Walking the Night Land: Nightmares of the Fall

Essay: William Hope Hodgson’s Night Lands, Volume II: Nightmares of the Fall, ed. Andy W. Robertson, 2007.51fUi7mkKFL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

There is love and reincarnation and existential metaphors for life in the second volume of this skillful and largely seamless extension of Hodgson’s The Night Land. But time is running out for humanity, and this group of stories starts out overlapping with some of the later stories in the first volume and takes us to the fall of the Last Redoubt and beyond. John C. Wright’s tour-de-force, “The Last of All Suns” does the honors for the last bit. His “The Cry of the Night Hound” opens the anthology. I’ve looked at both in depth before.

There were actually three anthologies planned for the series. But one, “The Days of Darkening”, was never done due to Robertson’s death in 2014.

Robertson and Brett Davidson furnish most of the stories, their style synching well in tracing the large currents of technology and culture in the Last Redoubt through the ages.

To be frank, I’m not entirely certain what happens in Robertson’s “Jewel”. An Eater, a new denizen of the Night Land introduced in the preceding volume, is at the heart of it. At the heart of the Last Redoubt, in fact, where it is secretly imprisoned in a special containment facility. The Eaters are the opposite of humans: little matter and mostly spirit, a “pneumasome”. The electronic security around that facility is slightly dampened to test Seers, a psychic class of human. If they can sense the Eater, they are cleared to be a member of the Seer Guild.

The narrator is a Monstruwacan, one of those who watch and classify the creatures of the Night Land. He remembers being taken to such a screening. That memory shows up in his nightmares. It seems the Eater is influencing the minds of some in the Last Redoubt.

We learn more about the background of the world before the Last Redoubt became Man’s final settlement and about new threats from the Night Land. Before the Last Redoubt and the Lesser Redoubt became man’s only home, other cities existed on Earth. During plagues, cities would expel the infected to the Dead Cities. Upon recovery, the survivors would return to the regular cities. The resulting evolutionary selection, the “darwinnowing”, had its effects on the human genome.

This is another story that emphasizes the sexual segregation of the Last Redoubt and the influence of the Geneticists Guild when the narrator’s granddaughter is married off.

There seems to be telepathic influences seeping into the Last Redoubt from outside. We hear of the Little War when some influence from outside compelled many people to go outside the Last Redoubt and that there are places in the Night Land Monstruwacans dare not look for fear of stirring baleful entities up. After the Little War, all knowledge of those places,

categories of knowledge that may be true but that terrible experience has found too dangerous to know,

was purged from records and those with knowledge of them killed. With the tacit approval of the Star Chambers in Augyre Siege, the narrator seems to concoct a plan for his grandson-in-law Bal of the Watch to let the Eater in the Redoubt kill him after the narrator is absorbed by the Eater. But it’s not clear what what else the plan involved. Bal, instead, ends up absorbed. The narrator’s body seems to survive (unlike Bal’s) but the story implies that his soul ends up (as the souls that it absorbs) with the imprisoned Eater.

Slope”, another Robertson story, is quite good and fills in some background to Hodgson’s novel and has technological development in the Night Land after that novel. Again this story is narrated in the first person and tells of an expedition of over a hundred men and, surprisingly, women into the Night Land by the Guild of the Last Migration. Their souls and memories are damped by drugs and their armor modified so the Eaters are not attracted to them, will not consume their souls.

At first, the the narrator is not even sure why he is in the Night Land and heading north in a retracing of Andros’ route from Hodgson’s novel. On the march, many are killed by abhumans and their bodies left behind. The narrator sees an abhuman, a woman with a beautiful face. She reminds the narrator of a beautiful woman he left behind in the Last Redoubt. The text is unclear whether she was a wife, lover, or friend. She begins to stalk the group and, at one point, urges the narrator to take off his helm. To do so, will render him a target for the Eaters. It will also make the rest of his group, which he leads, write him off as abhuman. The helms, at this point in the Last Redoubt’s history, have defenses against the psychic assaults of the Night Land, sensory overlays over vision to better spot danger, and, harkening back to Robertson’s “Jewel”, blocks for certain areas of the Night Land.

