I return to William Hope Hodgson and his The Night Land.
Essay: “The Land of Lonesomeness”, Sam Gafford, 2014.
During his life, writer and Hodgson scholar Sam Gafford, only produced one story that I know of that directly incorporates Hodgson’s writing.
First published in Weird Fiction Review No. 5, it’s a homage to Hodgson as well as a weird story in its own right and not just to The Night Land, as you expect from the title, but some of his other works as well.
Right from the first paragraph, we get a blend of observations from Gafford’s scholarship, Hodgson’s fiction, a mix of fiction and biography.
The story is set in the last three days of Hodgson’s life and opens on April 16, 1918 on the Western Front. It a tale Hodgson tells us himself.
But, unlike the famous letter where he compared the Western Front to the Night Land, here he starts with a different metaphor, one similar to “Out of the Storm”.
Hodgson’s describe the battlefield’s dead first: “limbs and heads and bodies making a grim seascape along the fields.”. Like “Out of the Storm”, he’s imposed images of the sea onto the land.
Hodgson and his men are bracing for German shelling near Mont Kemmel. For Hodgson,
The Great War begun among cheers and vainglorious boasting, had become a massacre over inches of useless, blood-engorged dirt.
The men of Lieutenant Hodgson’s 84th Battery of the Royal Field Artillery all are hopelessly resigned. They will keep going until they are told to stop (this is during the Kaiserschlacht) or die “by way of sniper bullet, artillery shell, or sheer hopelessness”.
But there is one man who seems different, undiminished by all this: Lt. Arthur Worth. No one speaks to him because of that optimism. Hodgson notes their similarities – or, at least, Worth’s similarity to the Hodgson of four years ago.
Of his life then, Hodgson says he sent his wife Bessie to live with his mother and sister in Borth “even though I knew that there was no affection between them.” I was given to understand that Bessie and Hodgson’s sister got along well. This is only one of many observations on Hodgson that contradict my impression of the man. I assume they are based on research, but Gafford is dead now, so we probably won’t ever know.
Hodgson describes his refusal to serve in the Royal Navy upon enlisting. Even seeing the crew on the ship that took him to France puts him in “a foul mood”. He will call no man “captain” again.
Worth’s background is similar to Hodgson’s: a youth in Cornwall and at sea.
Worth joined the unit about a week ago after an exploding shell put Hodgson in the hospital. Hodgson relates that, in his stupor of recovery, he begun
“shouting that the Great Redoubt was being attacked by the Watchers and that I had to get back to my observation post in the upper levels or else humanity was doomed”.
He tells the doctors it’s just a memory of his old novel, The Night Land.
They showed nearly as much interest in the plot of the novel as readers had back in 1912.
He says the novel’s publication “ended my serious imaginative writing”. At this late date, he seems to hope his wife of the same age will have a child (not impossible but unlikely). He turned to “bland adventure tales” to better support his family.
Worth, though, loves to hear Hodgson’s writing, and Hodgson remembers all of it perfectly despite his near fatal concussion back in England when an accident with a horse took him out of the service temporarily.
This Hodgson is a despondent man, and it doesn’t seem to be just the war but also the direction his literary career took.
In a way, the war had come at an opportune time for me and I abandoned my writing career for that of a soldier. But there were times when my stories refused to let me go.
He sees his Ghost Pirates walk among the corpses on the battlefield. This is a typical Gafford move, the using of supernatural horrors to comment on the world.
He glares at them. They seem to be death calling him since he says, at one point, he finds that he has raised, without thought, a revolver to his head.
Worth says their position, either preparing for a counterattack or covering a retreat, reminds him of “the ship in your story”, (“The Derelict”):
Only a few escaped alive. This death ground had become the same as that ship’s deck. The parallels were disturbing.
An attack occurs and the unit retreats to a new position. Gafford notes Hodgson had a lot of experience with horses, and it stands him in good stead in being able to calm them in the chaos of combat. He can look into their eyes and see if they are about to break. He sees the same look in the faces of some of his men. They are going to break soon like battle-maddened horses.
As they are eating, Worth asks Hodgson how he can eat such disgusting fare. Hodgson tells him it’s a luxury given the maggot-ridden hardtack he had at sea. He relates an incident where ship’s officers would bet which men would eat from a barrel of such food. He broke off a piece and ate it to the “cheers of the cabin boys and sneers of the officers”. “The vomiting and bowel distress afterward had been worth it.”
That night, he tells Worth his Sargasso Sea stories. Worth asks if the family on the Seabird ever escaped. Hodgson tells him he just never got around to writing the story of their escape.
“But, in truth, there was no escape from the Sargasso. The rescue I had written in my novel about the ‘boats of the Glen Carrig’ had a false ending—one tacked on because my editor had requested an uplifting conclusion that would please readers. It hadn’t seemed to make any difference in the sales.”
The unit is doomed like the people on the Homebird. He knows they never escaped and that’s why he never concluded the story.
And then he brings in a metaphor from The Night Land: “There were Watchers out there, in the dark, just waiting beyond the firing line.”
The next day an officer asks for volunteers to man a forward observation post. Volunteers because it means almost certain death. Hodgson volunteers immediately “doesn’t know why”.
He goes with a man named Northrup. On April 18, 1918, they arrive at the post, and the rest of the unit retreats. Worth unexpectedly shows later, jocularly stating he wasn’t going to leave Hodgson alone with that “great sausage”.
Worth asks to hear the Carnacki tales.
Hodgson says he enjoyed writing the Carnacki stories and was surprised at their poor sales. When he tells Worth “The Hog”, Worth asks if the oppressive atmosphere threatening Carnacki is the same surrounding them.
I replied simply that it was the same atmosphere as I have felt all my life, whether in Ireland, on the deck of a ship sailing around the Horn, on a stage in Blackburn as I faced down the greatest escape-artist of all time, at a typewriter wrestling with my inability to express in words what I dreamed in my mind or here, on a battlefield that had lost all meaning. I carried it with me always.
That night Hodgson feels old, “something I have never felt”. He feels his and Northrup’s life are draining away. Only Worth is upbeat.
On April 19, 1918, they are under a German barrage. Worth asks for a story, but Hodgson has no more to give him.
He sees the Ghost Pirates on the battlefield, their eyes penetrating him.
I see the Watching Thing of the North-West from my land of future night eclipsing the dull circle of the sun. It strides forward. The sounds of the exploding bombs echo his footsteps.
He mentions it to Northrup who sees nothing. Then he asks Worth if he sees it. Northrup, in what, in retrospect, should have been a plot twist I anticipated, says Hodgson is mad. There is no Worth,
You’ve been this way since you took that blow to your head. Talking to yourself. Telling tales. I tell you there is nothing there!
The Watcher comes close. Worth leaves.
He had only come for the stories, you see, and didn’t want to see the end. Suddenly, as if he had moved behind a curtain, Worth is gone and Northrup is pulling on my sleeve.
In the final paragraph, Northrup says they have to leave. The shelling is getting closer. Hodgson hears the
Watcher’s voice speaking to me. It comes in a high-pitched shriek. I look back in a terrified peace as I see the great mouth screeching at me. The sound of the bombs comes closer. I stand still, arms outstretched. Northrup grabs at me, but I do not move. The Watcher speaks me out of existence.
This story is something of a tour de force. It give us an alternate portrait of Hodgson behind the confident man he always seemed to be, a man who has long seemed to long for death.
It transforms Hodgson’s Watcher into a metaphor waiting to devour civilization in the madness of the Great War, a creature not brought into the world by future scientists from another dimension but by Hodgson’s contemporaries.