Friday, November 28, 2014

The House on the Borderland by Willam Hope Hodgson

A supernatural bore
William Hope Hodgson was a prolific English writer of genre fiction who was active during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Many consider his 1908 novel The House on the Borderland to be a classic of the horror genre. The acclaimed American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft credited Hodgson’s stories, and this novel in particular, with having a strong influence on his own work. After reading such high praise, however, I found this novel extremely disappointing. It certainly doesn’t merit “classic” status, and it’s not the least bit horrific.

Two travelers on a fishing trip in rural Ireland come upon the ruined remains of an old house, where they discover the tattered journal of one of the building’s former inhabitants. In this manuscript, a nameless narrator describes his relationship to this mysterious abode. Though the house seems to be the source of unspoken dread among the residents of a nearby village, the narrator is heedless of such forebodings and moves in anyway, along with his sister and his dog. One night after dozing off, he has a vision in which he leaves his body and astral projects through space to a bizarre world far outside our solar system. This realm is dimly lit by a blood-red, ring-shaped sun, and is populated by a host of grotesque creatures resembling mythical beasts, among them humanoid creatures part man, part swine. Thankfully, he awakens from this vivid dream to find himself returned to his body and to his house. The reality of his strange vision is confirmed, however, when a crew of swine-men show up on his doorstep and attack him.

Hodgson deserves some credit for his inventiveness, but his storytelling is sorely lacking. The hellish visions and events of the book are all related with a startlingly emotionless, matter-of-fact dullness: “I saw this. Then I saw that. I heard this. Then I saw that.” Rarely does the narrator ever pause to ponder the horrific nature of what’s taking place, therefore the reader doesn’t feel any terror either. Nor is any attempt ever made to understand or explain what is happening or why. Books in the science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres may be excused from following the rules of reality, but to be successful they must establish some kind of alternate rules in their place. In this book anything goes. Astronomical phenomena is mixed with mystical mumbo jumbo. What applies to the narrator does not apply to his dog. The various worlds and creatures depicted don’t even obey the same physical or mystical laws. Things happen for no other reason than simply because Hodgson wants to describe something spooky.

All of which would be forgivable if the story weren’t so boring. It may be too much to expect that Hodgson’s horror could be as scary or as appealing to today’s audience as the works of current authors like Stephen King, yet even when you compare this book to Hodgson’s contemporaries or predecessors like H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or Edgar Allen Poe, this work is woefully inferior. There is a scene in the novel that involves the acceleration of time. Wells covered the same imagery beautifully in The Time Machine, but here Hodgson goes on for three chapters describing the rising and setting of the sun and moon. Day, night, day, night, day, night. The reader gets the idea after the first few pages; the rest is just beating a dead horse.

I first became familiar with Hodgson through one of his nautical stories—Jack Grey, Second Mate—which I enjoyed very much. I might consider reading more of his stories in the action/adventure vein, but I’m steering clear of his horror stuff from now on. Once bitten, twice shy.

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