like nothing, but Moskowitz reminds us that a working man then only made $6-$10 a week. 

The Grand Magazine, where “A Tropical Horror” would appear, was established by George Newnes who was irked that people credited the success of his The Strand Magazine to its illustrations. In the former magazine, Hodgson shared pages with authors like Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Cleveland Moffett, and Sheridan Le Fanu. “The Tropical Horror” brought Hodgson to the attention of J. Greenhough Smith who edited both magazines.

Smith had a feature in the latter magazine called “Both Sides”, and it was Smith who invited Hodgson to write his article on why the Mercantile Navy was not worth joining.That was in 1905. 

Hodgson’s “The Trade in Sea Apprentices” appeared anonymously in The Nautical Magazine.  His complaints on the food served apprentices at sea was echoed by the editor who said that, in 1902, the Mercantile Marine Committee made similar recommendations. 

Moskowitz thinks that, like his father, Hodgson was a good speaker and presented gripping lectures. 

Moskowitz says Hodgson’s “The Valley of Lost Children” was written to comfort his mother who had three of her nine children die during infancy. 

Evidently Hodgson’s suggestion that writers identify themselves by totems or trademarks because of similar names was actually taken up by the editor of The Strand Magazine and 35 writers, including many who wrote sf and fantasy, had individual totems associated with them in that magazine. Unfortunately, Hodgson’s published his “Regarding Similar Names” and a follow up “A Review of the Totem Question”, in the nonpaying trade magazine The Author.

Moskowitz’s thoughts on when Hodgson wrote his four novels has largely been overturned by Sam Gafford, and I accept Gafford’s conclusions.

Moskowitz is informative on the economics of having a hard cover book published in England. It was done not to get money but boost reputations through reviews. Even famous writers of the day made little on novels, but they boosted their name in the more lucrative magazine market. A standard royalty agreement provided no advance and no royalties until the book broke even, and then profits were split in half between author and publisher. Hodgson made no money on any of his novels despite their universally good reviews. 

As always, Moskowitz is interested in firsts – here by noting a second take on a theme. He regards Philip M. Fisher, Jr’s science fiction novelette as being inspired by Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night”, justly regarded by Moskowitz and many others as one of Hodgson’s classic tales. (No, I have not heard of Fisher before.)

Given Hodgson’s publicity skills, Moskowitz suspects that some of the newspaper articles about his lectures were written by Hodgson.

Of course, he’s going to pass some passing critical judgements, so Moskowitz tells us that The House on the Borderland  is a good horror tale diluted by that long vision of the Sea of Sleep and those two suns at the end of time. I can see his point and even agree with it somewhat. On the other hand, that awesome, mystical vision of the future also attracts readers today, and I think it has helped the book’s reputation survive and adds cosmic awe to the book’s horror. 

Hodgson’s “Date 1965: Modern Warfare” first appeared in the socialist newspaper The New Age

Moskowitz contends that Hodgson

hated and feared the waters with an intensity that was the passion of his life. In his stories, poems and articles, nothing but fearsome, loathsome horror arises from the sea. There is not in his entire output a bright, cheerful, positive story of sea life. He hated the sea, he hated ships because they sailed upon the sea, he hated the sailors on those ships (tempered with pity), and at times he hated God because He created the sea!. 

I think Moskowitz overstates his case. I think Hodgson was fascinated and awed by the sea but hated life on the sea. Granted, there is plenty of menace, weird and otherwise, in his sea stories, but the portrayal of apprentices (the only ones Moskowitz contends Hodgson liked) are not the only seamen portrayed positively or even poignantly. The seamen of “The Shamraken Homeward Bounder”. Captain Gault, Jack Grey, the old boatswain of The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” are sympathetic characters too.

I agree that The Ghost Pirates is a masterpiece of sustained suspense at 45,000 words. 

Moskowitz estimates that, by 1909, Hodgson probably was making no more than $500 a year, and he was a “generous spender” with little savings.

Moskowitz quotes extensively from A. St. John Adock, editor of a The Bookmen and friend of Hodgson after they met in 1909. He commissioned some book reviews from Hodgson for the magazine.  I’d like to read some to gain insight into Hodgson’s aesthetics, but no titles are given. Perhaps I’ll see if they are on the internet.

Moskowitz does quote Hodgson’s review of Rudyard Kipling’s Actions and Reactions in which “With the Night Mail” appeared. Hodgson thought it the best story in the book, a “genuine constructive work that rises to the verge of creation, he must command respect, whether one approves of his matter or not, or the form of expression.” 