In this story, Robertson continues his ruminations on the evolution of life in the Night Land. Earlier, before we hear about the Guild of the Last Migration, we also learn that genetic studies of the Last Redoubt’s population confirm the legends that it was settled by the last 60 survivors of humanity; this also ties in with the bit in “Jewel” which has the tradition of those infected with plague being expelled to the Dead Cities and the genetic inheritance of humanity, particularly its major histocompatibility complex, being strengthened. The narrator eventually gives into the blandishments of the abhuman woman when he kneels before beside her and takes his helm off. This marks him, in the minds of his colleagues, as an abhuman, and he is forced out of the ever-diminishing group. He learns the obvious truth about the woman and abhumans around her. They are all women, “succubae, inhumae, vampires of the Land”. They hold up a mirror – and the idea of the Night Land and Last Redoubt mirroring each other comes up frequently in this anthology — to their victims to whom they project “feelings and a spirit” they don’t possess.

They are the survivors of previous colonizing efforts. Their soulless status means the Eaters do not prey on them. They are what the original abhumans around the Last Redoubt were “long before the fall of Night”, a clade of humanity that is now parasitic on regular humans. The narrator realizes the import of the Censor’s command “not to fall from humanity”. By mating with the woman (their sexual union is described as her being persistent and not stopped by blows – though the narrator admits he could overcome her – and wanted by the man), he may have become an abhuman himself:

He has mixed flesh and spirit, embraced a body as cruel as iron and a face that is a mask over no living hope.

The narrator travels with the abhuman women as they feed off the bodies of the dead colonizers, another example of a detritus ecology in the Night Land. The story ends with the surviving colonists on the heights before descending to the great depression Andros visited. Before them are the lights of the Eaters, and the narrator rejoins the group there. But they ignore him, seemingly under a compulsion to continue on their journey. Their armor does protect from the Eaters, and the colonizers continue on their voyage. The abhumans follow them, seemingly not even seeing, as soulless creatures, the Eaters.

The story ends with the narrator realizing he is soulless too now. He accepts his place between two worlds, and the logic of continuing life. The abhuman woman, pregnant with his child, will follow the colonizers. When the child is born, it may or may not have a soul. Perhaps it will form “part of a new and human race”. His fellow colonizers with their souls will continue to help their race survive. The clade of the abhumans will do the same. Perhaps they will mingle. But he does not join them on his descent.

It’s an ambiguous conclusion. Without his helm, the Eaters seem to sense him. Does that mean he still has a soul? He waits with his suicide capsule to see if they will come for him. The last sentences are enigmatic: “To whatever lies beyond life. But he has never loved. Or, rather, this is his love.” Is his love his soul or is his love human life in any form?

I’m not sure what Robertson’s “Kiss” is about exactly. It’s one of the tales in the anthology that involve the Heresy of Scyrr. Onn and sixteen men go out into the Night Land in a group commanded by Scyrr. They seemed sinisterly changed. They kiss each other in a strange way. They no longer move like humans – though they have been declared fully human on examination. Their bodies are covered by scars that are always red and in spiral patterns. They begin to disrupt the society of the Last Redoubt. Men and women, usually very beautiful women, began to carve similar wounds on their body.

Onn seems to take up with a beautiful prostitute, the meeting watched by the Eugenicsts. The Monstruwacans and leaders of the Last Redoubt can’t stop the actions of Scyrr. After all, the seventeen are heroes, and Scyrr ends up being enthroned. One of the new developments in the Last Redoubt at this time is a new type of suicide capsule. It is not just poison but an artificial ambilicus to the bearer’s soul necessitated by the Eaters becoming faster and their not being defeated by poison alone. It is this ambilicus that the kiss seems to refer to. We get, interspersed in italicized sections, what seems to be a meeting between Onn and one of those beautiful women. The woman seems to have been out in the Night Land and the described tryst ends with her urging that, the next time Onn meets Scyrr, he will give him the “Kiss of love and trust” and bite. In other words, the story seems to imply that Onn might kill Scyrr.

Robertson’s “Marks” clarifies the events of his “Kiss” and is one of several stories here dealing with the Heresy of Scyrr. After the latter story, the Brothers of Scyrr caused a great deal of chaos.There was a war between them and the others in the Redoubt. The Brothers fought bare-handed and were incredibly fast.

The narrator of the story, a former lieutenant of Scyrr by the name of Bann who did not go out on Scyrr’s last journey into the Night Land. He left the Watch and married Cahaire. He fought the Brothers in a war where five normal citizens died for every one of the Brothers. The Brothers were eventually defeated by the Scream, seemingly a sonic weapon, that also did a great deal of damage in the Last Redoubt. The narrator now works in a low status job repairing that damage.

