Monday, December 8, 2014
The House on the Borderland
From the Manuscript discovered in 1877 by Messrs. Tonnison and Berreggnog in the Ruins that lie to the South of the Village of Kraighten, in the West of Ireland. Set out here, with Notes.
In the current episode of the podcast I am one with Jeff Patterson and John Stevens (The Three Hoarsemen), we are joined by Karen Burnham, a real rocket scientist to discuss The House on the Borderland, a short novel by William Hope Hodgson.
Hodgson lived from 1877 to 1918 and wrote a number of works of horror and fantasy, mostly short stories, but also a few novels, of which this is one. Hodgson was an interesting character, he ran a physical training center that attracted the interests of other authors. He took up a challenge by Harry Houdini to trap Houdini. He traveled and even lived in France for a time. He joined the Army at the outbreak of the First World War, was injured and discharged, but recovered well enough to join again where he was killed (helping a group of his fellow soldiers escape while under fire, one report indicates).
Many of his stories were influenced by his experiences on the sea (From the Tideless Sea, The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig'). One of his most famous characters is that of Carnacki, an investigator of the supernatural who uses deduction, research and science to investigate (and defeat) the supernatural. Anybody who has ever played the roleplaying game The Call of Cthulhu will find enjoyment in these stories.
The House on the Borderland is a relatively short novel. It's somewhat archaic in form for today's readers, but I urge you to persist and I think you will be rewarded. There is almost no development of character, little dialogue, even relatively little action. The story is mostly one long narration, and is very disjointed. It is almost as if the narration was intended for a serial (as Jeff Patterson suggested), as there are parts of many different stories here: exploration, an attack by supernatural beings, travels through time and space, visions of heaven and hell and more.
Many are the hours in which I have pondered upon the story that is set forth in the following pages. I trust that my instincts are not awry when they prompt me to leave the account, in simplicity, as it was handed to me.
The book is a nested story. We start off with Hodgson describing how the book came into his hands and the scene shifts to Tonnison and Berreggnog, the two men who found the manscript and sent it to Hodgson. They are spending some time in Ireland fishing. After several days of fishing in the river, they spend one day exploring. It is then that they find what appears to be a long-disused garden, a strange lake and what appears to be the ruins of a house. They also find a book, hand-written, under some debris from the house. They spend the next day reading the book.
And the MS. itself—You must picture me, when first it was given into my care, turning it over, curiously, and making a swift, jerky examination. A small book it is; but thick, and all, save the last few pages, filled with a quaint but legible handwriting, and writ very close. I have the queer, faint, pit-water smell of it in my nostrils now as I write, and my fingers have subconscious memories of the soft, "cloggy" feel of the long-damp pages.
The book tells the story of an unnamed narrator (sometimes called The Recluse by other people in talkign about the book) who lives in a castle with his sister, Mary and a dog, Pepper. The house, more a castle, is in a desolate, underpopulated section of Ireland. It had been unoccupied for many decades and he was able to purchase it very cheaply. He starts the journal in order to tell of hs odd experiences in the house, the first of which is an out-of-body journey to a place he calls "the plain of silence", where he sees an apparent duplicate of his house. The plain is surrounded by huge statues of various deities (Set and Kali are mentioned) and both the house and the narrator are menaced by a large being that has both the appearance of a swine and a human.
Silently, intently, I watched this horrible creature, and forgot my fear, momentarily, in my interest in its movements. It was making its way, cumbrously 'round the building, stopping as it came to each window to peer in and shake at the bars, with which—as in this house—they were protected; and whenever it came to a door, it would push at it, fingering the fastening stealthily. Evidently, it was searching for an ingress into the House.
He suddenly awakens back in his study. Shortly thereafter, he is exploring a pit near his house when he is attacked by beings that have both the characteristics of a swine and a human. The creatures take the house under siege and the narrator spends several sleepless nights repelling attacks as the swine beings try to get in.
Immediately after this, I heard a loud squeal, in the direction of the Pit. It was answered, a hundred times, from every part of the garden. This gave me some notion of the number of the creatures, and I began to feel that the whole affair was becoming even more serious than I had imagined.
The attacks stop and after some time, the narrator goes back out to the pit to see if he can detect them and finds that the landscape has changed: the pit is now a chasm that is being filled up with water. He explores a cave to the side of the chasm and finds that it seems to lead in the direction of his house but terminates in a large hole. As he tries to determine the size of the hole, water flows from the lake into the cave and into the hole and nearly drowns both him and his dog.
A short examination showed me that the water reached right across the passage, and was running at a tremendous rate. Already, even as I stood there, it had deepened. I could make only a guess at what had happened. Evidently, the water in the ravine had broken into the passage, by some means. If that were the case, it would go on increasing in volume, until I should find it impossible to leave the place. The thought was frightening. It was evident that I must make my exit as hurriedly as possible.
After recovering from this ordeal, narrator has another out-of-body experience where he seems to travel to a place called "the sea of sleep" where he is reunited by the spirit of his lost love.
