Thursday, August 4, 2011

William Hope Hodgson - The Forgotten Grandfather of Cosmic Horror?

Reading within a long standing and proud genre like weird/speculative fiction is much like exploring rootsy musical genres like old country Blues, as one often works their way backwards and outwards like a spiderweb once they regain their feet after being leveled by that first, unexpected collision.

And so it has been with me and the Weird, moving out in the familiar pattern that so many fellow insects have traveled before me.  Bullseye Lovecraft in the center, then work out to the next layer of web, populated by Pulp masters Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, then move wider through the auxiliary spiral, dancing past the members of the Arkham House Crew (as I'll greet them on the way back), and out into the anchoring strands built by the likes of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Walter de la Mare, M.R. James, Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsany, Ambrose Bierce, and William Hope Hodgson. 

Much ink has been spilled, both on those flickering pages and reams of others, about the majesty and sweep of Smith's fertile imagination, as well as the brawny, sinew-popping grit of Howard.  These two sit at either hand of HPL for a reason, and I learned - and am still learning - much from their seemingly endless tales of weirdness and wonder, fantasy and horror.  As I rapidly became familiar with those resting on the top rungs, I also wanted to see those who climbed the ladder first, offering a hand and shoulder and private whisper about the best way to reach the top.  To find the better view of the Infinite.  I wanted to discover for myself the somewhat buried Foundation for all vistas now laid bare.

And so, giving a respectful bow to the Dark Triumvirate, I packed light and journeyed out further into the web on hinterland strands of sticky, viscous silk, marveling at the new sights around me that all echoed back a familiar melody, still shiny and limber after all these years.  I waded into Machen's murky moors with "The Great God Pan," and was amazed by the prose, and the simplicity of the powerful horror.  Robert W. Chambers' "The King in Yellow" threatened to be one of the greatest works of weird fiction I'd ever read for the first third of the work, until it devolved, in my cretinous opinion, into boring, late 19th century Parisian art scene Romanticism.

And then I alighted on the thin, somewhat dusty strand populated by William Hope Hodgson, the little discussed English writer of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, who - through his often clumsy and ponderous prose - created one of the earliest, true cosmic horror stories I've run across in all of my reading in his novel "The House on the Borderlands."

Hodgson was born in Blackmore End, Essex, in 1877, and died in World War I at the tragically young age of 40.  But, before he waltzed off this wet, silly rock, he left behind a collection of poetry and short stories deeply influenced by his interest in science fiction, horror, and his time spent at sea.  Being of short stature, he was devoted bodybuilder (to defend himself from bullies, who soon found out that he was, pound for pound, one of the toughest men in Britain), and began his career writing articles about fitness in 1903.  These didn't pan out, so - being influenced by his love of the writings of Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle - Hodgson shifted his writing focus to fantastical fiction, writing and publishing his first short story, titled "The Goddess of Death", in 1904.  He found his place, and was hooked. Dozens of short stories and poems followed, and he gained notoriety more for the former than the latter (although his poetry was later published by his widow).  In 1907, he published his first novel The Boats of "Glen-Carrig", which was received with no small amount of critical renown.  Also that same year, he published "The Voice in the Night", which I have also read, and is a tasty bit of dark, nihilistic fiction featuring two of WHH's favorite tropes - aggressive fungi and  the sea. 
But, it was until two years later, in 1909, that - for my money, which is a bit light on silver - William Hope Hodgson truly broke down boundaries and ground a boot print into the virginal beach of cosmic horror, when he released his ambitious and slightly uneven second novel, The House on the Borderlands.

Though his prose is often clumsy and ponderous, and his plotting sometimes mystifying, Hodgson still proves to be a master dreamer in The House of the Borderland, creating situations and horrific threats that are truly chilling, especially for the time. The strange house perched perilously over the yawning pit, the detestable Swing Things, the besieged house - all good, solid horror.  Even his river to nowhere to begin the story (which I thought was a original idea several months ago, as I was plotting out a short story of my own) is interesting and creepy.

But it's not until he takes a sudden, unexplained jag into stark, raving cosmicism later in the work that Hodgson suddenly rises above his fleshly height and cast an enormous literary shadow on all writers of cosmic horror who have come after him, including one H.P. Lovecraft, who - it is claimed - did not read Hodgson until 1934 - three years before his death, and hence, long after he had invented his vast cosmic rules and mythos - as WHH's books were out of print.  Unless "out of print" means "every last copy was burned," I think it's still quite feasible, and wholly probable, that Lovecraft could have run across Hodgson's work, including The House on the Borderland.
Hodgson's seems to become bored with the terrestrial conventions of his own story about 3/4 of the way through, and then takes to the stars, and beyond, writing about abstract places, concepts, and creatures I don't think had ever been conceived in print before:  "The Plain of Silence," surrounded by mountains with representations of mythological beast-gods, demons and other "bestial horror"; the Sea of Sleep; interstellar, phosphorescent fungus; malevolent string of globes with shifting faces; the Green Sun, devouring our dying universe...  I don't want to give away too much for those who haven't read The House on the Borderlands, but what the Recluse experiences both in and outside of his corporeal shell is straight up, hard core cosmic horror, written at the first blush of the 20th century.
Lovecraft is always cited as the Father of Cosmic Horror.  So, would that make William Hope Hodgson the Grandfather of the same?

