Sunday, 4 November 2012

Fungi and Swine: William Hope Hodgson's Disgust Morality

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, here and 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?


  1. Great post, though (anticipating your coming point) upon reading that you and your wife couldn't help but laugh at that passage, my first thought was "they haven't been around pigs or pig-tending."

    Also, there's things like the recent case of the Oregon farmer eaten by his pigs:

  2. Some good thoughts. . . Would like to see you interact more with the Night Land, Hodgson's major work and a work that doesn't suffer from the pig syndrome. The Night Land is a transcendent work that offers more for the imagination than nearly any other book out there, except the Lord of the Rings. Despite the clunky language, the sheer vision of the work nearly puts it in a class by itself.

    1. If I ever do a science fantasy setting/megadungeon it will be a mashup of Metamorphosis Alpha and The Night Land.

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  4. You might be overestimating the staying power of invertebrates as surrogates for the outsider menace. In this day and age they seem fast becoming the darlings of geek culture, which itself is arguably becoming increasingly mainstream.

    Ironically, this has been partly catalyzed by Lovecraft's writing.

    Heck, I started reading Lovecraft not because I have a thing for horror, but because I'm fascinated with alien vistas, bizarre phenomena and creatures.

    And, according to the increasingly naturalistic mindset of era, it seems like nothing is allowed to be evil if you understand it well enough and can view it from a distance. Just social (therefor biological) forces playing out toward some sort of equilibrium. (Of course if it's happening to you . . .)

    This tendency for the objects of horror to be humanized, or at least obsessively fascinated with, is something I ran into while trying to cook up freakish new "cosmic horrory" monstrosities for a one-shot years back:

    What new bizarre thing to startle gamers with? Tentacles, chitin and scales are done. What the heck is left? The only thing that came to mind at the time was some sort of bird body-horror.

    A current trend is for the threatening-alien-other to be "the validity of one's personal experience of reality", rather than a specific sentient entity: Time travel is horror. Nested dream realities cause confusion or ill. Is this a valid experience or just VR? Are we free agents or just actors and characters within someone else's drama? Eat it Descartes!

    1. I find that Thomas Ligotti often delivers chills of a refreshing variety. His stated aim is to convey the existential void of a Lovecraftian universe without Lovecraftian aliens and hugger-mugger. Of his works, Nethescurial is the most Hodgsonian I've seen.

    2. I read a Ligotti in the "Nightmare Factory" compilation, which I think combines three of his other short fiction compilations, so I get confused as to which book contained what.

      Ligotti had his moments, and might arguably be better at composing reabable prose. But for my taste I think I like Lovecraft better for a few reasons probably related to what you're talking about:

      The existential void wasn't the main selling point of either work for me. And I tend to like aliens and hugger-mugger.

      Ligotti really is a horror writer, whereas Lovecraft still seems to have a foot in weird fiction. My sense is that for Ligotti, the bizarre stuff encountered is more of a vehicle for the dread and disgust; while for Lovecraft the weird things and situations just happened to have aversion associated with them.

      While I occasionally like a startling universe flip or a sense of dread that things are spinning out of control, it's more the discoveries along the way that pique my interest.

  5. I'm going to drop a spoiler for House on the Borderland, so beware those who haven't read it.

    That book came as a revelation after The Night Land. I slogged through the latter, and while I enjoyed it a lot, the style grated on my for its stilted, slightly off-kilter cadence and word choice. Plus, the third or fourth time the narrator discusses his evening routine of eating food and water pills, it got really old.

    House on the Borderland startled me. Hodgson's style was vastly different. Fluid, graceful, and elegant, it contrasted sharply with The Night Land. It hit me: Hodgson does a fantastic job of creating a very specific style for his narrating characters, and sticks with it. The protagonist of The Night Land was an uncomplicated warrior, and this is reflected in his awkward style and lack of introspection. But the protagonist of House on the Borderland was different. Poetic, self-reflective, and erudite, he was far different from the Night Land's future knight.

    He was also completely insane.

    There was a moment in the House on the Borderland where everything clicked into place. The increasingly bizarre goings-on made no sense, whether it was pig-men besieging the old house, or the protagonist's sister acting crazy.

    But she wasn't acting crazy. HE was. Every bit of the strange goings-on was in his head, from the haunting way he traveled far into the future (which had to have been inspired by H.G. Wells' book) while watching his faithful dog collapse into a pile of dust, to his firing at the pig-men with a rifle. All his sister saw was him running about the house, screaming, shooting, or sitting still for unnaturally long periods. No wonder she took to screaming and running off when he appeared, and locked herself in her room most of the book. He was a raving lunatic.

    That's when I realized how much I liked that book. Hodgson was able to fool me with a twist that has become cliched in our times, and managed to do it in a way that left me unsettled. Plus, he then hinted that maybe, just maybe, that protagonist was driven insane by something inherent in the land. Great stuff.

    1. Yes, the recluse is quite the unreliable narrator ... OR IS HE???

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  7. Hodgson was a sailor. Surely he must have sailed with swine and, undoubtedly came into rapport with the vile by way of germs. Sailors get sick hands down. No enemy is more innocuous to a sailor than germs. I suggest reading "from a tideless sea 1 and 2" to get an idea of how hodgson must have felt about hogs and the sea. Being sickened by coming into contact with germs is a sailors greatest bane. Or is it storms...
    well - the croup comes by many byways....

  8. I think one could make a case for the Hog being not altogether alien. Why would it manifest in such a familiar and symbolically loaded form if it wasn't somehow being shaped by or drawing from the minds of humanity? Even its horrible noise suggests a very human creation: "... Those large pig farms where they keep hundreds of pigs." You could apply similar reasoning to most of Carnacki's other non-faked apparitions: apart from the thing in the "haunted Jarvee", they all ended up taking very recognisable (though often fantastically magnified) shapes. I like to picture them as some sort of "boundary effect", the nasty thing that happens when the wildest bits of the human mind get tangled up with "The Outside Forces".