Moskowitz doesn’t think much of Hodgson’s Carnacki stories. They are not my favorite either, but I’ll note they still have their fans more than a century later. Moskowitz particularly doesn’t like the stories’ frame which I find one of the most charming elements of the series. He thinks “The Searcher of the End House” the best of the lot. He also thinks it bears the influence of Kipling’s “They”. Moskowitz does note Hodgson’s condensation of his Carnacki tales for Carnacki, The Ghost Finder, and a Poem was well done. 

By 1910, Moskowitz thinks Hodgson “had begun to ‘hack’ it”. It’s the year the romance “The Captain of the Onion Boat” appeared. 

Moskowitz actually thinks highly of “My House Shall Be Called the House of Prayer” from 1911 and sees it as presaging a half century worth of stories about Catholic priests interpreting their religion for the benefit of their parishioners. Moskowitz says the village is based on Ardrahan where Hodgson’s father was stationed for a while. 

Hodgson’s alienated, temporarily, the Harmsworth publication group. It had bought a story called “The Cry of the Albatross” for the October 1907 issue of The London Magazine, but Hodgson had already sold it under the title of “The Mystery of the Derelict” in the July 1907 issue of The Story-Teller. Hodgson offered “Further News of the Homebird” instead.  While accepted, it wasn’t published for four years. 

Hodgson’s “Prentices’ Mutiny” ran in three issues of The Wide World Magazine according to Moskowitz “probably … the first of the men’s true adventure publications” and lavishly illustrated. The editor’s blurb claimed the story was drawn from “actual facts” in Hodgson’s seagoing life. Moskowitz says the story is another example of Hodgson, now 35, reliving the “hurts of his youth” and that it shows his “hatred and contempt for ships and the men who sail them”. 

Evidently, The Night Land didn’t even sell 700 copies since Hodgson said he didn’t make any money on it, and his contract stipulated no royalties for any sales matching that or less.

Moskowitz also rightly think “The Derelict” is quite imaginative. 

By 1913, Hodgson had diversified to write “detective, love, westerns, historical, humor, war” stories. He may have intended “Captain Dang” as the beginning of a novel. 

Moskowitz holds “The Stone Ship” was Hodgson’s last classic story. 

In a June 14, 1914 letter to his brother Frank in America, Hodgson noted he had made no money on his books yet – “genuine admiration: but no cash at all”.  That was in one of Hodgson’s most profitable years — about $1,100 in sales. (Moskowitz gives all his figures in dollars). 

Hodgson’s contract for Men of the Deep Waters stipulated no royalties until 300 copies were sold. He probably made very little on it.

Moskowitz provides little new on Hodgson’s military experience. He did dedicate his Captain Gault collection to his brother-in-law Gilbert K. Farnsworth who was killed in action on May 8, 1917. Moskowitz claims that, after Hodgson re-entered the military, he published “articles and stories” reflecting his war experiences, but he provides no titles and I can’t think of any that fit that description. His few WWI stories that were published during the war are set at sea. The four stories he published early in the war are set in France and not based on personal experience either. 

2 thoughts on “Sam Moskowitz on WHH

  1. deuce August 14, 2020 / 1:26 pm

    Good ol’ Sam! Despite the “sloppiness”, he got out there–while working a prosaic job–and talked to the people who actually KNEW things first-hand. His Merritt bio-biblio, REFLECTIONS IN THE MOON POOL, is an invaluable resource to the hardcore Merritt fan. BTW, Lovecraft didn’t think highly of the Carnackis either.

    • marzaat August 14, 2020 / 3:23 pm

      I don’t mean to be too hard on Sam. As the SFE says, despite his errors, he did valuable work, and, as you say, gathered primary sources.

      He certainly did that with Hodgson. I don’t haven’t read his book on Merritt, but I suspect that with Merritt, a writer I don’t have that deep of an acquaintance with but intend to dive into someday, he helped keep the flame of his reputation at least guttering.

      (Of A. Merritt, Robert Silverberg said that, if A. Merritt can fade into obscurity, it can happen to any writer.)

      I think Moskowitz’s most significant contribution, given that he pioneered the trail and no one has taken it up yet that I know of, is the reseach he did on Robert Milne and the science fiction of old San Francisco. That was a literary resurrection and not just keeping a fading reputation alive.

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