I entered into the gulf that separates our system from the outer suns. As I sped across the dividing dark, I watched, steadily, the ever-growing brightness and size of our sun. Once, I glanced back to the stars, and saw them shift, as it were, in my wake, against the mighty background of night, so vast was the speed of my passing spirit.
The next-to-last experience in the book starts again in the study, where the narrator find times moving at a faster and faster rate. Pepper dies and crumbles into dust, the narrator himself dies, but his spirit goes on and observes the end of the Sun and the Solar System. He encounters other spirits, angels, and more before finding himself back in his study with no apparent time having passed; but Pepper is still dead.
Far below me, I saw the earth, with the burning house leaping into an ever growing mountain of flame, 'round about it, the ground appeared to be glowing; and, in places, heavy wreaths of yellow smoke ascended from the earth. It seemed as though the world were becoming ignited from that one plague-spot of fire. Faintly, I could see the Swine-things. They appeared quite unharmed. Then the ground seemed to cave in, suddenly, and the house, with its load of foul creatures, disappeared into the depths of the earth, sending a strange, blood colored cloud into the heights. I remembered the hell Pit under the house.
The final sequence of the book has the narrator being hunted by a more supernatural form of one of the swine creatures, perhaps the one that he first encountered at the duplicate of his house. The creature kills his sister's cat, kills a dog that replaced Pepper and has infected the narrator before coming for the narrator.
Pad, pad, pad—Something passed down the garden path, and a faint, mouldy odor seemed to come in through the open door, and mingle with the burnt smell.
The narration ends abruptly and we're back with Tonnison and Berreggog. They are both greatly affected by the story. When their driver returns to pick them up, they ask him to talk to the villagers about the house. They learn that a man and a woman moved there years before, the only person to visit was a man bringing supplies. Eventually the supplier came with the story that the house had disappeared and was replaced by a pit.
Sometimes, in my dreams, I see that enormous pit, surrounded, as it is, on all sides by wild trees and bushes. And the noise of the water rises upward, and blends—in my sleep—with other and lower noises; while, over all, hangs the eternal shroud of spray.
Little is written about where Hodgson got his ideas for the story or who he might have influenced. Many of the passages indicate that he was familiar with the scientific knowledge of the day. One inspiration, I think was H.G. Wells, specifically, The Time Machine (1895): Several time travel sequences that read as if they were the inspiration for the travels of Hodgson's narrator through time, especially as the Sun moves faster and faster until it travels in a continuous line across the sky. Also, the sequence at the end of the The Time Machine where the narrator jumps 30 million years into the future to see an Earth with a dying Sun definitely feels like several set pieces in the Hodgson work.
As for who was inspired by Hodgson, H.P. Lovecraft is specifically mentioned and one of his quotes about Hodgson often appears on the covers of various editions of The House on the Borderland, although slightly modified (much in the same way that a review of a movie is quoted out of context). However, while modified, it is clear that this work by Hodgson (and others) had a deep effect on Lovecraft.
An author that I feel was inspired by Hodgson (and one reason for inviting Karen Burnham onto the podcast) was Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men (1930), Last Men in London (1932) and Star Maker (1937): A somewhat linked set (thematically if not actually) of books where an unnamed narrator travels forward in time on an increasing scale (all of Last and First Men could fit into one chapter of Star Maker and Last Men in London could fit into one chapter of Last and First Men). The scale of the travels through space and time, the nameless (and almost devoid of characteristics) narrator, who travels outside his body (in Star Maker) are also very reminiscent of Hodgson.
There are differences in philosophy: Stapledon was an atheist or agnostic (depending on who you read), whereas Hodgson was the son of an Anglican priest and had, at the very least, a religious upbringing if not an ongoing religious practice. But both write of cosmic intelligences (indifferent and malign), a "modern" view of the cosmos (modern for the time), vast expanses of time and space, disembodied travel, etc. Whether it is a spiritual journey or a journey propelled by cosmic intelligence, it seems to be the case that Stapledon was influenced by Hodgson (even though I can't find specific evidence!).
I read, and, in reading, lifted the Curtains of the Impossible that blind the mind, and looked out into the unknown. Amid stiff, abrupt sentences I wandered; and, presently, I had no fault to charge against their abrupt tellings; for, better far than my own ambitious phrasing, is this mutilated story capable of bringing home all that the old Recluse, of the vanished house, had striven to tell.
Of the simple, stiffly given account of weird and extraordinary matters, I will say little. It lies before you. The inner story must be uncovered, personally, by each reader, according to ability and desire. And even should any fail to see, as now I see, the shadowed picture and conception of that to which one may well give the accepted titles of Heaven and Hell; yet can I promise certain thrills, merely taking the story as a story.
I hope that you enjoyed this description of the novel and that you enjoy our podcast discussion. If you give The House on the Borderland a try, please leave a comment here or at the podcast episode page!