William Hope Hodgson
was an early 20th century imaginative writer whose fictions often show up on old-school gamers' "Appendix N" lists of inspirational material (here
for example). I've been trying to come to grips with Hodgson's appeal and limitations ever since I discovered his works, most of which are in the public domain and available on Project Gutenberg
Two themes in Hodgson's work deserve attention, both using physical contagion to achieve horror. One is found in his sea-stories, the best of which is the oft-cited "The Voice in the Night," and the longest of which is "The Boats of the Glen Carrig." In these and others, the sea and its shores, islands, sargassoes and ships adrift teems with biological menace. Whether fungoid, lignic, or cephalopod, there horrors all have a certain flabby and spongy quality. They promise death or worse by assimilating, by being assimilated, by infecting, by crawling on the flesh in the night and leaving slime and sucker marks. I consider "The Voice in the Night" the best of these tales because of its excellent framing, its focus on a single monstrosity, and most of all, the way in which the physical threat merges with a moral struggle
This element leads us to the next theme - the strange moral cosmos of The House on the Borderland
, The Night Land
, and the Carnacki the Ghost Hunter stories, of which the most revelatory is "The Hog." In this shared universe, humanity is menaced by dark forces of evil which lie outside a protective barrier but sometimes break through. The postscript of "The Hog" explains this in terms of a "defense" around the Earth that is energized by the Sun's rays and weakest at night. In the far future world of the Night Land, set after the sun has gone out, the barrier is rather smaller - a circle of white "Earth Current" that protects the great pyramid of the last known city on earth.
The evil forces are tangibly corrupting, with a very physical sense of contagion. Their most usual visual and auditory signature is porcine, in "The Hog" of course, but also in the house-besieging pig-men of Borderland,
the strange swine-phantom of the later visions, and in certain of the ab-humans in the Night Land. The image of the abyss or pit also stands for this evil, and its colors are sickly greens and yellows. It is difficult to read Tolkien's description of Minas Morgul and Mordor without seeing an echo of Hodgson's infernal visions published thirty years earlier.
What fights against this evil? The most ordinary struggle involves the individual with courage to resist the darkness, physically and mentally. When people find each other in these tales they almost invariably band together, the stronger helping the weaker. Technology sometimes helps, whether the electric apparatus of Carnacki or the far-future devices in The Night Land.
But less often, when it is most needed, there is a mysterious supernatural intervention that almost certainly symbolizes the theological grace of God - as when, at the climax of "The Hog" when the foul entity is about to break through, a green-banded blue barrier manifests itself to dispel the evil.
Interestingly, there is no human moral dimension to this evil. People do not come to it by their deeds, at least not against each other; but they can be infected or possessed by mere contact with it. There is no hint of the strong theme, running through Tolkien, that lust for riches and power is the root of evil, nor even the glimpse of a possibility that evil might tempt people to use expedient but morally corrupt means to fight it. Hodgson's evil is one of contagion, one of disease, one of disgust - man against the Other, having nothing to do with man against man.
This, I believe, explains why Hodgson's vision is only partly compelling in the modern day. In our everyday experience, what stands in for the Other, the ab-human? We cannot really hate nature that way any more, nor can we hate people of other races, cultures, and social strata just for what they are
with a clean conscience. After the hundred horrible years that began with World War I - in which Hodgson lost his life, and Tolkien survived - most of us now understand that the Enemy is not the inhuman, but the all-too-human, our normal lusts to level, exalt, defend or attack magnified into systems of slavery and genocide. Disgust is no longer enough; anger at injustice must fuel our outrage for it to be justifiable.
I also think Hodgson put a wrong foot down in choosing the pig as his symbol of Otherly evil. This became evident this weekend as I performed a dramatic reading of "The Hog" to my wife. I am afraid to say that we couldn't help laughing at passages like this:
A sort of swinish clamouring melody that grunts and roars and shrieks in
chunks of grunting sounds, all tied together with squealings and shot
through with pig howls. I've sometimes thought there was a definite beat
in it; for every now and again there comes a gargantuan GRUNT, breaking
through the million pig-voiced roaring - a stupendous GRUNT that comes
in with a beat. [...]
'And as I gazed I saw it grow bigger. A seemingly motionless, pallid
swine-face rising upward out of the depth. And suddenly I realised that I
was actually looking at the Hog.'
Or in Hodgson's Mythos-tome equivalent, the "Sigsand Manuscript," where the following passage occurs:
If in sleep or in ye hour of danger ye hear the voice of ye Hogge, cease ye to meddle.
I guess in an era when very few people have heard the cries of slaughtered pigs
in the city or countryside, the pig has become a figure of fun, a cozy barnyard animal, bdee-bdee-bdee-that's-all-folks. As Lovecraft, a big fan of Hodgson, realized to good effect - it's the invertebrate Horrors from Outside that have real staying power, the tentacled and flabby and chitinous things. If Hodgson had used his marine horrors for his metaphysical threats we would indeed have something very close to Lovecraft.
Instead, the pig's enduring horror is that it is too close to human, close enough to transplant organs, as smart as a dog, and its fate is uniformly horrible - of all the animals of the farm it alone has no purpose except to be slaughtered for meat. William Golding understood this when he called the doomed boy in Lord of the Flies
Piggy, and had the marooned boys erect a pig's head totem. Margaret Atwood's abnormally intelligent pigoons in Oryx and Crake
are disturbing because they are us - engineered to carry human genes and twice the normal complement of organs for transplant purposes. I guess the pig as metaphysical unclean evil might fly better with a Muslim or devout Jewish audience, but for those that eat swine, the pig's potential for horror is that it is us
; within, not outside.
Next: Why is Hodgson's fiction so appealing to the old-school style of adventure gamers?