Walking the Night Land: Sherlock Holmes and the Vampires of Eternity

I’ve been reading Brian Stableford recently – the “fruits” of which you won’t see in for a while. However, when prowling around on The Brian Stableford Website, I actually looked at the description for this luridly titled book with a cover not up to Black Coat Press’ usual standards. (I often prefer to buy paper editions of Black Coat Press works because of the covers.)

Since William Hope Hodgson plays a part in the story, I immediately ordered it and read it.

And, when I found out that Stableford also puts The Night Land to use in the book, I put it at the head of the review queue as another installment in the series.

Sallystartup, over at her Reviews of Brian Stableford, which, as you would expect reviews only Stableford, provides reviewer parallax on this one. I didn’t indicate that in the title because of space and because nobody should have two colons in the title of a blog post.

Essay: Sherlock Holmes and the Vampires of Eternity, Brian Stableford, 2009.

Sherlock Holmes and the Vampires of Eternity
Cover by Danielle Serra

‘I had not expected to travel 12 million years,’ I said, before the android could ask another question, ‘but I suppose that I have come as far before, and even further. I have seen the final act of the story of mankind played out against the backcloth of the Night Land, and the death of the Earth itself as it spiraled into the dying Sun.’

‘Yes’, said the metal man, after another brief hesitation. ‘We know something of your previous visions.’

It is Hodgson’s story that begins (after a brief prologue) the novel and ends it. His “Soldier’s Story” is interspersed with accounts of four other men: Count Lugard (reputed to be a vampire) who gives us, of course, the “Count’s Story; the “Explorer’s Story”; the “Writer’s Story”; and the “Detective’s Story”. Hodgson is summoned to a secret mission, leaving his identification disks behind, just before his Forward Observation Post is blown up and, so our history says, he is killed on April 17, 1918.

This is not only a masterful science fiction novel but a conte philosophique that combines many of Stableford’s interests and characteristic themes: an interest in literary decadence; a future history (seen in his emortal series and Tales from the Biotech Revolution series) that includes severe environmental degradation and nuclear and biological warfare in the early 21st century followed by a massive die off and then a heavy use of genetic engineering to create an near utopia on Earth; vampires; sympathy with the Devil’s Party and literary Satanism; art for art’s sake, the value of artifice, and the related ideas of personal myth and the power of the imagination; the stance to take when facing an uncertain future (also seen in his “Taken for a Ride” which also deals with questions of destiny, predestination, and free will), and an interest in early British and French science fiction.

For the decadence, we have Oscar Wilde, the Writer. He is treated sympathetically throughout the book, a genius whose inductive powers of reasoning are the match for the Great Detective (never named as Sherlock Holmes except in the title). The latter is portrayed, at least in the beginning, as less than sympathetic.

And his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, even less so. Other authors that show up are H.G. Wells, Alfred Jarry, Camille Flammarion, and Rémy de Gourmont, and Stableford has written about them all.

The book is also crammed full of various sf themes: alternate histories, the far future, genetic evolution and the transformation of organic sentience into inorganic machines, time wars, rationalized supernatural creatures, and another use of Frank Tipler’s The Physics of Immortality and its idea of technologically created Heaven where the dead will live again. (John C. Wright’s Awake in the Night Land also made use of this four years later.)

The story, told through several nested narratives, is a debate about the value of chaos and order and their manifestations in organic life and intelligent machines as manifested in the various camps of the Overmen, the clade of vampiric humans who, with their machine descendants, replaced normal humanity.

The only problem I had with the novel is that sometimes arguments and perspectives are repeated a bit too often by some characters. On the other hand, given the elaborate series of nested stories, Stableford might have felt the need to reorient his readers occasionally – especially given the motives and perspectives of the various groups are shadowy and not always clear. Indeed, Stableford, who doesn’t shy away from strategic obscurity which results in many of his characters engaging in paranoid speculations about manipulation by shadowy forces, doesn’t make everything clear.

At the climax, when it seems Hodgson will have to make some kind of decision on Wilde’s proposal for Hodgson’s and humanity’s future, Stableford throws in an unexpected element of Hodgson’s work (even though it was foreshadowed on the Acknowledgements page) to vastly increase the scope of the conflict and forces at work. Here just the slightest Lovecraftian tinge enters the work.

One of the conceits of the story is that Hodgson, throughout his life, has been transmuting his nightmares into stories. Indeed, it is his writing that has attracted the attention of the secret military group and convinced them he has, however garbled in his fictional accounts, some kind of prophetic power. Since I haven’t read R. Alain Everts’ Some Facts in the Case of William Hope Hodgson: Master of Phantasy, I don’t know if Stableford is drawing the importance of dreams to Hodgson’s work from that book.

Hodgson concluding fate is obscure for the man but symbolically fits in with the rest of the book and its arguments.

As far as the use Stableford puts the The Night Land to, some is quite expected. When the Night Land is compared to the Western Front, Stableford is just following the lead of one of Hodgson’s letters. The Night Land turns out, when Hodgson confronts another being from his fiction, to symbolize the forces of chaos and unending transformation.

I have not read enough Wilde to comment on Stableford’s impersonation of him, but the Hodgson sections are credible imitations.

If this all sounds somewhat familiar, slightly variant parts of this book have appeared elsewhere: the Prologue and the Explorer’s and Count’s stories as “The Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires”, the Writer’s and Detective stories as “The Black Book of the Dead”, and the Soldier’s story as “The Gateway of Eternity”.

 

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