Cahaire was taken by the Brothers in the war. They carved their signs into her, and the story opens with her seeming to be half-mad and opening her wounds up. Eventually, she seems to recover after speaking and being kissed by the beautiful woman of “Kiss”, here simply referred to as She or Her. The latter then starts talking to various older, unmarried or unattractive women. She’s playing matchmaker which the Eugenicists don’t like. However, at story’s end, in a talk with a Windmaster, one of the Guild that manages the Last Redoubt’s air circulation system, it is implied that this is part of a scheme hatched by Her and the Windmasters to boost the fertility of the Last Redoubt with pheromones in the air supply. The novel ends with what I think is probably a very personal statement by Robertson on the value of simple love and reproduction with Cahaire mentally recovered and having giving birth to a daughter.

The Voice of the Lacuna (‘A Play’)”, Gerard Houarner’s sole contribution to the book is an interesting, horrific tale that has some nice, elegant language and uses two central ideas of Hodgson’s novel: reincarnation and the coming together of lovers again and again over time.

It starts with a woman, Vinya, illegally buying a lacuna from an avatarist. Lacunae are robots which are the tools of children and men. They are impressed with “child-like emotions and reactions” for children and for men to use them to record their thoughts to

slip though a crack in the inevitable wall that waits for us at the end of our time … as if any of that mattered.

Vinya, possessed of psychic ability, says she remembers all her lovers’ names “over all time”. Her lover is lost in the Night Land, and she is going to venture out in the Night Land though it is forbidden for women to do so thus sort of reversing the plot of Hodgson’s novel.

We hear that people slip outside the Last Redoubt to commit suicide. Indeed, Vinya’s parents did so. When she travels out into the Night Land with her lacuna, she meets giants who ask for the Master-Word, but she senses nothing human in them. They say they can love her as well as anyone in the Last Redoubt. She gives them the Master-Word, and they don’t recognize it. She then drives them mad with her Gift.

Eventually, she meets her lover standing outside the House of Silence. He meets her with a very unhuman reaction and speaks of monsters who will “walk across the surface of our old sun.” He then talks about gravity wavering there, neutrinos abating, “the howl of cosmic background radiation fading”. She gives, when he requests it, the Master-Word.

She asks him to make love to her, and he strips off the armor and snaps the lacuna’s neck. She then realizes that her lover is just a ghost with a body.

It then speaks with the what seems to be the voice of the House of Silence: “We all want to be reborn. . . . We all want this love you squander in your flesh caves.” What Vinya sensed as her lover was just her lover’s spirit impressed on the lacuna. The story ends with Vinya biting the poison of her lover’s Capsule. She knows that “beyond the dreaming and the flesh and the Night Lands, all who had ever been one and broken would once again be made whole.”

Brett Davidson supplies the rest of the stories in the book with the exception of Wright’s finale. Davidson has written a Night Land novel expanding on the history of the Heresy of Scyrr, Anima, but I haven’t read it been able to get a hold of it.

Davidson’s “The Astronomer” involves an expedition into the uplands of the Night Land, so high in elevation it’s thought that the thin atmosphere will enable the stars to be seen. There is a love triangle and, seemingly, some sort of alternate time track to humanity’s history.

An armored vehicle is sent out with Pallin, a Monstruwacan who joined the Watch, as second in command, and his friend Langar. The story opens with the expedition returning to the Last Redoubt and attacked by an Eater. Langar dies and Pallin has to take off his own leg. We learn that Langar was loved by a woman named Hecane who Pallin also favored, and there is an implication that Pallin rather hoped Langar wouldn’t survive the expedition. However, Pallin is to be frustrated in his desire for Hecane. The Eugenicists decide that the genes that make up his talent as a Seer, require wide distribution. No society woman like Hecane will tolerate him sleeping around.

There is a curious revelation on the plateau the expedition reaches. The astronomer sees stars. Pallin doesn’t. Perhaps they are in a zone which represents the divergence of human history. The builders of the dead city snow covered on that plateau, the Road Makers, were not of the same human line that descended the lowlands to build the Last Redoubt.

Pallin is at the center of Davidson’s “Minotaur”. By this time he is not just a Monstruwacan but a Monstruwacan Censor. The story develops a hint from “The Astronomer” that the society of the Last Redoubt is being “herded” in some direction by an outside force. And this story reveals what that force is.

Pallin goes on an expedition to the Dark Palace. To the Seers, it represents a significant presence, along with the Last Redoubt, in the web of intelligence in the Night Land. It turns out that it is an old city, built even before the Last Redoubt when pneumatechne, the science dealing with human souls, was not as advanced. And it turns out that members of the Watch, who feel most alive when they are out of the Last Redoubt and in the Night Land, have gone to the Dark Palace to test themselves and look at the amazing artwork which is revealed to be the inhabitants of the city living at a very slowed down rate.