Am I looking for an influence that isn't, and couldn't, exist?  I'm not so sure about that...

The House on the Borderlands was released in 1908, when Lovecraft was a spry 17 years old.  The same year HPL penned "The Alchemist," which is more a classical fantasy piece, leaning more on castles and sorcery than cosmic horror.  As noted above, I've read accounts and been personally told that Hodgson's books were out of print by the time Lovecraft matured into the voracious reader and writer that we all know and love.  But, when a book is out of print, it doesn't mean that it disappears into the ether forever.  WHH's books remained, in private collections, and possibly in libraries.  I've also read that HPL doesn't mentions WHH until a written in 1934.  I've also read the HPL counts WHH as one of his influences.

So, doesn't it stand to reason that Hodgson could have had a profound influence on the mind bending cosmicism not necessarily first birthed by Lovecraft, but inherited, expanded and honed in equal measure into the so-called Lovecraft Mythos that we all consume by the truckload today?

If this was a "handsome-off"...
.... the debate would be over quickly.

I'm not positing some grand theory, and those far more deeply read and researched than I am will probably easily poke a hole in this contention, but I can't help but see and hear the echoes of Hodgson's The House on the Borderland in the later stories of H.P. Lovecraft, even before he supposedly first stumbled across Hogdson's work. 


Just to give a few examples, the amphitheater in the Plain of Silence reminds me very much of the Plateau of Leng in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and the gods who gathered and perched amongst the mountains above the amphitheater recall the Elder Gods who carved their images into the rock of Ngranek:
"All lesser thoughts were lost in the wish to see that carven face which might set him on the track of the gods atop unknown Kadath"
Even the ending of the story has a curious Lovecraftian ring, as The House on the Borderland ends with the Recluse hearing something approach as he writes, documenting his end on the page:
"Hush! I hear something, down--down in the cellars. It is a creaking sound. My God, it is the opening of the great, oak trap. What can be doing that? The scratching of my pen deafens me....... I must listen....... There are steps on the stairs; strange padding steps, that come up and nearer.... Jesus, be merciful to me, an old man. There is something fumbling at the door-handle. O God, help me now! Jesus--The door is opening--slowly. Somethi----"
This is a device used by Lovecraft as well, such as in Dagon (July, 1917), in which HPL writes:
"The end is near. I hear a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it. It shall not find me. God, that hand! The window! The window!"
I don't profess to be a Lovecraft or Weird Fiction scholar, but I was instantly struck by the seeds of cosmic horror in The House on the Borderland, which were made so famously flush a decade or two later by Lovecraft throughout his exceptional writing career.

So, bottom line, while it could be argued that the roots of cosmic horror go deeper than William Hope Hodgson, and were made thick and strong under the expert tending by H.P. Lovecraft, WHH certainly needs to be included in the discussion more often, and perhaps a bit more seriously.

Perhaps the weighty title "Grandfather of Cosmic Horror" is too generous, but certainly Grand Uncle isn't too far off the mark. This inspired and talented innovator deserves a prominent spot, and his share of the cake, at the grown ups' table.


  1. Hodgson is my personal hero. No other writer has influenced me as much as W.H.H.

  2. Wow, really JD? That's pretty damn awesome. I'm glad I put this up.

    What about WHH do you vibe with, and what are your favorite stories?

  3. I love The Voice in the Night and The Derelict and Carnacki is a great character.

  4. Great post! Hodgson is a bottomless well of inspiration for me, and I stand in awe of his imagination. Borderlands is one of those tales that delivers something new every time I read it. Thanks for reminding me that I need to read it again this weekend! :-)

  5. Maybe he's not so "forgotten" after all. :)

    Thanks for the response, gents. It appears that William Hope is "bigger" than I surmised.

  6. After reading Lovecraft's SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE, I began an obsessive search for paperbacks of the mentioned influences of Lovecraft.
    I came across a rat-chewed paperback copy of HOTB. I was hooked. Unlike anything I'd read before, changing narrative context and experiencing time speed up into space, oblivion and beyond, and then back again. Incredible. Upon reading his other works, like Boats of the Glenn Carrig and his Carnacki tales, the "swine-herd" return. I am curious as to the origin of his swine-herd creatures and why he continued to guest appear them in his stories, effectively creepy as they are.
    Hodgson's seafaring ghost tales are a good romp as well, and for living such a limited time within our cosmos, he wrote the hell out of it to our delight.

  7. Well said, Nick du Hat.

    I have a copy of HPL's "Supernatural Horror in Literature" sitting on my desk. Now seems like a hell of a good time to read it. Sounds like a road map around the web, as it were.