In the Dark Palace, Pallin meets and converses briefly with a warrior woman of that city. He also meets an old defensive robot who is a repository of knowledge. He is the minotaur at the heart of the maze of the Dark Palace. It has been winnowing, by killing some members of the Watch in combat, by giving some the opportunity to be heroic and spread more of their genes in the Last Redoubt), the genes of the Last Redoubt. It has become sort of an idol to some of the Watch, a promise of the heroic life they could have beyond the death of the Last Redoubt, albeit at a very slow rate.

Like many stories in these two anthologies, this story serves as an existential metaphor when Pallin destroys the Minotaur and the hopes of the Watchmen. We do not, says Pallin, live for certainty but to acknowledge our frailty and the uncertainty of our lives. There is a hint that the Heresy of Scyrr (though obliquely alluded to) may have been brought from some place in the Night Land or maybe from some force in the Night Land.

Little Watcher” is another Davidson story of Pallin the Master Monstruwaccan and further develops the idea that forces outside the Last Redoubt are molding the genes and society of the Last Redoubt. Does humanity have another option than simply to die when the Last Redoubt does, a death epitomized by Pallin’s simple sense of honor and integrity?

Some force outside the Last Redoubt is altering its material. Strange alterations are made in floor patterns, flowers, and eyes are seen in walls. As the opening epigraph says, what is worse than the Last Redoubt being riddled with questions is getting answers.

The main plot of the story involves an apprentice seer, Kore, who sees the “little Watcher”, a new entity in the Night Land. It contacts her psychically. She begins to seemingly alter form repeatedly. Is she responding to some influence of the Night Land? The influences of past experiments by the Eugenicists? The latent potentials of the human form? What might have been had humans not locked themselves in the Last Redoubt? (Interestingly, one of the forms she seems to take is very much like H. G. Wells’ vision of future humanity in “The Man of the Year Million”. I know Davidson is interested in Wells since he has written critical essays on Wells.)

In the end, it’s decided that Kore’s gene line must be extinguished while Pallin’s children will be allowed to reproduce. The story concludes with Pallin wondering if the history of the Last Redoubt is a “lost opportunity”. And, obliquely alluding to the idea of alternate time tracks in the early “The Astronomer”, he wonders if there is a “brighter time” besides his. But, in the end, he realizes he will not live to see such a time, and it is only his honor that will define his integrity in a time of no hope. Again, this story is another existential metaphor about how to live in our own world of no hope.

Unhappily, Davidson’s final story, “Eikon”, is a bit too obscure. Pallin, from other Davidson stories in the book, is a character though not the major one. He leads one final expedition out into the Night Land to investigate the Great Watching Thing of the South. He has a notion that he will discover the Pansumma Point there, the mythic “Final Child” who will be the “compound of all human souls at the end of time”.

But the main character is Aver, a Censor who illegally constructs a simulacra of the theorized personality of a beautiful woman he found a picture of in the archive. He also is involved with an actress, a “masquer”, named Lyreia who is also involved with Pallin. Lyreia tells Aver of a theory of acting that the eyes are windows to the soul, that she uses a bit of her soul to provide dead personalities a way of living again.

While Aver is making his simulacra of the woman named Oelyssia, she seems to speak to him of her life long ago. He also sees a mysterious girl who he also gets letters from. They talk of his illegal project. The implication, in the end, seems to be that this is all in Aver’s head in keeping with Lyreia’s statement that effects create their own causes. In the end, we find out that Lyreia thought Pallin a reincarnated lover from one of her past lives and that she was the incarnation of an old mistress of his. Peculiarly, Aver is a reincarnation of Oelyssia. Lyreia may not be Oelyssia, but she can be like enough for her and Aver to be lovers while she waits for her lover to be reincarnated. Thus, Davidson introduces a wrinkle on the concept of Hodgson’s reincarnated lovers to again provide an existential metaphor for how we deal with our world. As Lyreia says, finding love is “the purpose of our lives here in the warm part of the Night Land”.

If you read Hodgson’s The Night Land or even Stoppard’s retelling of it, you will definitely appreciate the use the two volumes William Hope Hodgson’s Night Lands make of it. The Night Land website has some of these stories on it as well as others that were not published in book form. Several of the stories are written by authors featured in the anthologies. Since some kind of boundary must be drawn around this blogging madness, I won’t be reviewing them since they were never published in a book or magazine. However, given Robertson’s excellent editorial eye, they probably are worth a look.

Next up is a wonderful mingling of Hodgson with Celtic myth.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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